Why Social Enterprise Can Help Where Charity and Mutual Aid Fall Short
The consequences of a global pandemic are many. Although there are innumerable negative repercussions of COVID-19, a proverbial silver lining can be found in what is known as ‘mutual aid’. Or can it? The pandemic, and the widespread lockdown that it caused, has produced bleak circumstances for many. Is it realistic to expect mutual aid to be the safety net that the government fails to provide? At Ethical, we ask whether social enterprise represents a commercial avenue in which support can be given that overcomes the shortcomings of both charity and mutual aid.
As organisations and workers have struggled with huge drops in income, there has been a greater need to adapt to new ways of working and living. As a result, there was an upsurge in social action – newly formed groups and networks have worked together to tackle some of the challenges presented by the crisis. Combining this effort to make institutional change, along with the smaller, informal acts of kindness – mutual aid has become all the more important.
Shirking Responsibility to the Individual
The Big Society was a Conservative government policy, centred on reducing the involvement of the state in community support. People, in their everyday lives would not turn to officials, local authorities or the central government for support for the problems that they face, instead being ‘empowered’ to tackle any crisis on their own.
The term Big Society was originated by Steve Hilton, director of strategy for the Conservative Party, and the idea became associated with the party’s then leader – David Cameron. Of course, Big Society was less so about empowering the individual, but an excuse to reduce spending in public services. The party may have taken the stance that the scheme was centred on engaging people, but the reality was that it became a blanket excuse by which the Tories offloaded the state’s responsibilities to the voluntary sector. This set the stage for the role of charity – the non-profits that take the government’s slack as communities and individuals suffer austerity’s consequences.
Charity, by its very definition, is a force for good. However, the necessity of charity is a reflection of institutions that have gone wrong. Charity supports the belief that private initiative and self-help can provide public goods. At the same time, this undermines the need for tax-funded welfare. For example, government austerity measures have a direct effect on food bank usage. The Trussell Trust reports that delays in benefit payments and changes to benefits eligibility were two of the three major causes of food bank referral. In 2015, a cross-party review led by Frank Field MP noted the significance for food insecurity of “unreliable income from wages and benefits.”
A reliance on charity is inevitably linked with inadequate social provision. David Cameron’s belief in a ‘Big Society’ with an expanded role for charity reflects a truth that persists today: Conservative governments believe that voluntary action is a substitute for public services.
The Risk of Charity
Dr Neil Levy writes in ‘Against Philanthropy,’ that charity can be self-defeating if it allows the state to escape some of its responsibilities. He argues that relying on large-scale philanthropy to support ‘essential services’ is wrong, changing the burden of funding from the public to private sector. If the charitable sector increases spending in an area also funded by the government then there is a risk that the government will choose to spend less in that area. As a result, governments save money, and extra benefits provided by the charity spend are reduced.
Certain charity also carries ethical concern. Of those who criticise charity, a largely held concern relates to its top-down structure. That is to say, given the nature of charitable organisations, there will always be benefactors who bestow resources to the people that they deem worthy. The risk comes when charities deem certain groups of people inappropriate recipients of their support. For example, the Salvation Army is not only infamous for its history of excluding LGBT groups, but for actively supporting anti-LGBT discrimination.
Mutual Aid vs Charity
Charity is vertical – it implies the idea that a group of people with resources should aim to use those resources to help others. Mutual aid is lateral – it aims to create structures within which people of similar means are able to help one another. Fundamentally, mutual aid is about supporting “bottom-up” structures of cooperation, rather than relying on charities or philanthropists to address community needs. It emphasizes group solidarity rather than “top down” solutions.
As volunteers performed local acts of kindness: from delivering food and medication, to providing emotional support, childcare, and legal counselling, ‘social solidarity, not charity’ echoed out as the slogan response to mutual aid. Mutual aid took away charity’s barrier of entry: bureaucracy and exclusionary (sometimes discriminatory) criteria. But mutual aid is not a corona-times concept. In fact, it’s an idea associated with Peter Kropotkin – a well-known anarchist-socialist thinker.
“I don’t believe in charity. I believe in solidarity. Charity is so vertical. It goes from the top to the bottom. Solidarity is horizontal. It respects the other person. I have a lot to learn from other people.” – Eduardo Galeano.
Mutual Aid – a Return of Big Society?
One thing is apparent: if charity has been criticised for doing the work that governments should, mutual aid is even guiltier. With mutual aid, gone are the benevolent organisations distributing resources to the needy. Instead, the individuals are banding together to do the work. Now, don’t get me wrong – I support and celebrate kindness, the valiant efforts of anyone who helps their neighbours and community. Yet I recognise the echoes of Big Society in headlines detailing community support given by communities themselves. By the same token, my concerns remain: is it ethical to rely on individual and community outreach as a replacement to government support?
Jessica Studdert writes for The Guardian, detailing how a lack of government support created a need for local intervention. She writes about how neighbours created WhatsApp groups to support people in need, how volunteers set up food hubs and distribution networks and how Bradford council delivered treat bags to young care leavers facing isolation.
As the government instituted the furlough scheme, there has been a vocal condemnation of those it fails to protect. ExcludedUK 2020 report arrived at the conclusion that 3 million taxpayers were excluded from UK Government Covid-19 financial support.
Social Enterprise – a Self-Sustaining Solution?
As the government defunds public services, shirking responsibilities elsewhere, a new challenge arises: charity and mutual aid are not self-sustaining. Charity depends on continued buy-in from donors, mutual aid on the limited bandwidth of participating individuals. Even government support systems can be threatened by changes in policy regime.
Only social enterprise and ethical businesses go beyond these shortcomings. Social enterprises are self-sustaining, their profits and revenues can be reinvested to ensure that services to the community are there to stay. Social enterprises are businesses that aim to change the world for the better.
Like traditional businesses they aim to make a profit but it’s what they do with their profits that sets them apart. Social Enterprise reinvests and donates said profits to create positive social change. They are businesses that create jobs and opportunities for the most marginalised individuals from the workforce, transforming the communities they work in for the better, making the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals a reality. Social enterprises are businesses that have a clear social and environmental ethos as set out in its governing documents. They are businesses that give away at least half of its profits towards said social purpose. Social enterprises are in our communities, high streets and digital spaces – found even in eCommerce and online learning.
It’s clear that the government falls short in terms of social assistance – charities and mutual aid cannot be relied on to fill that gap entirely. Yet the evolving social enterprise sector offers exciting opportunities for businesses to support social causes and for charities to diversify their income.