Comment: Communities can think for themselves

A while back, umbrella body the NCVO published the UK Civil Society Almanac 2008. Various commentators described it as a bold, necessary move to try to define the parameters of a wider civil society, moving beyond traditional general charities.

The concept of civil society has been given a wider and more urgent currency by political concerns about poor democratic engagement and fragile community cohesion. In essence, the principles defining general charities - voluntary action and not making a profit - also apply to new members of the club, such as universities.

One of the findings of the almanac was that charitable activity is more likely in prosperous areas than in areas "constrained by circumstances". This surprised me a little, but on reflection I understand why. In these communities, where basic survival is often the order of the day, the notion of setting up formalised community action to address your circumstances could seem daunting. And then there is the lack of resources, skills and information. I can understand it when you hear responses such as "it won't make any difference" or "who will to listen to us?" People's expectations are ground down by enduring poverty, social deprivation and poor health. They need to be raised if we are truly to empower communities.

If general charities really want to make a difference to people and local communities, their resources could be used to empower people to make decisions for themselves and to shape the places they live in rather than doing it for them - the traditional and often disempowering model.

The Office of the Third Sector's Community Voice initiative is a good example of how resources deployed intelligently can empower people in local areas to take control of their lives and the decisions affecting them.

It is time we let go a bit and had faith in the people we all too often say we serve. Give them the tools and let them get on with it. Otherwise, who is serving them at the moment in the poorer areas of Britain?

- John Knight is head of policy and campaigns at Leonard Cheshire Disability: jk.thirdsector@googlemail.com.

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