by Kamal Mashjari of the Al-Ghazali Centre in Liverpool

What are the issues affecting the Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) voluntary sector and how are they different to the problems affecting the voluntary sector in general?

To begin with, both are facing the exact same issues in relation to a number of points. Both face the same level of cuts to the budgets they manage. Whether those funds come from councils, trusts or government doesn’t matter – they have all been reduced. Many organisations in our sector have folded recently and many more will go to the wall unless they are able to adapt to the changes taking place.

As councils are forced to reduce their budgets and staffing levels, they are withdrawing all but the very essential services they provide. This is increasing the demand on our services all the time and it will only get worse. So how will the voluntary sector cope with increased demand and with reduced budgets?

The BME sector in particular faces severe problems over the coming 18 months. Demand for its services will reach unprecedented levels due the changes taking place over this period in terms of reforms to welfare, housing, legal aid and the National Health Service. From April 2013, the government will begin the reform of welfare on a scale not seen in this country before. Changes to benefits will include the introduction of the ‘Bedroom Tax’ – where there will be a reduction in housing benefit for any additional rooms not used in a house. This will effect anyone under the age of 61 years old.

These changes demand co-ordinated action by BME organisations to ensure enough support is in place to meet the expected demand. Yet where I live in Liverpool, I am yet to see much co-ordination between organisations. The BME sector continues to suffer from a necessity to protect one’s own turf to the detriment of the communities that we serve. The worrying thing is that many of these groups may not last unless they change.

Youth provision has been decimated since 2010 and this will continue to create challenges, especially with the changes described above. The problems arise due to the demographics of the BME communities we serve. These communities are diverse and what you find in most places is a number of organisations doing very similar work that cater to the same community. This leads to a multitude of different groups for each community. So for example, for the Yemeni community in Liverpool, you find three or four groups doing similar work and catering the same for all the different communities within the BME sector. Funders see this and are demanding action. They are encouraging partnerships at every level in the voluntary sector to ensure that resources meet the most needy and provide the most value.

The statistics tell us quite clearly that BME organisations work with some of the most deprived people in our country – yet the BME sector, along with organisations that work with the white working class, are facing the most severe cuts. Most statistics in health, education and life opportunities show that our communities faced an uphill struggle even prior to the banking crisis and the introduction of austerity. Now those issues are being magnified by the government’s nullification of the equality agenda. Reducing equality is also likely to add to the sense of inequality in the BME sector and communities.

The BME sector lacks the capacity to deal with the onslaught heading its way unless radical change is implemented quickly. Organisations in neighbourhoods up and down the country really should be seeing where synergies lie with other groups in their areas to form support mechanisms and where necessary, form loose coalitions and even consortiums to bid and tender for contracts. For example, with the changes to the health service to be introduced from April 2013, there will be a massive opportunity for those groups that are capable of forming consortiums with a range of skills to offer to commissioners. After all, we know our communities better than anyone else, and will therefore be in a position to offer localised services to our communities in our buildings by encouraging the health agenda.

My advice to BME community groups is get wise quick, investigate what others are doing and form the networks I described above. There will be opportunities but they will demand sacrifices on our part and a lot of hard work.

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