Colm O'Doherty: The 'message' that Irish Times Social Affairs Correspondent Carl O’Brien has taken from the recent CSO Report on Community Involvement and Social Networks 2006 – “community spirit is alive and well” (Saturday 1st August, 2009) – is overly simplistic. While the CSO Report does provide us with some useful statistics, we should be careful not to read too much into them. Indeed, it can be argued that the CSO Report reveals that in Ireland, as in the UK and Australia (Home Office, 2001; Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2006), voluntary activity is largely the preserve of well-educated, middle aged, middle class men and women. What we can therefore take from this Report is that some form of 'community spirit' appears to exist within specific demographic sections of Irish society.
Three major limitations of the Report are that it does not contextualize its data:
• It does not provide us with a social policy context or compass within which we can situate these statistics.
• There is no “quality context” within which the quality of people’s social networks or their social value is analysed.
• The “motivation context” is absent.
It is misleading. without an appropriate social policy analysis setting out the unique trajectory of Irish voluntary activity. to draw any conclusions from these statistics. Voluntary activity is an important social asset in Ireland , the UK and Australia. In all three countries, it is increasingly viewed as a mechanism for social inclusion, civic engagement and the promotion of social cohesion. In the UK and Australi,a voluntary and mutual aid societies developed in the context of social need triggered by urbanization and industrialization and the associated breakdown of traditional local forms of welfare provision. Voluntary structures and endeavours were unevenly distributed, and services were often restricted to certain identified populations.
While nation states such as Australia and the UK were prepared to guarantee citizen welfare through the development of state welfare services, the Irish state – a weak state – continued to rely on the voluntary sector to provide such services. The weakness of the Irish state – a consequence of the Catholic theory of subsidiarity and civil war politics – led to the growth of voluntary action based on charity. Within Ireland’s uneven welfare pluralist society, the voluntary and community sector has, in many instances, been the sole provider of care.
Under this policy arrangement, volunteers are more focused on fundraising for basic equipment for primary schools and hospitals, and are less engaged in initiating and supporting activities which generate positive social change. Despite the rhetoric of “active citizenship” contained in the Taskforce on Active Citizenship Report (2007) and a succession of policy documents committing the state to supporting a vibrant community and voluntary sector, a great deal of voluntary effort has been expended on a “finger in the dyke” effort to plug the gaps in the state’s social protection frameworks.
The quality of voluntary effort is glossed over in the CSO Report and the Irish Times article.
Respondents to the QNHS (Quarterly National Household Survey) were asked if they had been actively involved in voluntary or community groups in the previous twelve months. Active involvement was defined as attending meetings, being a committee member, or taking responsibility for some activity, but it specifically excluded attendance at mass or church services.
Overall active involvement in voluntary and community groups was reported by 28% of persons aged 15 years and over. Sports groups were most frequently reported (11%), while the least frequently reported form of group involvement was involvement in a political group (1%). (CSO Report, 2009:8)
We should be perturbed about the very low level of active citizenship which this headline statistic reveals, and we should also recognise that there are qualitative differences between voluntary effort focused on hard-to-reach groups ( marginalized young people, immigrants, socially excluded communities, the disabled) and voluntary work with large scale mainstream semi-commercialised bodies (sporting bodies, artistic and cultural organizations). Participation in mainstream cultural/recreational voluntary activities is attractive because it boosts credentialed human capital levels (thereby enhancing career prospects) through social and leisure networks. This type of volunteering, as O’Brien points out, is growing as unemployment levels increase and is associated with the “project of the self”. This trend in volunteering is reflected in, and perhaps related to, an increase in individualism in countries with some shared cultural characteristics such as Australia, the UK and Ireland. An individualism framed around personal values, lifestyles and a self-interested engagement with volunteering – a “polishing of your CV” opportunity. In this regard volunteering becomes less of a social contract creating social capital, and more of a consumer choice underpinning the formation of human capital.
The CSO Report tells us that certain sections of society (older people on their own, insecure tenants, rural dwellers, the unemployed, non-Irish nationals, the less educated, people with disabilities, individuals with a poor health status) have low levels of participation in civic activities, and consequently low levels of social capital. The Government is responsible for developing policy and practice frameworks which ensure that volunteering is not primarily a project of the self, with little benefit for others, and that it is a real force for social inclusion and social cohesion. In the face of the McCarthy Report’s recommendations that we scrap the Family Support Agency, the Community Development Programme and the Active Citizenship Office, the future development of volunteers, as collective citizens who are contributing to the development of social capital through contact and trust-making in their different neighbourhood and community structures, looks bleak.
My final point is that we need to fund and engage in ongoing medium-term, fine-grained, qualitative research into social network and community activities, and their contribution to social capital formation, if we are to increase our understanding of voluntary activity in a meaningful fashion.