The current social and economic crisis, and the crisis facing the community sector raises momentous challenges for social justice advocacy. In this joint blog Niall Crowley asks if the community sector is 'lost in austerity'? Siobhán O'Dowd explores these challenges in her response to Niall. Together the authors explore how the sector should: bring new attention to the challenges of equality and justice; support excellent public services; respond directly to the communities in which they work; while, at the same time, remaining true to their democratic purpose by contributing critical analysis and alternative visions for society and the economy? Niall Crowley ( @NiallCrowley_ ) is an independent equality and diversity expert, and former CEO of The Equality Authority. Siobhán O'Dowd ( @siobhancdp ) is a Project Co-ordinator with Ballyphehane/Togher CDP in Cork.

Niall Crowley: This is a moment of crisis in society and the economy. The threats are multiple and well known. How should the community sector be responding to this crisis? Before this can be answered it must also be acknowledged that this is also a moment of crisis for the community sector. The threats are also multiple but maybe less well known. There is crisis due to funding cuts and threats to dissent from the sector. But there is also crisis due to loss of purpose and direction. What should the community sector be doing to respond to this crisis?


There has been a constant whittling away of the resources available to the sector. At best this is a reflection of its limited status such that politicians see it as expendable and a source of quick and easy savings. At worst it is a reflection of a political hostility to the sector and a desire to put manners on it.

Siobhan O'Dowd: As someone who works in the community sector, I think the prevailing attitude would be that the reduction in resources is "to put manners on us" - austerity has simply provided a pretext, a kind of "it's the economy stupid". However this "backlash", to borrow a phrase and argument from Faludi, began long before the community sector had achieved many of the gains or influence attributed to us, and predated the 2008/9 economic crisis in Ireland. The McCarthyism of the State toward the community sector and civil society was in evidence for some time even if it only went to print with An Bord Snip Nua.

NC: Community organisations are faced with increasing demands on their services. Poverty and inequality are deepening. Public services are being diminished. Organisations in the sector are challenged to do much more with much less. Many organisations in the sector are faced with the task of downsizing and letting staff go. They become ever more focused on their role as a somewhat harsh employer. Organisations are faced with rationing or reducing much needed services to people in increasing need. They can end up as one transmission line for delivering austerity at community level.

SO'D: In John Bowman's recent excellent documentary "Battle Stations" about RTE, the relationship with the state especially the government of the day was instructive. From RTE's inception in the Sean Lemass era right through to the present there has been an assumption that the job of a public service broadcaster is to serve public policy and an equally clear message that RTE should not seek to illuminate or be critical of public policy. In the first guest blog on this forum Mary Murphy argues that understanding the state as deriving from "a populist political culture" is a pre-requisite to understanding how to be part of civil society within this state. Understanding particularly that the State does not welcome critique and that in a populist representative system an autonomous civil society is seen as threatening certainly not essential to our democracy. I have worked in the Community Development Programme (CDP) for over a decade and so have been there through numerous election cycles. In advance of each election a missive would arrive from the Department instructing CDPs to remain neutral and avoid any appearance of political affiliation. In 2007 the letter contained the same injunctions about party political neutrality but also an affirmation that the role of CDPs was to "implement government policy". So, well in advance of the economic collapse, departments of state sought to appropriate local community organisations as vehicles for state policy. In 2012 state policy is austerity. I can think of no worse fate for community organisations to be placed in the position of "delivering austerity at community level". NC: The voice of most organisations in the sector has grown quiet and cautious. Funding relationships must be sustained and the funders cannot be upset. The state is the core funder for most of the sector so the state cannot be challenged in any substantial manner. Protest remains unvoiced in the public arena and advocacy is limited within careful boundaries.


SO'D: The voice of the community sector has been muted, in part because advocacy or campaigning is injuncted by the state using grant or service level agreements (such as that used by HSE): "campaigns whose primary purpose is to obtain changes in the law or related government policies..." cannot be pursued using funds received from statutory sources. However this does not mean that the community sector accepts this fate uncritically, the Community Workers' Cooperative (CWC) has argued consistently that the state in a functioning democracy should and must fund civil society but this finds little traction in official Ireland.

NC: Participation in official decision-making structures became a core goal of the sector at national and local level whereas it should have been just a means to an end. The sector could be seen as being compromised due to remaining too long in social partnership as the conditions for the economic crash evolved. The structures for social partnership and for enabling participation by community organisations in the policy process are being dismantled and a political unresponsiveness has taken their place.

In this context, the sector has become dominated by the need for survival. Its advocacy work seeks to sustain much needed services in increasingly disadvantaged communities. However, at times, this survival advocacy has merely become a demand to save jobs in the sector.

SO'D: There is a huge battle going on to maintain community services, such provision has never been more critical given the contraction of state services. Meantime, we are dealing with the loss of over a third of our staff and resources on the ground. (see: Downsizing the Community Sector by Brian Harvey). These services need defending, and much of community work is achieved through human resources rather than technology or programmes. And equally people in the community sector have no less right than those in any other sector to fight to preserve their employment and income. I agree with Niall that this becomes problematic if it becomes the sole or major focus of the sector; when it is at the expense of those even more disadvantaged who depend on such services but this is definitely not the norm.

NC: Everything it appears is changing and yet the survival agenda has the community sector ever more determined to stay the same. This has meant that much of the sector has not evolved to meet new challenges and has had only a limited focus on the wider crisis and its implications for the future of society.

The sector has not examined how it is currently structured and the extent to which its structures still serve action for equality and justice in the current context. It has not explored how its role could evolve to enable a society based on these values to emerge from this crisis. It has not engaged in any analysis as to what happened to it during the boom times.

During the boom times the sector sought a closer relationship with decision makers at national level and, ultimately, to bring its agendas into social partnership. Opportunities for partnership with the state opened up at local level too. A division grew between those organisations close to or engaged in social partnership and those outside the partnership process.

There was a failure to develop a dual strategy. Participation within social partnership was weaker for not being linked to protest outside of social partnership, and protest was more easily marginalised where it had no means of communication with decision makers.

SO'D: I referred earlier to a missive from the Department in relation to political activity on the part of CDPs: this arose out of concerns that the CDP had become far too close to party politics, in particular to Sinn Fein. In actuality I would argue that most community organisations, including CDPs had become de-politicised during this period and lost our capacity for political analysis and action based on this analysis. Far from being a hot house for Sinn Fein politics, community organisations failed to bring any political analysis into their community activism. Partnership, whether at local or national level often de-politicised community activism and advocacy.

NC: During the boom time the state had funds and the sector secured significant amounts of these to provide services within disadvantaged communities. The sector turned into a local service provider. It developed a skills base as an employer and a service provider to the exclusion of its earlier skills base of politicising and mobilising.

SO'D: I agree that that many of us within the community sector have become service providers; however I would point out that when services are designed, fashioned, delivered and/or managed by those experiencing disadvantage they are qualitatively different from statutory/wholly professional services. They do not fall into the linguistic jargon that our president Michael D Higgins has deplored in talking about service users/clients. They have come out of community needs, respond to community needs, are shaped by that experience and as community organisations we are loathe to lose these services.

NC: This role of the sector was accompanied by a significant bureaucratic workload. The accountability of organisations became oriented to the state and its authorities rather than to their local communities. Advocates became managers and advocacy itself was commodified as a service.

SO'D: And yes that makes us hugely vulnerable: on the one hand to funders, on the other to the communities we are part of. Given a choice between lobbying or continuing to provide services, I believe the communities we are in would definitively opt for services. The choice for many of us within the community sector is to try to fulfill the bureaucracy requirements - do the paperwork, fill out the input/output/outcome tables, while continuing to try and provide the best quality services we can, at low or no cost. Advocacy and political engagement have suffered. In the logic framework model for the Local and Community Development Programme (LCDP), service provision has to be accorded the bulk of a project's time and resources (80%) while advocacy (defined as promoting engagement with policy, practise and decision making procesess on matters affecting local communities) is included in the 4-goal framework but almost as an afterthought, no more than 10% of a project's time or resources can be spent on it.

NC: Imagination is required to define a new purpose and agenda for the sector and to break with the roles taken on in the boom times. Organisations in the sector need to change their primary role from being a partner of the state or a servant of the state. Their primary role has to become oppositional to the dominant policy positions being pursued by Government. Organisations need to develop and pursue new agendas that reflect an alternative to the dominant visions for society and the economy. New structures within the sector will be needed to play this role. Fluid alliances must be built across the strict sectoral boundaries that have divided the sector. New relationships of cooperation and collaboration need to be brokered across civil society.

Much of the sector's policy work has been focused on the powerful and service provision has been focused on the powerless. A new focus is needed. An oppositional purpose, and a context where values of equality and justice have only limited popular traction, requires the sector to prioritise action to convince people of the importance of equality and justice in creating the society that emerges from crisis. Core activities must now be conscientisation and politicisation that secure and demonstrate active support for equality and justice.

SO'D: Community organisations have changed, often this change has been coercive and has not contributed to the vision for the sector which Niall paints here. Though I would argue that community organisations need little practice in being oppositional, as Niall has said elsewhere the community sector has often found it easier to "resist rather than propose", we may need to re-focus our resistance. Our opposition has unsurprisingly often been directed at public services as these are the mainstay for people living in poverty and disadvantage; the service provision we have engaged in has been as a response to inadequate or inappropriate services provided by the state. We might also, as recent Disability campaigners have done, question whether some who operate vast service provision empires under the umbrella of the Community & Voluntary sector are effective, user - oriented and imbued with a social justice and equality ethos. Over two decades the community sector and public services have been locked in a kind of Fred & Ginger tango with the community sector as Ginger - doing similar things as the state but backwards and in high heels. Co-operation and collaboration should begin I believe with the community sector "coming out" unequivocally in favour of public services - excellent, well resourced, fit for purpose, accessible state services in welfare and income support, health, education, justice, housing and environment. The communities we work in need them and the most vulnerable in these communities absolutely depend on them.

NC: The sector has to become more visible and active if the interests of those experiencing inequality and poverty are to be defended and if a more equal Ireland is to emerge from this crisis. However the sector will need to meet these challenges of imagination, re-organisation and new focus if it is to make its contribution.

SO'D: Excellent and fit for purpose public services would remove the need for the community sector to act as a service provider and allow us to return to our original purpose as social justice advocates.

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