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February 13, 2013

Need to change the script

Much of the debate around how communities can become more resilient does so in the context of an increasingly acrimonious relationship with the local authority – as the state retreats and withdraws support, communities are left exposed, vulnerable and left to fend for themselves.  Mandeep Hothi of the Young Foundation argues that this is entirely counterproductive and suggests a radically different approach is needed by the state when working with communities.  He cites the example of Roquetes in Barcelona.


Mandeep Hothi is programme leader at the Young Foundation.

Community resilience is not about withdrawing public services, but changing the way the state works with local communities

Many people seem to view the word resilience with suspicion. The word, which values people’s ability to bounce back and to cope with life’s challenges, can seem crude and unforgiving when used by the state in an age of austerity. It appears to shift greater responsibility onto communities and individuals at precisely the time when public sector cuts are reducing the number of local services. Some communities will be facing the closure of local industries at a time when employment support services seem to be dwindling. Undoubtedly the self help mantra at a time of high need will test the strength of fragile communities.

Nevertheless, the idea of resilience does not mean the absence of the state. On the contrary, it requires the state to be active in finding and promoting community-led resilience initiatives. In fact, resilience can be a useful guiding principle to develop a better working relationship between the state and the communities with which they work.

There is a danger that the term community resilience is absorbed into questions about individual versus state responsibility without widespread understanding of what the it means. The Young Foundation’s understanding of resilience is that neighbours, communities and community groups can and do respond spontaneously to vulnerabilities in their local areas. Research points to a link between strong social networks and feelings of belonging, community cohesion and the extent to which individuals are willing to intervene if they witness problem behaviour.

I recently visited a neighbourhood in Barcelona with the view to identifying the ingredients that contribute to community resilience. Roquetes, with its winding streets and hilltop views resembles a favela. There I visited a local neighbourhood committee. What I saw were individuals who had come together to respond to emerging problems, such as threatening behaviour towards new migrants, in their neighbourhood. These individuals also formed strong networks within their community. The strength of a social network is a key factor in community resilience. Support systems that can be tapped into if problems arise are necessary, for example borrowing money from your neighbour or sharing child care responsibilities.

There is value in the immediate responses that result from socially connected communities. But organic approaches are susceptible to disappearing. Individuals and community groups may move on, experience volunteer burnout or are under-resourced.

The case of Roquetes showed that there is a role to be played by statutory organisations to help create social networks and resource innovative local responses. This neighbourhood had a history of self-organisation. In the early 1960’s, migrants from the south of Spain had built the houses and infrastructure themselves. Traditionally, residents had been viewed antagonistic towards the district council. However, in recent years the council and the locally elected leader for the neighbourhood association have been working together to help manage the increase in evictions.

Community resilience is not necessarily about withdrawing public services, but more about changing the way public services work with local communities. A recent report, ‘Turning strangers into neighbours’ published by the RSA as part of the Plugging the Gap series, makes this point. Strengthening local networks and social connections can include promoting clean-up days or connecting expectant mums with other new mothers in the area. Local public service providers can provide the space for informal, and sometimes anarchic, networks to emerge and take shape, welcome creative responses, and support responses that are effective. Taking these personal safety nets into account places as much emphasis on what assets exist, as the more traditional lenses tend to focus on deprivations.

However, the danger is that messy though innovative local initiatives may not fit readily into existing commissioning and performance management frameworks. Terms like ‘strategy’, ‘milestones’ and ‘commissioning’ may put off a local mother who is looking for a community space to share skills with other mothers. A resilience lens is not about withdrawal of local services but it does place an obligation on providers to think differently about how they work with local communities.