More commitment needed to address poverty, social exclusion and inequality

Yesterday, the Community Workers' Co-operative (CWC) launched its brief on the Election 2011 Manifestos, filtering the manifestos through a lens that included antipoverty, social exclusion and inequality, together with a community development lens – in other words the what needs to be done lens with the how it gets done lens. As we become increasingly aware that poverty, social exclusion and inequality will only be addressed if there are deliberate strategies to address them, what are the party commitments? By Ann Irwin


Manifestos are strange documents. While they lay out party policy on a number of issues as an incentive to get people to vote for them, there is generally no accountability to those very same people if few or none of the policies are implemented for a variety of unforeseen reasons, such as lack of resources or changed circumstances. Notwithstanding this, manifestos can be a useful, if general, indication of the thinking, ideology and intentions of the parties as we hurtle towards what is commonly regarded to be one of the most important elections since the foundation of the State.

Let's begin with what is, as is generally accepted, will be the biggest (if not sole) partner in Government after 25 February, Fine Gael. Even if you don't agree with the content, the Fine Gael Party has the widest range and most thought out range of policy documents of all the parties. In their manifesto, Fine Gael refer to Community and Rural Affairs (equality is dropped from the title) and state that they are committed to ensuring that we have an active, engaged citizenry and a vibrant community and voluntary sector that works in partnership with Government to create a fairer and a better Ireland. This immediately raises the heckles of those of us concerned with the right of communities, particularly disadvantaged communities, to identify and work to address their needs and the rights of community organisations to advocate for their communities. For us, while partnership with the state and service provision will always be a part of community work, it is not the objective of our work – transformation of society linked to principles such as social justice is the objective. Partnership with the state is not always possible when that very same state and its statutory agencies fail in their obligations to the most disadvantaged and marginalised.

Fine Gael talk about a new model of financing social interventions – Social Impact Bonds – that will be used to finance voluntary bodies to implement interventions that cut rates of homelessness and re-imprisonment. The detail of this is outlined in the document 'Reinventing Government' under the heading, Streamlining Government and Cutting Quangos. Under this scheme, funding from investors from outside of Government will be used to initially fund the work and investors will be repaid if the State reaps the benefit of savings from services it would otherwise have to provide. For example, investors in a project funded to prevent recidivism would receive a return on their investment if the State made a saving on the cost of re-imprisonment as a result of the intervention. It will be highly problematic if crucial work to address homelessness and the issues faced by offenders and ex-prisoners becomes dependent on 'results-based' private investment.

The devil may well be in the detail of many of the Fine Gael proposals. They commit to, for example, adopting greater co-ordination and integration to the delivery of services to the Traveller community across all Government departments, using available resources more effectively to deliver on the principles of social inclusion, particularly in the area of Traveller education. Depending on implementation, this may be a positive move or it may result in a reduction of the right of Traveller advocacy organisations and Travellers themselves to design and implement policies that they know will work for their communities.

Labour, the most likely coalition party, takes an issue-based approach to dealing with social inclusion and equality. Under the section, A Fairer and more Equal Ireland, Labour states that a robust civil society is essential to building a fair Ireland, where power is shared and dissent and debate are valued. At least that's a good and welcome starting point. The Manifesto states that Labour's Comprehensive Spending Review will examine all areas of government spending, to establish what is the best and most cost-effective way to achieve the positive outcomes we want for our country. This review will provide the basis for a coherent policy framework governing the State's partnership with community and voluntary organisations. Again, depending on the approach, this may be a positive or less than positive approach. That element of the community sector that emphasises participatory approaches to social inclusion is always willing to work in partnership with the state, while reserving the right to critique and criticise the state when it fails the most disadvantaged and marginalised. Will this remain part of the Labour agenda as they negotiate the Programme for Government?

"Rumours are beginning circulate that the Irish government is using the excuse of the new Europe target to lift 20 million people out of poverty by 2020 to abandon its own target of eliminating consistent poverty by 2016"

The Labour agenda obviously draws significantly on that of the Equality and Rights Alliance, an alliance of many organisations (including the Community Workers' Co-operative) that emerged as a result of the cuts to the equality infrastructure in Ireland. It commits to the creation of a new Equality and Social Inclusion Authority with a mandate to promote social inclusion and equality, and combat poverty and discrimination, to replace the Equality Authority and the National Disability Authority, incorporating the policy and research functions of the Combat Poverty Agency. It also commits to the establishment of an Oireachtas Committee on Equality, Women and Human Rights, charged with progressing legislation in these areas. These are all contained in the recently launched ERA Charter for Equality.

Also to be welcomed is the Labour commitment to eliminating poverty from Irish society and protecting those most at risk of poverty, particularly as rumours are beginning to circulate that the Irish government is using the excuse of the new Europe target to lift 20 million people out of poverty by 2020 to abandon its own target of eliminating consistent poverty by 2016. Labour's commitment to publishing a new anti-poverty strategy must include a focus on how strategies in this area are implemented at local, as well as national level and an emphasis on the participation of those most disadvantaged and marginalised. This is the biggest omission in the Labour manifesto and surprising given the support of Jack Wall and other Labour TDs and Senators for the community development sector over the past eighteen months.

Sinn Féin published a specific policy document entitled Commitment to Communities to supplement their manifesto. The document, obviously drawing on the Defending Ireland's Communities and other agendas, begins by acknowledging the importance of the community sector and the current challenges and difficulties. The Sinn Féin vision is of a securely resourced community and voluntary sector that both responds to and advocates for the needs and wishes of communities. It acknowledges that that the community sector is about more than service provision or informing political decisions and states that sector should participate in making decisions and monitor and challenge government.

The policy document further states that frontline services alone cannot tackle marginalisation and communities must be given the resources and supports to address its underlying causes, stating that Sinn Féin believes that people have the right to participate directly in the decision-making processes that affect them. In pursuit of its vision, Sinn Féin commits to multi-annual minimum funding and reversing the cuts in funding to the community and voluntary sector. These are very laudable intentions and if Sinn Féin ever see power in the South, they would be welcome policy developments.

The Fianna Fáil manifesto contains little apart from that previously published as the Plan for National Recovery. Separately (a post on the FF website), Fianna Fáíl states its commitment to dialogue with the sector and to communities stating that "our communities are the building blocks of both our society and our economy, and the health of our communities should be judged on how we care for the most vulnerable amongst us. That is why we recognize the importance of the Community and Voluntary sector in the building of real, equitable and sustainable communities." Posted by Pat Carey, it acknowledges that the Community and Voluntary sector are committed to using working methods that are flexible, efficient and equipped to deal with the problems communities face in modern society. It commits Fianna Fáil to engaging in a structured dialogue process with the Community and Voluntary Sector and deepening the partnership between statutory bodies and voluntary and community organizations as outlined in the 'Towards 2016' Social Partnership Agreement. The question must be why this hasn't been done in the past decade and a bit that Fianna Fáil has been in power.

"Increasingly we are beginning to realise that approaches to poverty, social exclusion and inequality that are solely based on income transfers are unsustainable and inadequate."

Similar to the Labour Party, the Green Party take an issue-based approach to poverty, social exclusion and inequality. Under their manifesto, Renewing Ireland, the Green Party commits to reinstating greater resources for the Office of Social Inclusion [there is no Office of Social Inclusion. Presumably the reference is to the Social Inclusion Division, a unit of the Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs. Surprising given that the Green Party's Mary White was a junior minister in this department]. The Green Party also commits to:

• Ensuring that public policies for social inclusion are integrated into the wider policy framework.

• Commissioning further data collection on levels and risk of poverty and the development of indicators to measure relative and consistent poverty trends.

• Applying a Tobin Tax to financial transactions targeted at financing projects of social dividend.

Like the Labour Party, the Green Party neglects the process by which social inclusion work is implemented at both national and local level and this is a significant omission for a party that prides itself on its grassroots.

Increasingly we are beginning to realise that approaches to poverty, social exclusion and inequality that are solely based on income transfers are unsustainable and inadequate. The latest CSO data on poverty (EU SILC data for 2009 published in November 2010) show that poverty is worse now than in 2007. Those of us concerned not only with the issues of poverty, social exclusion and inequality but also with more sustainable ways of addressing these deeply negative societal issues would like to see a clear and unambiguous commitment to addressing the issues in a way that emphasises the participation of those affected and the right to advocate and even criticise when the state and its agencies are failing in their duty.

These party manifestos are written in a moment in time. Whether any of the policies contained in them see the light of day is dependent on the outcome of the election on the 25th and on the subsequent negotiations for the Programme for Government after Friday. The manifestos should only be regarded as a starting point. Pressure can and should be still brought to bear on the parties to ensure that the issues that concern us are on the agenda. We need to see a government that is committed to addressing poverty, inequality and social exclusion as a central (not add-on) element of their approach to society and the economy. We need to see a government that acknowledges the right of those affected by issues to have a say in how those issues are addressed. We need to see a government that sees the value in a strong and vibrant civil society at local and national level.

Ann Irwin is the National Co-ordinator of the Community Workers' Co-operative, a national membership organisation that seeks to support and promote community work as a means of addressing poverty, social exclusion and inequality.

[Image top via bjaglin on Flickr]