The baby and the bath water: community cohesion and the funding crisis


The baby and the bath water: community cohesion and the funding crisis

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Written by: Jenny Bourne


Over the last few months a row has been brewing as to how the government’s community cohesion agenda is likely to affect the funding of BME groups.

‘Our Shared Future’, the report of the government-appointed Commission on Integration and Cohesion (chair: Darra Singh) which came out in June 2007, recommended, as Ted Cantle had suggested earlier,[1] that ‘funding to community groups should be rebalanced towards those that promote integration and cohesion’ and that ‘”Single Group Funding” should be the exception rather than the rule for both Government and external funders’. Voicing the concerns of community groups that might lose their funding, however, the National Association of Voluntary and Community Action contends that Single Group Funding, so far from reinforcing segregation, does in fact promote cohesion. For, ‘BME organisations and groups which receive public money frequently become effective advocates on behalf of the communities as well as the providers of valuable local services.’

On the one hand, then, the Commission implies that all activities carried out by single ethnic or religious group are, by their very nature, separatist and therefore potentially harmful to social cohesion. On the other hand, the community voice says that all ethnically- and religiously-based organisations are, ipso facto, virtuous and valuable.

It is social issues that matter

But single groups per se do not reinforce anything; it depends on the group’s raison d’être. A group established solely for the development of its own ethnic/religious interest, is more likely to be inward-looking and mono-culturalist and tend towards separation rather than cohesion. Whereas a group taking on issues which, though particularly relevant to that community also happen to be social issues, tends to enhance cohesion even as it contributes to a better society.The latter is borne out in the history of the joint African-Caribbean and Asian struggles against an undifferentiated racism in the first three decades of their arrival in this country.

Social problems inevitably impact on different groups differentially and the groups most affected will often be the ones leading the fight to combat them. For example, in the 1970s young males of West Indian descent led the campaign against ‘Sus’, but when Section 4 of the 1824 Vagrancy Act was repealed, every young person on the street benefited. Similarly today it may be African-Caribbean families leading campaigns against gun crime or Black educational underachievement. But these are issues which now affect a range of working-class communities – White, Black and Asian.

But even when people organised first on the basis of their homeland identities (Indian, Pakistani, Jamaican etc) they often went on to form alliances as part of a Black network against injustices that affected people across the board. The first race relations acts came out of agitation from a campaign against racial discrimination composed of White liberals and Black peoples. And the recent Race Relations Amendment Act came out of the campaign of the Lawrence family and their supporters (who came from across the ethnic spectrum).

The impact of Scarman

The confusion has arisen within the funding world because, in the wake of the Scarman report into the ‘riots’ in Brixton of 1981 and his finding of ‘racial disadvantage’ as a cause, funds, nationally and locally, were allocated by and large on the basis of redressing ethnic need and problems. Such funding inevitably promoted competition between groups as to which was the more ethnically and/or culturally disadvantaged and therefore the more deserving of help – thus emphasising their (ethnic) differences rather than their (social) commonalities leading to separatism and culturalism. (Ted Cantle, who first drew attention to the link between funding strategies and self-segregation, has parodied the situation by stating ‘with 120 languages spoken in most UK cities, the point has been passed where every group is going to get a community centre’.)

Blears faces two ways

Hazel Blears, the minister for communities and local government, who has to respond to the Commission’s report, appears to be facing both ways at once. She agrees, on the one hand, that the terminology of ‘Single Group Funding’ is misleading and states that she is ‘primarily interested in the activities being funded rather than the groups delivering them’. She even makes an important exception: that certain groups, such as new migrants who need to acclimatise to life in the UK or women in particular communities facing domestic violence or health problems, should be funded on that basis alone. But then she goes on to agree with the Commission’s suggestion that ‘local councils and their partners should stop and think twice about whether service provision for one particular community is automatically the way forward’ and that funding should be measured against ‘a new extended emphasis on cohesion’ and indicators of ‘meaningful interaction’ and ‘developing a sense of belonging’. Greater emphasis, she wrote, would go on ‘”bridging” activities that brings people from different backgrounds together’.

Cohesion should be a by-product not a goal

On the level of principle, then, she seems to accept that what a group does is more important than what a group is. But at the point of putting principle into practice she changes tack and becomes prescriptive: no group (apart from the afore-mentioned exceptions) can act on its own, all groups must be interactive, the aim of the groups should be cohesion, irrespective of the issue. It is not the issue that brings them together but the cohesion requirement. Cohesion then becomes the basis on which groups are funded, the end becomes the means, the cohesion tail wags the funding dog. Funding issue-based groups, on the other hand, invariably incurs working with other groups and eventuates in cohesion. The first is mechanical, the second is organic.

To put it differently, the fact of the singleness of any group (via its ethnic composition) becomes confused for the separatism of its cause. But that is to throw out all the funded babies – cultural, religious, social, anti-racist – with the post-Scarman ethnicised bath water.

Until society is absolutely just and everyone treated equally, it is inevitable that those who experience injustice and inequality will band together to fight them. And the fight itself can be a way of including not excluding individuals and lead to a group becoming part of the mainstream. Working together on social issues does not segregate groups from society, but, rather, brings them closer to participating in it by changing it.

Self-segregation or self-organisation?

But Blears et al start from the premise that lack of cohesion, not racial injustice, is the social problem that needs tackling. If they started from the other premise, then the concept of self-segregation becomes self-organisation – a riposte to injustice, not its cause, and community cohesion would emerge as a by-product of a joint fight for social justice.

To blame those whom society has excluded for their own self-segregation is to reverse cause and effect. But this tendency has its roots in September 11 and 7/7. The official fear is now not (as in the post urban-rebellions of the Scarman era of 1981) about the impact of racial disadvantage but about people living ‘parallel lives’, with state funding as the behind-the-scenes culprit.

Influence of Putnam and ‘social capital’ theory

The deep unease about this among politicians is reflected in what has become an unrealistic, almost Manichean division between single ethnic groups (bad) and groups that promote integration (good). And it has found academic justification in the work of American political scientist Robert Putnam and his theory of social capital . He distinguishes between bonding capital (when people interact within their own ethnic group) and bridging capital (when people interact with groups outside their own) and emphasises the need for government action to promote bridging capital.

The government and others undoubtedly made mistakes in their funding strategies over the last two and a half decades based on a lazy, superficial reading of racial problems warranting cultural solutions. To now do a U-turn and fund no single ethnic group is to commit to another lazy reading based on American academic surveys rather than UK reality.

And, though it may not have been the stated intention of government to neuter a political struggle against racism, that will be the likely effect of the government’s line. For it will be the larger, well-established NGOs which will be able to employ the experts to create the requisite community cohesion strategies and it will be the smaller, more challenging, grass-roots groups which will lose out on funding. And we will, if we are not careful, be back to the anodyne ‘racial harmony’-style tea parties of the 1950s which offend no one and achieve nothing.

But all is not yet lost. Blears is yet to make a final response to Our Shared Future in January 2008. Now is the time for groups to make their feelings known, to point out all the ramifications of the exclusive emphasis on cohesion in a society still replete with racism.

Related links

Download a copy of the Our Shared Future report

Commission on Integration and Cohesion

NACVA statement on single group funding


[1] Ted Cantle, chair, Community Cohesion: a report of the independent review team (Home Office, 2001)


The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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max farrar
max farrar
13 years ago

Excellent analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the government’s community cohesion agenda. I’d add (under weaknesses’) the fact that councils used their funding from mono-ethnic black and Asian groups in the 1980s as a means of securing electoral support among the non-white populations; the effect (perhaps the intention?) was to exacerbate the separatist tendencies that were emerging ideologically in that period. At least that is what I have observed in Leeds. If there is a potential strenght in the cohesion agenda it’s that it opens a space on the left for us to re-argue the case for ideological and practical solidarity, across all the shades of colour, in the pursuit of social, legal and economic equality.

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