Friday, 08 May 2009

Invisible mutual support at the margins Last night I was talking to a group of eight Somali men and one woman who are active in supporting members of their faith/ethnic-origin group locally. We started by talking about the range of more formal participative roles they play, and in the circumstances it's fair to say I was genuinely surprised - running youth activities, English classes, formal interpreting roles, organised volunteering with people with special needs, school governing roles, community centre committee, fire service volunteering and so on. And in much of this an integrating role was being played, working with other identifiable social groups. If I hadn't been expecting quite so much at the formal end of the spectrum, in a seriously disadvantaged group in a meanly marginalised locality, I was more fascinated when we got on to informal support. One man spoke about the number of calls and visits or encounters that he fields from other Somalis around. Broadly, these are requests for support, from people who are accustomed to an oral culture and a very different language, in the face of bureaucratic requirements - to do with school conditions, housing needs, what is this form about? why do I have to show my passport at the doctor's surgery? - that sort of thing. Often these calls lead to the activist having to accompany the individual on a visit to an office and interpret, and can be very time-consuming. This voluntary role is compensating heavily for the inadequacy of the bureaucracies, for the shortfall in formal social provision. Nothing new there, this is a classic example of invisible mutual support, and to some extent of course it's healthy for social networks to be stimulated at the interface with services. So I asked for a considered assessment of the number of such calls and visits in a typical day. We spent some time discussing it because I really wanted the figures to reflect reality and not be exaggerated for my benefit. Two people said about ten (often rising to fourteen or higher), one said about eight, others less. The total among these nine people (one of them a recent arrival to this country so less involved) was 39, and this was not of course a fully representative group. When we've extrapolated from such figures to weekly, monthly, or annual estimates of internal community support in the struggle against poverty and marginalisation, there are old questions we need to be asking afresh. Like, how much more do we expect people to do on their own behalf? What would it take for the state to remove the risk of this system collapsing from exhaustion, and to reduce the burden? Where precisely should that resource be invested? And how come all this effort seems not to make any difference over time?

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