News in focus: Is the sector contributing to growth in segregation?

The ODPM Select Committee claimed that groups that served a single BME community could increase racial segregation in the UK. Mathew Little gauges reaction and hears how future funding could work

Voluntary organisations are frequently feted as a panacea for a multitude of social ills, from homelessness to cigarette smoking. But earlier this month a group of MPs suggested that in one area at least, the sector was actually making things worse.

In a report on social cohesion, the House of Commons Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Select Committee claimed there was a danger that voluntary groups that work with only one ethnic community increase racial segregation.

The committee recommended that local authorities develop strategies on when it is appropriate to fund single community groups. Otherwise, grant conditions should stipulate work "across community boundaries".

Raja Miah is project manager of Peacemaker, a cross-community body which aims to break down barriers between young Asians and whites in Oldham, one of the towns hit by race riots in 2001.

He believes that BME voluntary bodies that work solely within their own communities are helping to entrench divisions.

"In already segregated areas, single community organisations can further perpetuate the situation," he says. "BME groups have to be brave enough to say the way we've been doing it is wrong."

But he adds: "This is not a criticism of BME organisations. Unfortunately this debate has targeted them and they are very defensive, but the issue is not just about them. Historically, mainstream service providers have washed their hands of ethnic groups, and BME organisations have evolved to serve those communities as a result."

He argues that BME organisations can transform the way they work and break out of their community ghetto in "three to five years" if given proper financial support by mainstream service providers.

Ted Cantle, the man who wrote the Home Office report into the 2001 unrest in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford, and advised the ODPM select committee, believes that a move away from single-community funding is inevitable.

"It was relatively easy when there was a small number of ethnic groups, but now we've got a huge number," he says. "There are over 300 languages spoken in London schools. It's impossible to resource every single group and to some extent it involves excluding some of the newer communities."

He suggests that many BME groups have become reliant on capacity-building funding, rather than seeking to move beyond their narrow user base. "Some groups have been capacity-built for 30 years," he says. "Single community groups need a process of moving on from that. There has to be a phase two. But funders and recipients are being very protective of it, seeing it as an end in itself. Incentives for them to move out beyond their own group are a good thing. This is not about reducing funding, but funding in a better way."

But such talk makes BME groups, never the flushest part of the voluntary sector, very anxious. Bharti Patel, director of communications at the Council of Ethnic Minority Voluntary Organisations, says making cross-community work a condition of funding, as the select committee recommends, would be a very worrying development. "It would mean that some groups wouldn't be able to get funding, and that would cut off vital services," she says.

Maneer Afsar, director of the North West Regional BME Network for the Voluntary and Community Sector, thinks BME groups are treated differently to other minorities by being told they must have a cross-community focus.

"Why is it," she asks, "that the Government seems to imply that BME communities have reached a plateau of equality when other types of disadvantage - such as disability, sexuality and gender - have not. Is this because community cohesion is a black or race issue? All of us want to live in the cross-cultural and multi-racial society we work hard to achieve, but we aren't there yet and to force the issue will only lead to further disadvantage."

One part of the UK has already wrestled with the issue of the voluntary sector's collaboration in preserving ethnic separation. In Northern Ireland the sector has provided an invaluable neutral space for loyalist and nationalist communities to come together, but has also worked exclusively within each community.

"The voluntary sector over the past 30 years or so has played many roles in trying to build a more cohesive society," says Seamus McAleavey, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action. "It is also possible that in some ways, by working with communities in isolation, it has reinforced separation and added to division."

The result of its years of experience is a policy that, according to Nicva, "combines reality and principle". It supports initiatives that build bridges between Protestant and Catholic communities, but also undertakes "single identity work" within individual communities, such as setting up a local history project, or a museum, or running classes that aim to build confidence and skills so that participants can engage with outsiders.

But such work is not an end in itself.

"Single identity work should be limited in time, and projects should have an exit strategy showing how and when they will begin cross-community work," explains McAleavey. "We believe that this model could be transferable to Britain in the context of race, though we are not saying that one system applies throughout the UK, or that methods that work in Northern Ireland will necessarily benefit other places."

Ironically, while all the attention on single community work has focused on BME groups in Britain, Nicva suggests that the white community could also benefit from some introspection. "In Northern Ireland, there is a feeling that the Protestant community feels increasingly alienated and that Catholics are getting all the jobs and funding, even though this is an urban myth," says communications officer Paul Mcgill. "Could it be that whites in some parts of England feel the same and the single identity work, looking at what it is to be English or British, could make them feel less beleaguered?"

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