Local authorities can help make mutual aid a positive legacy of COVID-19

John Copps argues that local authorities should encourage and promote the sustainability of mutual aid groups as part of their recovery strategy.

After more than seven weeks in lockdown, attention is now turning from the immediate impact of the crisis to what happens next.

One of the lessons of the pandemic has been how ‘social capital' – the network of relationships that support and strengthen societies – is critical to strong and resilient communities.

As people witness the impact of COVID-19 on their local area, and the sacrifices made by those delivering frontline public services, there has been a blossoming of ordinary people wanting to do something to contribute.

Among this upsurge in voluntary action has been the creation of at least 5,000 new mutual aid groups. Narrowly focused on neighbourhoods, they focus on providing a level of practical support such as picking up medicine or groceries for self-isolating people, keeping an eye on older residents, and providing a friendly ear and emotional support to vulnerable people.

These groups' function is modest but can be life-saving if volunteers find something amiss and alert the emergency services.

Public services will find themselves under huge pressure after the immediate crisis has passed. A backlog of cases, strains on the workforce and financial pressures are already mounting up. With the right support and realistic expectations of what they can and can't do, mutual aid groups have the potential to make a valuable contribution to recovery and future community resilience.

But any support from local authorities should recognise the character and constraints of voluntary action.

Crucially, mutual aid groups are based on volunteers acting on their own free will. Local authorities must encourage and promote mutual aid groups for what they are – the social capital of a neighbourhood. A strategy that promotes mutual aid should be light touch, work with existing community partners, and focus on facilitating rather than directing activity. Mutual aid groups should always retain the ability to decide what they do and how they work.

Mutual aid is not an extension to public services. It cannot replace the job of trained professionals or replace targeted work required with individuals, but it can complement them in the context of a general community response.

The opportunity to support neighbourhood mutual aid groups must be acted on swiftly. It should not be allowed to slip away. For local areas that get it right, mutual aid can be part of a strategy to rebuild stronger, more resilient neighbourhoods for the future.

Recommendations from the report

  1. Local authorities should promote the sustainability of mutual aid groups beyond the COVID-19 crisis.
  2. Local authorities should work with community partners to support mutual aid groups' sustainability, for example local charities or community foundations.
  3. Local councillors should encourage and promote mutual aid groups within their wards.
  4. The opportunity to support mutual aid groups must be acted on swiftly before the crisis ends and they lose momentum.

To download the report, Maximising neighbourhood resilience after COVID-19, click here.

John Copps is managing consultant at Mutual Ventures


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