Wally Harbert: Terrorism and the third sector

Are terrorist threats a matter just for the security services or is there a role for our sector, asks Wally Harbert

Wally Harbert
Wally Harbert

The government has announced that the threat of international terrorism is "severe", meaning that an attack is highly likely. This is the second highest threat level, the next being "critical" which would indicate that an attack was imminent.

Is high risk solely a matter for police and security services or is there a role here for the third sector? What principles would help the sector respond positively to current threats facing society?

In his seminal book, Bowling Alone, the American sociologist Robert Putnam, identifies two kinds of social organisations. Bonding groups consist of members drawn from people of similar background, notably the same age-group, race or culture; secondly, bridging groups that bring people together from diverse milieus.

Bonding can be seen as a mechanism for assisting minorities, including marginalised groups, to strengthen their sense of identity and support one another in what may otherwise appear to be a hostile environment. It gives them a sense of control, enabling them to articulate their needs so that they are better understood.

Bridging groups, on the other hand, assist people from varied backgrounds to socialise with a wider circle to enrich community life. They help build shared social norms and foster social cohesion, developing understanding and trust. As Hazlitt told us, "We can scarcely hate anyone we know".

Multiple membership of community groups is probably more important for the health of a community than whether it contains a preponderance of bonding or bridging groups. Both are necessary. Humans are like bees; they cross pollinate as they move from group to group, bringing something new and leaving something of themselves behind.

In a world that is dangerously divided by competing ideologies it is essential for community groups to reach-out beyond their comfort zones to engage in dialogues with others. Only by better understanding the needs and wishes of our neighbours can we build safer communities.

Tax reliefs for third sector organisations give them responsibilities beyond those of their articles of association. They have a duty to pursue policies that strengthen civil society and reinforce social cohesion. Their performance in this regard should be a matter of public record. A statement of recommended practice on social cohesion, agreed by third sector organisations and endorsed by the government, would underline the responsibilities of trustees to have clear written policies ensuring that:

·      services positively engage with the needs of minorities;

·      staff and volunteer recruitment practices attract recruits from minorities;

·      service users and representatives of relevant minority groups are regularly consulted so that policies and practice remain pertinent;

·      the needs of hard-to-reach service users are given special attention;

·      the organisation has a dialogue and a shared programme with other social groups with similar objectives;

·      these policies are reviewed at least annually and the findings published.

Wally Harbert has helped develop public and third sector projects in disadvantaged neighbourhoods

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