Social exclusion: addressing the causes not just the symptoms

Social exclusion: addressing the causes not just the symptoms

By John Tizard

If we are serious about reducing and ideally eliminating social exclusion, we need to understand what causes it. We should be prepared to tackle these causes and only not provide some mitigation to its impact. Too often civil society and voluntary and community sector (VCS) organisations do a remarkable job at dealing with the symptoms, offering relief and hope, while they shy away from openly discussing the causes; let alone the politics that usually underly these causes.

Poverty, inequality, lack of decent and accessible public services, inadequate public transport, the welfare and benefits system and lack of good housing are some of the major contributors to social exclusion. Austerity has fuelled social inequality and social exclusion in many ways. Sometimes the political system fails to address social exclusion and reinforce it. Too few socially excluded people are politically active and cynical politicians may feel that they can ignore them. This is simply unacceptable.

I believe most activists in the VCS and wider civil society are passionate about equality, fairness and equity. They celebrate diversity. They wish to address and usually to eradicate social exclusion, but they fall short of challenging public policy, fiscal and tax policy and the structural contributors to social exclusion. This is a mistake.

Social action is driven by compassion and a desire to secure better outcomes, and often better opportunities and a better society. Compassion is a great motivator for social activists and those active in the voluntary and community sector, and almost everyone I meet in the sector demonstrates such, in as much as they display their passion for social justice, equality and fairness.

This is fantastic, but the hard fact is that compassion is not enough on its own if we are to offer support and opportunities to communities.

Equally, passion is a fabulous attribute and essential for anyone seeking to secure change and to motivate others. Yet it does not automatically translate into practical action and, again, on its own will not address need, inequality and injustice.

Social activism has contributed to addressing some major injustices over the centuries. Indeed, social activists have frequently been instrumental in securing change for the better, sometimes massive change at the national or even international level, but more often achieved in neighbourhoods and localities.

However, to make an impact, social activism must take the form of action. This might involve stepping in and providing services to those with unmet needs and those who are socially excluded. It can take the form of advocacy (for an individual or community) to ensure that they receive what they are entitled to. It might manifest itself in campaigning for changes in public policy or legislation. And it could have a local, regional, national or international focus.

The challenge to the VCS and the wider civil society at all territorial levels is that they must be ready to address both the symptoms and the causes of social and economic injustice and exclusion.

Often, the sector is at its best when it adopts a two-strand approach. For example, the food bank movement has been a practical response to need, while at the same time challenging public policies such as the Universal Credit five-week delay and the horror of in-work poverty: action on two levels. The VCS must be careful not to give cover for poor and inadequate public services and appalling damaging public policy through its provision of ameliorating services. This is both unsustainable and allows those in power to avoid their responsibilities and accountabilities.

The sector must not simply pass on the other side when there are gaps to be filled or policies requiring challenge, or structural inequalities to be overturned. Compassion, passion and, above all, action can combine to make a difference in the immediate and the long term.

Many voluntary and community groups, and other charities, were created to respond to injustice and need. We should be proud of this inheritance and live its values today.

VCS organisations and social activists must also be clear about what they will do and what they will not do. They must never compromise their values and mission. The sector can complement but should not be a substitute for the state, however tempting this might be in the short term.

Voluntary collectivism can and should both complement and augment state collectivism. Collectivism is key to addressing social exclusion and its causes. Collective social action can and should seek to shape the collectivism of the state.

The voluntary and community sector and social activists should find their voice to fight all that is inappropriate and harmful. They should promote alternative policies. They champion social justice and fairness; and must be ready to challenge government and engage in the political debate – charities of course must avoid being partisan.

They should say loudly and continually that, in the fifth richest economy in the world, there should be much reduced levels of homelessness, poverty, inequality and austerity. The sector cannot be silent on such issues if it is going to be true to its mission, values and beneficiaries.

It cannot simply argue for its communities at the expense of others. It must avoid being drawn into false choices. If there is a need for greater public spending, it has to be ready to argue where expenditure can be reduced or more likely to make the case for greater progressive taxation. It has to argue for the redistribution of wealth and incomes between individuals and between regions and places if it is going to make a coherent case for addressing social exclusion just as much as it will have to be willing to challenge poorly regulated markets and market based social conditions.

Social exclusion in its many forms will be consigned to history when we have an economy and society that are fair, are inclusive and deliver opportunities for everyone irrespective of their class, their ethnicity, their gender or sexual orientation, and their opinions – provided that these are not contrary to equality and fairness.

Equality, not just equality of opportunity, is essential. As Martin Luther King Jr said:

“This will be the day when we shall bring into full realization the dream of American democracy - a dream yet unfulfilled. A dream of equality of opportunity, of privilege and property widely distributed; a dream of a land where men will not the take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few.”

Addressing social exclusion and the causes of social exclusion should surely be a priority for civil society, the voluntary and community sector and for social activists.

This article was written for The Vision Project by John Tizard. John is a strategic adviser and commentator on public policy, governance, leadership and public services. He is a social activist and serves as chair and trustee on several charities and CICs boards.

DHI has invited the author to write the above article. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies or otherwise of DHI.

The Vision Project is DHI's way of marking its 20th anniversary, not by looking backwards but by looking forwards and seeks a range of diverse views to really inform this process and develop its services for all.

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