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What is mutual aid?

Mutual groups putting their hands in to help each others charities

In simple terms, mutual aid is people or organisations coming together to solve a problem. The premise sounds like a charitable approach; however, mutual aid isn’t quite as imbalanced as a charity, where support, help and/or resources are donated to beneficiaries with nothing expected in return.

Critics of third sector organisations (you may not believe anyone could oppose the work of charities, but there are some that do) might say that charities keep those in need in a perpetual state of wanting. For example—and I realise this isn’t a third sector charity model, though it does demonstrate my point—how many times have you read comments on social media that attack people in receipt of Universal Credit benefits? Commonly, responses are along the lines of UC claimants being good for nothing but holding their hands out. Whilst only a small minority of UC claimants defraud the system, knowing full well they could find work and contribute more to society, the vast majority are genuine cases needing support.

People putting hands in to show support of each other.

Charities provide support in a variety of ways to people in need, and whilst these beneficiaries may find it easier to cope with their issue or problem as a result of a charity’s help, it’s likely to represent short-term sustenance or relief, rather than something longer-term or life changing. It can take years to climb out of poverty, for example. Food banks exist to help those on a low income, but those supported will likely be regular users of the service and will come back time and again until resources run out.

Though mutual aid doesn’t necessarily represent instant solutions any more than a charity does, the emphasis is on equal benefit and support. Mutual aid means that those involved pull together to help others, even those who may be in receipt or need of help themselves. They may be lacking in one thing they need—for example (and this is a simple example, granted), they may lack food—but they may be fit and able, and have the materials needed, to build a fence for their neighbour, who may not physically be able do so. Neighbour one builds the fence, providing security for neighbour two, who then batch cooks a fortnight’s worth of meals in return for the work neighbour one has put in. Both parties were ‘in need’ in this fictional scenario, but they swapped their skills/resources so that they both got what they were lacking.

Think of disaster situations, such as the days after Hurricane Katrina. So many people and organisations came together to help out their communities when the crisis occurred, despite them being affected by the hurricane itself. Schools became temporary shelters for displaced families; organisations not usually involved in disaster relief joined forces to see what help they could offer.

In the UK, we’d probably describe mutual aid as ‘community spirit’. In the early days of the human race, this bartering of skills and sharing of resources was what kept Homo sapiens alive and underpinned the human race as it is today. In a capitalist country like the UK, however, the opposite approach is taken; resources are hoarded and traded rather than shared amongst the population.

Minorities and marginalised communities often adopt mutual aid. If they can’t rely on society to support them, it’s understandable that they’d retreat into their neighbourhoods and simply rely on their own supplies, skills and collateral.

Some charities try and instil elements of mutual aid and encourage beneficiaries to give back to other sufferers/people in need once they’re in a better place. Lived experience can be very powerful in a charity, and some funders like to see board members and trustees who have in-depth understanding of the issue at hand being able to influence the cause’s policy and projects.

Conspiracy theorists and activists would argue that the government is not a fan of mutual aid as it ultimately empowers people to be less reliant on the state—after all, if we all turned to our communities to barter and work for what we need, there would be no benefit in paying taxes, and where would the government and the civil service be then? A little dependency on the state, in the eyes of the powers-that-be, is necessary.

Mutual aid is not a new idea, as I’ve mentioned; however, it’s a sustainable model that empowers people in a way that charitable giving doesn’t, by focusing on what a beneficiary can do or offer in return for support. It’s a two-way exchange, rather than a one-way donation.


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