Mutual aid (organization theory)
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In organization theory, mutual aid is a voluntary reciprocal exchange of resources and services for mutual benefit. Mutual aid projects are a form of political participation in which people take responsibility for caring for one another and changing political conditions.
Mutual aid is arguably as ancient as human culture. People in every society in every time period have worked together to ensure their communities can survive. Mutual aid has been practiced extensively in marginalized communities.
The term "mutual aid" was popularised by the anarchist philosopher Peter Kropotkin in his essay collection Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, which argued that cooperation, not competition (as advocated by Charles Darwin) was the driving mechanism behind evolution.[verification needed] Kropotkin argued that mutual aid has pragmatic advantages for the survival of humans and animals and has been promoted through natural selection. This recognition of the widespread character and individual benefit of mutual aid stood in contrast to the theories of social Darwinism that emphasised individual competition and survival of the fittest, and against the ideas of liberals such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who thought that cooperation was motivated by universal love.
Mutual aid participants work together to figure out strategies and resources to meet each others' needs, such as food, housing, medical care, and disaster relief, while organizing themselves against the system that created the shortage in the first place.
Typically, mutual-aid groups are member-led, member-organized, and open to all to participate in. They are often structured as non-hierarchical, non-bureaucratic with members controlling all resources. They are egalitarian in nature and designed to support participatory democracy, equality of member status and power shared leadership and consensus-based decision-making.
Mutual aid vs. charity
As defined by radical activist and writer Dean Spade and explored in his University of Chicago course "Queer and Trans Mutual Aid for Survival and Mobilization", mutual aid is distinct from charity. Mutual aid projects are often critical of the charity model, and may use the motto "solidarity, not charity" to differentiate themselves from charities.
|Horizontalist and participatory characteristics of mutual aid projects||Characteristics of hierarchical, charitable non-profits and social service programs (or what tends to change about mutual aid projects as they move toward becoming charities or social service programs)|
|"Members" = people making decisions||"Members" = donors|
|De-professionalized survival work done by volunteers||Service work staffed by professionals|
|Beg, borrow, and steal supplies||Grant money for supplies/philanthropic control of program|
|Use people power to resist any efforts by government to regulate or shut down activities||Follow government regulations about how the work needs to happen (usually requiring more money, causing reliance on grants, paid staff with professional degrees)|
|Survival work rooted in deep and wide principles of anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, racial justice, gender justice, disability justice||Siloed single-issue work, serving a particular population or working on one area of policy reform, disconnected from other 'issues'|
|Open meetings, as many people making decisions and doing the work as possible||Closed board meetings, governance by professionals or people associated with big institutions or big donors, program operated by staff, volunteers limited to stuffing envelopes or other menial tasks occasionally, volunteers not part of high level decision making|
|Efforts to support people facing the most dire conditions||Imposing eligibility criteria for services that divide people into "deserving" and "undeserving"|
|Give things away without expectations||Conditions for getting help or participating in something—you have to be sober, have a certain family status, have a certain immigration status, not have outstanding warrants, not have certain convictions, etc.|
|People participate voluntarily because of passion about injustice||People come looking for a job, wanting to climb a hierarchy or become "important"|
|Efforts to flatten hierarchies—e.g. flat wage scales if anyone is paid, training so that new people can do work they weren't professionally trained to do, rotating facilitation roles, language access||Establishing and maintaining hierarchies of pay, status, decision-making power, influence|
|Values self-determination for people impacted or targeted by harmful social conditions||Offers "help" to "underprivileged" absent of a context of injustice or strategy for transforming the conditions; paternalistic; rescue fantasies and saviorism|
|Consensus decision-making to maximize everyone's participation, to make sure people impacted by decisions are the ones making them, to avoid under-represented groups getting outvoted, and to build the skill of caring about each other's participation and concerns rather than caring about being right or winning||Person on top (often Executive Director) decides things or, in some instances, a board votes and majority wins|
|Direct aid work is connected to other tactics, including disruptive tactics aimed at root causes of the distress the aid addresses||Direct aid work disconnected from other tactics, depoliticized, and organization distances itself from disruptive or root causes-oriented tactics in order to retain legitimacy with government or funders|
|Tendency to assess the work based on how the people facing the crisis the organization wants to stop regard the work||Tendency to assess the work based on opinions of elites: political officials, bureaucrats, funders, elite media|
|Engaging with the organization builds broader political participation, solidarity, mobilization, radicalization||Engaging with the organization not aimed at growing participants' engagement with other "issues," organizations, or struggles for justice|
- When groups that have been all volunteer get money, they often fall apart in conflict about that money and how to manage and use it. When they get enough money to have staff, there is greater danger of institutionalization and pandering to funders, because someone's income will be impacted if they lose the funders' favor.
- When groups get staffed, the volunteers sometimes expect that staff person or few people to suddenly do all the work or more than they can do, and volunteers sometimes check out. This can make the group vulnerable to loss of capacity, and also to becoming more solely governed by a few staffers. It can also be a set up for initial staffers to be heavily criticized and considered failures.
- Burnout is more likely when less people are involved in a group. Burnout is less likely when there are transparent participatory decision-making processes that let people feel like they are holding the project together with lots of people instead of alone. Burnout is less likely when there is a culture of feedback and humility that lets people address harmful dynamics between people or ways that hierarchies of valuation (racism, classism, sexism, etc) are showing up in the group. Burnout is more likely when there are not clear feedback processes and people stifle concerns, gossip about each other, and blow up at each other as pressure mounts.
- When organizations are dependent on funders, they have an incentive to declare false victories, so that they can keep getting funding. This can prevent innovation in the work, or realizing the work needs to be scrapped because it is having an unintentional bad impact. When organizations are volunteer-based, people are more likely to want to scrap bad ideas because their time and energy is precious to them and they want to direct it toward something effective.
- When organizations have no staff, it can be a challenge to do mutual aid work that takes place during typical workday times, such as accompanying people to courts or social services offices. Unstaffed organizations may want staffing because they want to increase their capacity to provide aid.
- Organizations may want to become non-profits or get a non-profit fiscal sponsor so that they can receive grants and/or tax deductable donations. The downside is that this requires financial tracking and organization skills that can concentrate power in the hands of people who have had more access to such skills and systems. It also may bring government attention and cultivate a culture of less boldness and risk-taking within the organization as it considers government and funder surveillance.
In the 1800s and early 1900s, mutual aid organizations included unions, the Friendly Societies that were common throughout Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, medieval craft guilds, the American "fraternity societies" that existed during the Great Depression providing their members with health and life insurance and funeral benefits, and the English working men's clubs of the 1930s that also provided health insurance.
Food, medical care, and supplies
In 1969, the Black Panthers created the free breakfast program to serve families in Oakland, California. By the end of 1969, the program fed 20,000 children across 19 cities. Other survival programs included clothing distribution, classes on politics and economics, free medical clinics, lessons on self-defense and first aid, transportation to upstate prisons for family members of inmates, an emergency-response ambulance program, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, and testing for sickle-cell disease.
In the 1970s, the Young Lords, an organization devoted to neighborhood empowerment and self-determination of Puerto Ricans, Latinos, and colonized people in the United States, operated multiple community programs, including free breakfast for children, the Emeterio Betances free health clinic, free dental clinic, community testing for tuberculosis and lead-poisoning, community day care center, free clothing drives, and "Garbage Offensive" to clean up garbage in Puerto Rican neighborhoods neglected by city sanitation.
Food Not Bombs was founded in the United States in 1980 by anti-nuclear activists to share free vegetarian food with hungry people and protest war, poverty, and destruction of the environment. Today Food Not Bombs continues to recover food that would otherwise be discarded and shares free food in over 1,000 cities in 65 countries.
In 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, mutual aid efforts in New Orleans began through the Common Ground Collective. Efforts included aid distribution centers, opening seven medical clinics, house-gutting, roof-tarping, building neighborhood computer centers, debris removal, a tree planting service, establishing 90+ community gardens, and legal counselling services. In 2012 after Hurricane Sandy, people formerly associated with Occupy Wall Street formed Occupy Sandy to provide mutual aid to those affected by the storm. Occupy Sandy distributed clothes, blankets and food through various neighborhood hubs.
Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, a network of activists, has responded to flooding in Baton Rouge, flooding in West Virginia, Hurricane Matthew, Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma, and Hurricane Maria by building health clinics, distributing medication and medical supplies, cleaning debris, gutting buildings, building infrastructure, and distributing supplies. Their aim is to support peoples' survival, empowerment, and self-determination.
2017 Puebla earthquake
Due to mistrust of the federal government of Mexico and its corruption, a number of organizations and volunteers were prepared to meet the needs of the people of Mexico City immediately after the Tuesday, 19 September 2017 earthquake. This included removing debris from collapsed buildings, searching for survivors, providing medical attention, disseminating news and information, donating and distributing food, etc.
In the United Kingdom
The first COVID-19 mutual aid group in the United Kingdom was founded in Lewisham on Thursday, 12 March 2020, and one in Hackney was started off the back of that. The pandemic came shortly after the 2019 general election, and relationships formed by young activists as well as a growing political awareness during the Labour Party leadership of Jeremy Corbyn were important to the building of these groups.
The UK mutual aid groups have a wide variety of politics. The first groups were organised in an anarchistic and non-hierarchical way, and later groups had more Trotskyist tendencies (for example, the Battersea group had a Central Committee before it had many members). Other groups were more charity-orientated with politics around saviorism rather than a horizontalist interpretation of mutual aid. Although the proliferation of mutual aid groups in the UK brought the term into the common parlance, not everyone involved in the groups are necessarily working from the same understanding of the origins and practice of mutual aid; for example some groups are more deferential to local authorities and politicians than others. Other conflicts in the early days of the groups included disputes over approaches to safeguarding and data protection (synonymous in the UK with the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)), for example over whether volunteers should be required to have a background check for simply checking in on their neighbours.
After the first few groups were set up, a website called "Covid-19 Mutual Aid" was created to help develop an organisational model for the mutual aid groups and facilitate the sharing of resources. It was frequently misreported as coordinating the groups.
COVID-19 mutual aid groups in the UK undertake a broadly similar range of activities: offering support around shopping, collecting prescriptions, dog walking, and offering a chat to those who are lonely due to self-isolation. Groups tend to organise themselves by initially setting up a Facebook group corresponding to a local authority area, and then from there linking to a WhatsApp group corresponding to a council ward. From there the way that groups organise themselves vary greatly but they usually involve producing leaflets with the phone number of one or several volunteers and then trying to reach as many people in the neighbourhood as possible. Other tools commonly used for organising include Slack, Google Docs, and Zoom.
In the context of the rapid growth of mutual aid groups across the UK, the government attempted to create a centralised effort with the NHS Volunteer Responders scheme. Almost 750,000 people signed up to it, although most of these people were not called upon due to organisational issues.
Academics from the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge found that the density of COVID-19 mutual aid groups in the United Kingdom was positively correlated with social capital (that is, areas which are already wealthy are more likely to benefit from the presence of mutual aid groups). In deprived areas like like Wolverhampton, mutual aid groups were hampered by the legacy of the United Kingdom government austerity programme.
Direct redistribution of wealth
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