Mutual aid groups have had a 'bigger impact than government-backed volunteering schemes'

A report from the New Local Government Network calls on government to help the groups continue and evolve

Islington Covid-19 Mutual Aid (Photograph: Kate Green/Getty Images)

The small scale of mutual aid groups allowed them to have greater impact than government-backed NHS volunteering schemes, a report has found. 

The report, Communities vs Coronavirus: The Rise of Mutual Aid, published today by the New Local Government Network think tank, says mutual aid groups, self-organised groups of volunteers offering help and support to their neighbours, have been key to the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. 

It also calls on local councils to support the groups to continue and evolve, and on national government to offer financial support to local councils to enable them to do so.

And it says, the most successful mutual aid groups were those that received “facilitative support” from their local council, where the authority offered support where appropriate, but did not attempt to micromanage the operation of the group. 

“Mutual aid groups demonstrate the power of a highly localised approach to supporting communities,” the report says. 

“This is a scale where more people can be involved to a greater extent, and where they can respond more directly to the specific conditions in their area.” 

Mutual aid groups demonstrated how voluntary and informal efforts often function most effectively when they are relatively focused, the report says. 

“By contrast, our research reveals a wide perception that central government has failed to capture the sheer potential generated by the community response to the crisis,” it says.

“One well-placed council officer told us that, in their large and population-dense area, more than 2,500 volunteers had signed up to the NHS ‘GoodSAM’ volunteer register – but over the course of six weeks fewer than 30 tasks had been assigned to them. Elsewhere, mutual aid participants described their attempts to engage with these large-scale efforts as ‘too slow’ and ‘disappointing’.”

It says groups that deliberately confined themselves to working only within a small geographic area and engaging in a limited range of activities were the more successful and were able to build up trust within the wider community, and with local stakeholders such as the council, voluntary sector and businesses.

During the pandemic, mutual aid groups have not merely been a "nice-to-have”, the report says, but have been “of decisive importance to the health and welfare of thousands of people”. 

“The reality is that many vulnerable people would simply not survive this crisis without the work that is being done – autonomously and voluntarily – by mutual aid groups,” it says. 

“The work has made the government’s shielding and social distancing policies possible to sustain in practice.”

The report argues for mutual aid groups to continue and evolve beyond the immediate response to the crisis, and to continue harnessing community efforts. 

To do this, it says, “councils will need to operate in the grey area between doing nothing and doing everything with creativity, trust, and above all a clear understanding of the value these groups add within their communities".

And, it says, government should invest in mutual aid by investing in local government, through a package which includes provision to support community development teams and to train wider staff in community-centred approaches.

It also calls for the introduction of employment policy and practice that supports flexible working, giving working-aged people more time to volunteer.

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