ARTICLES It’s time to take back control

Image: Refugee Action

It’s time to take back control

This short blog contains some honest reflections on how we match up to the calls to action in the Civil Society Futures PACT, and where we must rapidly improve.

Like all of us I have played many roles in civil society. I’ve worked in international development and the environmental world, and among other things been a residents association treasurer, football fanzine writer, funder, and grassroots campaigner. I’ve long held one thing to be true. Only governments truly have the power to shape the world around us. The existential threat of climate change requires decisive intervention in markets. Tackling the scourge of poverty requires a fair tax system and a social safety net. Public health depends on the state etc. I still think these and other social goals depend hugely on action by the state. The Civil Society Futures report says less about this than I would have done if I had their herculean task.

But they’re right. I’ve focused too little on the power we hold to shape the world around us. We already have incredible trust, connection, creativity and vision. We are changing millions of lives for the better. Yet we really want to shape the world around us it is we in civil society who need to change. The report is right to call for a step change, in our ambition and in how we conduct ourselves.

Now for the honest reflection I promised. I’m proud of the difference we make at Refugee Action. We’ve supported over 7,000 asylum seekers and 3,000 resettled refugees over the past two years. We’ve strengthened the work of sixty other charities through our capacity building programme. We’ve changed government policies that matter including winning an additional £10 million in government funding for ESOL classes.

I’m absolutely convinced that this progress has come in large part because we have done our best in relation to two elements of the PACT framework: building trust and collaborating with others. Crucially, we haven’t just collaborated with others in our sector. Our current Lift The Ban campaign is supported by 110 organisations from the TUC and the Church of England to the CBI and Ben and Jerrys. We win because we collaborate, and whether it is me on twitter (shalegeneva) or our annual report we do our best to credit others for the contribution they make to our shared achievements.

But we’ve not performed well enough in other areas, notably shifting power and being accountable to the people we exist to serve. There are not enough people with lived experience of the asylum process on our board or staff team. We don’t have good enough mechanisms to involve experts by experience in our decision-making.

The launch of the Civil Society Futures report coincides with the start of our consultation on our strategy for the next three years. That strategy must set out how we will shift power to refugees and people seeing asylum and give them greater profile in our work.

The PACT is a profound challenge to many charities. In my experience the call to shift power and to be accountable to communities and people is particularly challenging for bigger and more longstanding organisations. We must all rise to the challenge. It won’t happen because someone wrote a brilliant report. Funders have real power in this, and sector bodies too. But a step change will depend on people leading by example, and connecting and learning from others. Let’s get together. Let’s take back control.