Opinion: Hot issue - Are organisations in the voluntary sector divided along racial lines?

A new report from Bassac and the Black Training and Enterprise Group says that BME charities and white-led groups are failing to communicate or to collaborate, and that BME groups have insufficient access to policy makers.

YES - Joe Okoli, chief executive, North London ITeC

"Divided" is a strong word. Most ethnic minority organisations operate along racial lines. There is no serious disagreement between anybody to warrant that division. It's not as though we have all been working together, had a fight and then stopped - we never started working together at all. Collaboration is something we have to develop - we can only benefit from doing so.

Times are tough for BMEs. Look at the situation faced by BME training providers, who are making a lot of money for colleges but getting paid only 40-50 per cent of the income they generate, which is disproportionate to the resources they expend. There should be equality in franchise contracts with BME groups, which should get a better deal if they work together.

This is a clear example of how BME groups are disadvantaged and how they have been used by mainstream institutions. The Compact aims to bring equity to the voluntary sector, but it is not working - no penalties are imposed on government or statutory sector bodies that don't adhere to the principles of the Compact.

If BMEs continue at such a disadvantage, their communities will suffer from a lack of provision and of access to mainstream services. The gap will continue to widen.

YES - Lord Victor Adebowale, chief executive, Turning Point

And it's not just between agencies, but also in terms of leadership. It is striking how few chief executives and other leaders are drawn from black and minority ethnic groups. This is particularly worrying when you consider that, in some parts of the country, the term 'ethnic minority' is now a complete misnomer.

Voluntary bodies must collaborate to meet the needs of a range of ethnic groups. Staff, and managers in particular, need to reflect the communities they serve. BME groups are over-represented across the board in terms of social exclusion, and disproportionately likely to experience mental ill health or be involved with the criminal justice system. It is shocking, but not surprising, that there are more young black men in prison than at university.

Yet it is the divide in intellectual rather than management leadership that we should be most concerned about. What few BME leaders there are within the sector tend to be ghettoised into talking only about BME issues. If the sector is truly to break down the racial divides, leaders from black and other minority ethnic backgrounds need to be allowed to play a full and visible role in leading its development.

NO - Kamaljeet Jandu, commissioner, Commission for Racial Equality

In an absolute sense, the majority of organisations are not divided along racial lines.

Life isn't simply black and white - it is more complex. Yes, there is a need for different services for black and white clients, but that shouldn't limit communication between organisations working on similar issues.

Specialist organisations have to exist to provide an accorded response to the needs of a very specific clientele. There is sufficient space for both black-led and mixed organisations to operate and develop separately within the sector.

However, there is a very strong case for improvements in the services charities offer and in the participation of BME organisations through effective communication between BME charities and white-led groups.

I was involved with a free legal advice centre in west London that was run by a whole range of races, and this was reflected in its management committee. It provided a service to a predominantly Afro-Caribbean community, but also to people of other races who lived in the area.

A mixed-race organisation can work in terms of the make-up of the organisation and the services it provides. The challenge is to apply it to the sector as a whole.

NO - Nathan Singleton, senior director, Barking and Dagenham Training Providers Network

When the network was formed with local authority finance two years ago, one of its key objectives was to address the inequality inherent in funding. At that time, I would have agreed with the Beyond Equality report. Two years on, hard work and a few breakthroughs mean that Barking and Dagenham is no longer representative of the problems outlined in the report.

Now comprising 150 members, the network has played host to the formation of 18 partnerships between network members and others, and has had requests for assistance from Waltham Forest and Havering.

From the evidence we have gathered in Barking and Dagenham in the past two years, we can clearly say that we disagree with the report as far as our borough is concerned. We have had to work hard, but barriers have been broken down and all groups from minority ethnic backgrounds have seen great benefits in partnerships and funding applications. We believe that, with the number of training providers now working with us, the critical mass we have built up allows us to begin to shape opinion and bring about change. It's all about real relationships.

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