Editorial: Neo-cons offer us a lesson in organisation

Stephen Cook, editor

Few events in recent times have exposed the fault lines in American society as starkly as Hurricane Katrina and its disastrous impact on New Orleans. It is fairly clear that the more wealthy - usually white - inhabitants of the city have managed to escape from the worst effects, while the poor - usually black - citizens have been left to rely on patchy and inadequate public services. Pictures of bodies floating in canals, ignored by passers-by, could have come from Bangladesh.

One factor behind this shocking situation is the set of neo-conservative social values that have gained the ascendancy in the US under the presidency of George Bush. These values - anti-welfare and devil take the hindmost - are partly the result of lobbying in Washington DC and the wider world by right-wing foundations and think tanks. They have demonstrated how successful you can be if you get organised.

This has been well noted by some of the bigger charitable foundations in the UK, which have decided it's time to emulate the method while repudiating the message. Many have already moved away from the 'cash-machine' approach to grant-making, in which givers respond to the pitches of grant-seekers, and adopted a more strategic and proactive style. Next month, a group of 30 foundations will be meeting to discuss two pieces of research, one from the Carnegie UK Trust and another from the Barrow Cadbury Trust, which suggest there is an appetite for complementing grant-making activities by making the argument jointly for progressive social policy initiatives.

Sukhvinder Stubbs argues in Third Voice (page 25) that foundations should get stuck into the debate with government and argue for creative solutions that emerge from voluntary and community sector experience.

This is welcome news, not least because it offers reinforcement against the kind of destructive social polarisation that reigns in the US. It also offers the prospect of injecting some fresh thinking into the Government's stale and managerialist approach to social problems, typified by the cult of the Asbo and the parenting order. Labour politicians realise that the only solution is better and more cohesive communities, but make the mistake of thinking such communities can be chivvied and ordered into being. It's more difficult and subtle than that: many of the best ideas come from the voluntary sector, and here could be an effective new channel in which to promote them.

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