Complexity,
contradictions,
creativity:

Transitions and the voluntary sector
Anne Showstack Sassoon
Voluntary organisations stitch together, often in contradictory ways, people, society and the state. Anne Showstack Sassoon discusses the often innovatory nature of the voluntary sector in Britain and Hungary

This article reflects on discussions between the author and Sue Conning, Vera Gathy, Zsusza Szeman and Colleen Williams.

From Soundings issue 4 Autumn 1996

In two countries with very different histories, Britain and Hungary, we have been living through an economic and social transition, but towards what is not clear. While ambivalence and anxiety are understandable, it is important to be in touch with what is being created as well as what is being lost. We are not living the death of the welfare state, but what we have, and will have, is something different.
In both the British and the Hungarian cases change is taking place under great
pressure. The state sector is being squeezed, economic and social institutions restructured, and 'civil society' invoked. Yet no theoretical or political understanding of this transition is adequate unless it engages with the concrete. Indeed, a concept like 'civil society', which is ridden with contradictions and inevitably interwoven with the state, is only useful if it leads us to focus on key features of our transitions, such as the voluntary sector. The sector is crucial for people's survival and to the forms of outcomes.
Certainly, the voluntary sector, in either country, should not simply be celebrated. Yet what is also obvious from the experiences of experts and practitioners in the two countries is that however different the situations, state support and big bureaucracies of any kind only work because the voluntary sector, and especially women, stitch people into the bigger structures of society. This is often done in chaotic ways, as responses to pressures which can destroy what is valuable in a society, which appear messy, and are full of contradictions. Much, however, is creative, and it is this creativity which progressive politicians and policy-makers should facilitate, and political and social philosophers contemplate.
The term 'civil society' has had an important meaning in Central and Eastern Europe where the invasive party-state found any areas of autonomy highly threatening. In Western Europe, too, the term points to the poorly recognised role of social phenomena outside of the state. Yet criticisms of state bureaucracy and disempowerment, whether in Hungary or Britain, are not helped by an idealised view of civil society or community or family. None of these can be understood without considering what the state does or does not do and how public policy facilitates or hampers social creativity. Equally, the family and the voluntary or third sector provide the conditions for state policy to be effective, and ultimately for the economy to function..
Questions about power and voice, who articulates which needs, who is I accountable to whom, fundamental to democracy, are sharply posed in this transition. In Britain we, too, are living a version of what the Hungarians call a systemic change. For the citizen in her daily life, the flows of information and lines of responsibility which run, for example, between local authority officials, voluntary organisations, joint planning mechanisms linking health and social services, local council social service committees, community health councils, with the addition of the various charters of user rights, and finally the electoral process, are enormously complex and often messy. These networks have wide implications for the very meaning of citizenship in Britain. Consequently, any idea of the British polity and the relationship between individual, society, and state which neglects the voluntary sector is woefully inadequate. The transition we are living through reveals the inadequacy of traditional categories and forces us to go beyond simple divisions between public and private, however defined.

Recognition of complexity
When Chris Smith spoke of going beyond leftist statism in his IPPR speech 'Social Justice in the Modern World' in May 1996, we find a political acknowledgement of the de facto significance of how welfare is sustained by voluntary sector activity as well as state guarantee. He argued that 'the principle must surely be that the state acts as the guarantor of all provision, the regulator of all provision, and the administrator of some'. He went on to say that '...it is time to get away from the sterile battle lines of public and private and instead to look at how the two can best work together in the interests of the citizen and in the interests of all citizens at that. In our modern world, I want a welfare system that works, that delivers social justice, that provides real protection...and I want Government to guarantee that to every citizen. How in every specific it is to be delivered is a matter for sensible judgment and practical analysis.'
Without supporting every detail of this approach, going beyond sterile debate is in fact only possible if we recognise that there is no simple dichotomy between public and private, that there never has been one, and that the welfare state has never, anywhere, from the Nordic countries to post-war Britain to central and eastern Europe, provided cradle to grave services.
This cannot just be explained by lack of resources or political commitment. It was because the family, in its multiple forms, and, in particular, women's caring work - and, in many countries where they were permitted, voluntary organisations - never withered away. They filled in the gaps and articulated and connected the needs of individuals, often under conditions of severe duress, with the services which existed. They patched together needs, resources, and institutions in highly complex and creative ways, which the Italian sociologist, Laura Balbo, has compared to the making of a patchwork quilt. Indeed, without these concrete intermediaries to connect individual and social provision, the state sector or large organisations in general could not function.l
For a worthwhile debate we need adequate language and apposite metaphors. Patchwork quilt or the weaving of a tapestry might provide a better sense of the complexity of providing for human needs. Sometimes planned, sometimes the result of spontaneous creativity, sometimes the outcome of shortages and chaotic, destructive pressures, made up of the old and the new and varying in style and shape according to different histories, cultures and tastes, the result may be a thing of beauty, or it may be a desperate effort to cover human need with the scraps available.
Certainly, complexity and the contradictions which this often implies can only be understood if we realise that the old boxes of market, public sector, civil society, state are not self-contained entities. Rather we might say that the different spheres or levels of society invade each other. Writing which refers rhetorically rather than concretely to civil society or to community, or to the family, and ignores women's and men's concrete roles within it and in society at large, or informal networks between friends, or the messy, highly differentiated, difficult-to-define voluntary sector, is simply inadequate however theoretically or journalistically polished. Engagement with the concrete will produce better theory and improved theory will help us to understand and to shape change.2
One way to make the abstract concrete is to construct a dialogue between an outsider, in this case me, with insiders, colleagues from Britain and Hungary who know the voluntary sector well. As the non-state sector develops in Hungary in conditions of democracy but severe economic pressure, the voluntary sector is becoming a significant part of the regeneration of a civil society and of the welfare state. And in Britain as we try to build something out of the devastation wrought by Conservative rule, no talk of stakeholding or of individual and social responsibility should ignore the social innovation already underway.

Responses to pressures to change
The British voluntary sector has never been completely separate from politics. Originating in private charity, legal changes in 1911 allowed the state to become its prime benefactor. In the post-war period, old and new voluntary organisations plugged gaps left uncovered by social services, put unrecognised needs on the public agenda, and constructed innovative relationships between members, users, decision-making structures, and services. The experience of working or being active or using services in the voluntary sector contributed to a critique of some of the limits of the post'1945 welfare state.
The diversity of the sector is immense. Groups range from large and medium size national organisations, some with long histories, to smaller, more recent groups, self-help and single issue, or tending to the generic needs of, for example, ethnic minority or gay communities. Campaigning and providing services, still relying to a degree on contributions and volunteers, some nonetheless so dependent on a state grant that its withdrawal would mean collapse, organisations became more and more professional in style.
From the 1970s, when local government grant expenditure was expanding, they provided an important voice for the excluded, although the grant-making process still meant that they had to gain the support of councillors and could therefore be considered an integral part of the political process. A dramatic change has come with the NHS and Community Care Act (1990), finally implemented in 1993, with a shift in the method of funding from grants to contracts, and in responsibility from health care to social care.
Few people who have not had some kind of close contact with voluntary organisations or the discussions around them understand how varied, complex, and distant from stereotypes of nineteenth century charity they are. Academic and political debates, which refer to civil society or community, tend to ignore the sector, other than to celebrate the pleasure and usefulness of volunteering. After all, all those women, many of them from ethnic minorities, often in professions which are highly skilled but badly paid, provide services and fill gaps, just as women always have (and of course they do not have to be women to do 'women's work').
These activities are so rarely recognised for the crucial social contribution that they are, except in so far as they cost or save money or help to dampen down potential social conflict. But if the abstract reasoning of the political philosophers manages to ignore one of the most important phenomena of the polity, there is no dearth of literature, academic or not, about the effects of recent changes in the delivery of welfare on the voluntary sector itself from the inside.
For example, the voluntary sector increasingly provides services once provided by the state. Whereas in Hungary the emerging voluntary sector is beginning to assert social needs, both Sue Conning and Colleen Williams emphasise that in Britain the voluntary sector's previous role of advocacy may be compromised, and the democratic forms of user participation eclipsed. The strain and indeed financial costs of having to respond to a changing climate of decreased state expenditure, of finding additional funds from different sources, of negotiating contracts for services which meet specifications, of monitoring quality and writing lengthy reports on process and outcomes are well documented.
However, amidst widespread fears about incorporation, new spaces have also opened up. Colleen Williams points out, for example, that the value to society of the voluntary sector is now easier to convey. Contract specifications require clear descriptions of what an organisation actually does. Without monitoring and reporting-back mechanisms, however onerous, much good work might never be recognised. She further suggests that being less dependent on the support of the elected members of a local council, as contracts are negotiated with council officers, may provide a greater opportunity for groups not traditionally favoured to play the game.
Who has a voice and how this is shifting is an important question to answer. Sue Conning stresses that small groups, indeed those very organisations whose existence has helped to put equal opportunities and user involvement on the political agenda, for example, lesbian and gay groups, or those from the black community, or with disabilities, may find it particularly hard to adapt to becoming more professional in the new contract culture without the managerial backup of the larger groups.
But small, local groups may be solicited to cover a need recognised by council officers, one which might not have been specified earlier, say, Asian elder care. Colleen Williams points out that some large and medium size organisations have had to trim their bureaucracies, and contract specifications may force them to think about user involvement and to take equal opportunities seriously for the first time.
Innovation is still important, but, as both Sue Conning and Colleen Williams suggest, directed increasingly towards providing services which not only are cost effective but fit into what contracts require rather than come from the grass roots, a very different picture from Hungary. In Britain, and in Hungary, professional and sectoral boundaries are blurring. Because in Britain charges are made for social provision, for example for elder care, the voluntary sector is de facto becoming the instrument of the process of privatisation, even though
they are themselves not-for-profit organisations. On the other hand, Colleen Williams points out, they also can become the conduit for channelling state money to individuals, a process with parallels in Hungary. A contract can prevent misunderstandings through transparency, but, given the insecurity of competition, it can also lead to lack of trust between voluntary organisations and local authorities. The suggestion being considered by Labour that contracts run for longer periods could therefore be a significant change for the better.

Not less state but different
Far from reducing the state, what we have is a directive state which has opened up some spaces for diverse responses but also calls most of the tunes. Yet if central government in Britain has undermined the functions of local government, the natural terrain of this discussion is still the local, since the application in practice of community care, with the largest effects on both services and sectors, is at the local and sub-national level. Indeed, in Hungary local government has an increased role as the central government withdraws. A common theme is the emergence of the voluntary sector as an expression of society's responses to change. In Hungary the voluntary sector, including mainly new but also some old organisations which have acquired a new role, is filling a vacuum and providing a different form of ‘people power'.

The view from Hungary: the context
Abstract rhetoric about market, state, civil society is no more adequate to convey Hungarian reality than British. It is often not realised, for example, that employers in the past not only provided employment but also covered a variety of welfare functions. With economic dislocation and the newly competitive climate, these functions cease to be covered. Furthermore, low wages mean that households have depended not only on more than one full-time salary as in Britain but often on one or more people each having several jobs officially or unofficially. Further, very small pensions and lack of benefits cause old age pensioners to stay in the labour market, as Zsusza Szeman s research documents.3
Consequently unemployment has especially devastating effects, bringing real hunger with it. State subsidies for housing, food, and energy have disappeared or declined substantially, and inflation has been high. Even state education entails charges, and everyone must pay for medicine. Many services, for example for the elderly, and types of benefits which would be taken for granted in Britain, simply do not exist at all. Family provision, especially across generations, has always been very important. There is a concentration of problems in certain parts of the country, particularly in the east where heavy industry has often collapsed, and agriculture is poorer than elsewhere, and amongst certain parts of the population, such as the Romany who may have large families and may have been re-located after the war, along with many people from the east, in new, mono-industrial towns that are particularly hard hit.
This situation is compounded by the central state providing a decreasing proportion of what is needed at the local level, with local government having to raise funds from an impoverished society. Overall, state expenditure has been cut back under the pressure of meeting payments on a huge international debt. Change is therefore happening in conditions of acute social stress.
This is the context into which new voluntary organisations have sprouted. They are innovating, building on the old, coping with the new, filling in the gaps often in a very unregulated way. Furthermore, the voluntary sector is a key player in bringing in outside money: an important channel through which aid reaches Hungary, which in turn is stimulating change in the social infrastructure.
As the old patchwork frays and sometimes falls apart, voluntary organisations are crucial to the survival of significant sectors of Hungarian society. They are pushing their way into welfare, doing everything from providing free meals and some home care, distributing donations from large or small firms of food, clothing, and even energy saving bulbs, organising summer holidays for needy children and their families and social activities for elders, to mediating requests for help to large organisations. The words of an Hungarian insider about two new voluntary organisations which developed since 1989, while specific and limited examples, not meant to represent the whole, can give a flavour of some recent responses to the new spaces and new constraints which reflect enormous ingenuity. They come from reflections by Vera Gathy on research she and Zsuzsa Szeman have done in the Third District of Budapest, which has experienced the collapse of heavy industry. They indicate new possibilities for creativity in a situation of need unprecedented in recent history, in a context of the relative absence of legal regulation. They also illustrate the importance of pre-existing networks and of local government. Indeed Zsuzsa Szeman is mapping the growing relationship between initially very suspicious local governments and the voluntary sector.

Civil society, social needs, and creativity in Hungary: two stories
Both organisations date from 1991, the period just after the systemic change when social concerns hardly appeared on the political agenda. The origins of the Association for Helping the Needy (RASE) has grown out of pensioner’s clubs.4 Vera Gathy explains, They had a club room in what used to be the premises of the Communist Party organisation where they were allowed to stay. Alongside Red Cross clubs (also part of the previous, official organisations), they realised that there was a growing vacuum in social services. So thirteen people decided to set up an association and started to work on a highly flexible basis.'
Old and new skills allow them to 'react to new demands and to new possibilities. From the outset the chairman has been an experienced retired economist. He was very quick to learn about fundraising and has become a real expert at it.' Making use of the media, including a local cable television channel, 'he has been continuously on the move, going around to the 250 or so new entrepreneurs in the district, trying to persuade them to donate not only money but make donations in kind. They can offer the breakfast assistance because they get milk from a dairy.' Dinners and parties for the elderly are made possible, for example, because after an official function, 'a big company in the district which also has a restaurant' contributes 'the beautiful cold plates of meat and eggs which remain the next day.'
As it pushes its way onto the scene, the organisation is ecumenical about networking and sources of help. 'What they always emphasise,' Vera Gathy stresses, 'is that they co-operate with everyone who is willing to co-operate'; for example, with the Maltese Charity Service, an important new national organisation which has Catholic links in Hungary and abroad.
Well rooted in the community, 'in close contact with the local health service and the local physicians, who give them addresses of those old people in need', nonetheless recognition by the local authority, run at first by liberals, required perseverance as well as common sense. Vera Gathy explains that 'they were branded as communists. The local authority didn't even want to hear about these people. They tried to contact the mayor of the district who refused even to see them, but in the social services department, a reasonable woman who saw that she was unable to cope with the problems started to talk to them. They started to co-operate, and at least twice they even got small grants from the local government, and eventually got representation on the social services committee.' Co-ordinating with other voluntary organisations, 'mostly pensioners clubs or which represent old people's interests, or the Association of Big Families' was crucial. 'Altogether fourteen associations went to the mayor, and explained to him that "we want to help you," and finally in December 1994 they signed an agreement of cooperation. Now there is a dialogue between the top leadership in the local authority, and these organisations.'
The excitement of what has been accomplished is palpable, 'but it's also a political struggle. For instance, when they wanted to have a charity ball, and they invited leading personalities of the district and the country, it was only the two leftist parties who sent their delegates and no-one else.' The first national government after the systemic change, run by conservative and nationalist parties, 'had no social sensitivity. Neither did the liberal opposition. But now everyone has to realise that there is an enormous need for such voluntary organisations in the social field. While the leftist parties were in opposition, they obviously wanted to win over people, so they helped people out of both political considerations and social conviction. Now it is taken up across a wider political spectrum.'
Given a tendency in both Britain and Hungary to assume that the only substitute for the state is the 'market' , or vice versa, this is an enormous achievement. In Hungary it is particularly sweet because of the antagonism of the previous regime to allowing organisations any autonomy.
The other organisation, Pro-fitt, is an example of amazing social entrepreneurship centred on a dynamic, charismatic woman. It, too, organised a patchwork of provision linking expertise, other organisations and social needs, but with a different if somewhat overlapping set of networks. 'It was the initiative of a couple of people, in particular a Hungarian woman who was educated in the West. She learned a lot about foundations and associations and non-profit organisations, so by the time of the systemic change she felt that a voluntary organisation with very clear-cut purposes should be launched in Hungary as well.' The name, Pro-fitt, indicated, 'the need to improve the fitness and health of society since health care in Hungary, while it was still more or less intact, was deteriorating fast.' Making use of the Hungarian diaspora, sensitive to detail such as ensuring the supply of spare parts and servicing, 'Western hospitals, charitable and health organisations, and Hungarians living in the West' were asked to donate 'old medical equipment which was no longer being used in western hospitals but could still be used in Hungary' and equipment dismantled in Hungary passed on to neighbouring countries where ethnic Hungarians live. Support was obtained from central and local government, specifically the Ministry of Welfare and Health. The medical establishment also helped 'to specify what was really needed and how it could be integrated into the Hungarian network and to take part in distributing it. In a record time of two years there were hospitals which were practically re-equipped by her activities.'
Multifaceted, amongst its many activities Pro-fitt also provided services for refugees from the former Yugoslavia, distributing 'unsold goods donated by factories... Additional sponsors included a major Hungarian bank, a mixed, American-Hungarian company, and a Swiss one. It also kept in touch with a large number of non-profit organisations, including the Red Cross.'
But the ingenuity did not stop there. 'Management training,' Vera Gathy explains, 'was offered to new voluntary organisations including a large number representing disabled people. She also knew that there.should be some kind of co-ordination of voluntary organisations. She was instrumental in setting
up a Chamber of Non-profit Organisations.' Perhaps the greatest innovation was to combine meeting the needs of the elderly and handicapped with environmental protection, more particularly glass recycling. 'In Hungary there was no recycling whatsoever. She found someone who had the equipment and technology, having decided that recycling should result in something useful' Providing work for the disabled, 'the glass was ground and converted to scouring powder which, as well as refunds, was given to the old people who brought in the bottles.'
But the organisation did not survive the death of its founder. 'This is an example of how an organisation with very dynamic activities, with dynamic growth, with brilliant ideas, collapses once the moving spirit disappears because it had very little time to institutionalise itself.'

A few reflections from the outside
In both examples, with parallels in Britain, fundraising and advocacy roles are combined with providing help in kind and services as well as serving as the catalysts and conduits of various kinds of aid, stitching together social networks as well as resources, and making larger scale welfare financing effective.
In both Hungary and Britain voluntary organisations, from different points, are highly complex, gendered, sources of great innovation, and make welfare work. In different contexts many people in each country rely on them to survive, and society as a whole depends on the connecting threads that they provide which link needs to large bureaucracies and multifarious resources. They constitute part of the weave of civil society whose fabric is inevitably influenced by the state and politics. Politicians, policy makers, and philosophers should all acknowledge that the outcomes of the transitions in both countries will be shaped by this messy, creative sector of society.

These reflections derive from research funded by the British Council, the European Research Centre, Kingston University, and the Institute for Social Conflict Research, Hungarian Academy of Science. I take full responsibility for any mistakes, but I would especially like to thank Colleen Williams, for the intellectual and organisational contribution. It has been a pleasure to collaborate with Maureen Mackintosh on this piece.

1. See Laura Balbo, 'Crazy Quilts: rethinking the welfare state debate from a woman's point of view' , and Anne Showstack Sassoon, 'Introduction' and 'Women's new social role: contractions of the welfare state' in Anne Showstack Sassoon (ed) Women and the State, Routledge, London 1992.
2 I discuss the resistance to concrete analysis in the theoretical literature and its
relegation to discussion about societies on the 'margins' and the lack of attention to the family and the voluntary sector in the literature in English in 'Family, Civil Society and State. The Actuality of Gramsci's Notion o{"Societd Civile", in Dialektik, Felix Meiner Verlag, no. 3, Hamburg 1995.
3. Zsuzsa Szeman, Pensioners on the Labour Market. A Failure in Welfare, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Budapest 1989; and Old and Hungry. Impoverishment of the Elderly in Hungary, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Budapest 1990.
4. This draws on a taped interview integrated with information from a short written account and other conversations. Any distortions are mine.