The role of mutual aid groups in a post-Covid economy

Communities have stepped up to provide care throughout the Covid-19 crisis, but how should government respond? Our Policy and Research Officer Dan Roberts explores potential ideas that could support communities in Wales.

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The Covid-19 crisis has made dramatic changes to the lives of the people of Wales. As our communities have had to deal with the circumstances the virus has forced on us, one of the most striking responses has been the volunteer networks that have been set-up to help the most vulnerable. The central directory of these mutual aid groups can be found here, showing the thousands that exist across the UK. Research from the New Local Government Network has found that the spontaneous, grassroots groups of volunteers have been an indispensable part of the response to the crisis, helping a huge proportion of the millions of people shielding during the pandemic. From picking up prescriptions and essential groceries to checking in on those isolated and disconnected in their homes, these groups have undertaken an essential community service.

The aim of this blog is to start a conversation about how this phenomenon should be seen in a policy context. There is a determination within Welsh politics to recover from this crisis and build a society and an economy that is more resilient, more sustainable and more equal than before. These examples of solidarity and community organisation that we have seen across Wales, rural and urban, north and south, east and west, would suggest that this determination is present at the ground-level too. Rather than seeking to implement policy from above, supporting and trusting communities to develop support services from the bottom-up is an attractive proposition.

The Context and the Extent of the Response

It’s worth remembering at this point the huge challenges that our communities have faced under lockdown. The most vulnerable in our society have been further isolated, needing to shield themselves from the wider population for months on end. While accessing everyday necessities such as food and prescriptions are the most immediate concerns, the disconnection and loneliness that comes with the lockdown also have the potential to cause significant problems. In response to this, individuals and groups across Wales knew they would have to stand up, show compassion, and take responsibility for the wellbeing of their neighbours and communities.

I spoke to Dafydd Trystan, who started a group in Grangetown, Cardiff. After seeing what was happening in Spain, which reached its peak of the virus earlier than Wales did, he knew that community action was needed. 178 people in the local area signed up as volunteers, and over 200 people have been helped by the group so far. At the other end of the country in Conwy, groups were being set up informally in towns and communities across the county. Local councillor Aaron Wynne started one in his own local area, Llanrwst, and sought to join up the independent groups that were being formed. Around 400 people across the county signed up as volunteers, and at its peak, the central phone number was getting over 700 calls per week from people seeking support. These numbers show just how dire the situation was for people across Wales during this period, but also how many people were willing to stand up and take responsibility for the wellbeing of their neighbours and communities.

Who is Starting and Joining These Groups?

One of the first questions to ask when looking at these groups is around who exactly is starting them, or getting involved, and just as importantly, why they are doing so. Emma O’Dwyer has written here about the demographics of those who have become volunteers in the UK, finding that they were predominantly middle-class, with 76% in one study working in the category of managerial, administrative, and professional occupations. Marco Felici’s analysis of the central directory of mutual aid groups also found that they were more likely to be found in areas of socio-economic advantage.

In my conversation with Dafydd, who had set up a group in Grangetown, Cardiff, the importance of those with organisational experience and skills to the group was clear. He himself has a wealth of experience in project management and community activism, and this is also true of others who had taken leadership roles within the Grangetown group. According to Dafydd, this was a crucial reason for the group being able to so effectively help people in their community on a large-scale. There was a similar experience in Conwy, with those setting up groups in Llandudno and Conwy town itself already being involved with the food banks in that area. However, during my chat with Aaron, he noted that through this experience, volunteers had gained significant skills and experience in organising this sort of effort. In Conwy, council staff were eventually redeployed towards supporting this mutual aid group, and were able to influence the work and skills of the volunteers in a positive way.

Conwy also has examples of another crucial element of these groups, which is the role of online platforms. Lots of people from many different backgrounds and with different levels of experience have stepped up to support their communities, accessing local groups on Facebook and Whatsapp. This has created a hub for community activism and support that has the potential to remain in place far longer than the pandemic, and can be a significant legacy of the community spirit displayed over the last few months.

What are the politics of these groups?

One of they key debates in the growing literature on this subject is the politics of these groups. O’Dwyer has noted that some of these groups specifically conceptualise their work in political terms, with an ideological perspective rooted in anarchist thought. One study found that members of mutual aid groups were considerably more likely to be members of political parties than the general public as a whole. However, there is also lots of evidence that participants in these groups do not view them as political entities, or have a political motivation for joining them, as suggested here. In fact, there is a motivation to keep politics out of these groups. This is supported by Dafydd’s experience – he said that he started a group alongside local councillor Ash Lister, and there was a determination that the Grangetown group would be consciously cross-party and no-party. In Grangetown and Conwy there was buy-in to the campaign across different groups and communities, with people outside of traditional politics playing a key role. Anastasia Kavada discusses the potential role that these mutual aid groups have in transforming our communities and political culture as a whole, engaging people in concepts of solidarity and community responsibility for wellbeing.

Relationship with the State/Local Authority

An important question when considering the subject of community responsibility and community support initiatives is their relationship with the state. The state takes the ultimate responsibility for ensuring the welfare of its citizens, but others have noted that community-led groups like those set up around Wales have specific features which allow them to take a specific role in community care and services. One aspect of this that has been discussed here is the role of horizontality and the grassroots nature of the initiatives.

The experience of the groups in Conwy gives significant evidence of the advantages of community-led mutual aid groups. Cllr Wynne said that the grassroots nature of the groups set up in local communities across Conwy county meant that specific, personal knowledge and social capital ensured they were able to identify which people needed support during the lockdown period – knowledge that it would be difficult or even impossible for a top-down organisation to have and use. As well as this specific social capital and personal knowledge that are in community-led groups, they are also more likely to be successful and bought into by the local community than initiatives designed from above. Cllr Wynne noted that the groups developed across Conwy had greater engagement and understanding of the community than the initiatives developed within a council or within the government that do not always work in practice.

However, as well as the strengths of community-led groups, the experience of mutual aid groups in Conwy has also highlighted how a positive relationship can be formed between the spontaneous organisation of the community and the work of the Council or Government. While the community groups had specific knowledge, initiative and community spirit to make a crucial difference to the lives of vulnerable people, the number of people who were seeking their support threatened to become overwhelming. Conwy Council was able to step in, offer staff, resources and infrastructure to organise the group under one central point of contact. The community and the state took on different responsibilities and different roles, but had complementary skills and knowledge that led to hundreds of people across the county being given the support they needed.

The movement to change the nature of care and support delivery at the local level, putting those in need of care and support at the heart of the design and delivery of the services they need, has been growing in Wales since even before the crisis. The benefits of a local, flexible and responsive service are clear, not just to those in need of care but also the workers in the industry and local communities. This developing approach to care, a core industry within the foundational economy, seeks to improve employment conditions, reduce leakage of money from local economies and communities, and address extended supply chains in the industry. Swansea Council has recently been awarded money as part of the Foundational Economy Challenge Fund to explore these issues further . Covid-19 has had a devastating impact on communities, especially those most in need of our support, but the hyperlocal, community-led systems of care that have been created during this period have the potential to be built on to provide a better and more sustainable care service in Wales.

The question of the relationship between community and state is one that has been growing since the start of the era of austerity that led to government and council services being depleted. David Cameron himself spoke of the role of the “Big Society”, and the difference between the mutual aid phenomenon and this rhetoric is an important consideration. More than anything else, the growth of mutual aid groups during this period of crisis should serve as proof that community-spirit and solidarity is alive and well. However, the variation in the groups across Wales is clear. In some areas, the mutual aid groups that have been set up already have considerable skills and organisational experience, and are ready to take on a more formal role in supporting people in the community in the future. However, this will not be true of all groups, or all places, and they should not be disadvantaged, but nurtured and supported to develop and grow. These groups have considerable potential, and have specific advantages that mean that they should be trusted and supported to serve their communities – but the role of the state must be to provide this support in a tailored way, not expecting one type of support or relationship to be workable and successful in every community across Wales.

What is the potential for the future?

We have already seen a myriad of conversations started in Wales on the process of rebuilding our communities and societies in the months and years ahead. Policymakers and political parties have already stated their firmly-held desire to do things differently. It is of crucial importance that this is done in a fashion that incorporates the community spirit, activism and solidarity typified by people and businesses getting involved in the mutual aid groups discussed here. Those working on future government initiatives to engage communities would be overjoyed to achieve the level of success that we have seen in these mutual aid groups across the country, both in terms of the number of volunteers and the number of people supported. Nurturing and supporting these groups to remain in place as demand for their services goes up and down over the coming months should be a key objective of policy at the national and local level. The difficulties of local lockdowns, a second wave of the virus, and threats to our economy suggest that these groups are still of vital importance.

The potential of creating new social enterprises and co-operatives from these initiatives is clear. They offer levels of engagement, social capital and solidarity that make them a unique and valuable part of the mission to ensure every person in our communities is cared for. As discussed, there is a huge variety in the groups that have been set up across Wales. Some groups will be ready to take on further responsibility, become a formal part of the local infrastructure, and become a social enterprise or co-operative, and the Wales Co-operative Centre would be delighted to support them in this journey. Other groups will not be at this stage yet, but we implore local councils to continue to engage with them in a fashion that is complementary and engaging. As discussed here, the rise in community activism has the potential to transform social relations and political culture in Wales, and as we seek to rebuild a better society, the mutual aid phenomenon should be central to this agenda.

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