Look For The Helpers: How Can We Build a Civil Society That’s Ready For The Worst?

13th August 2017 / Contributor News
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By Julia Unwin – chair of Civil Society Futures: As we reel from shock to shock – bombings in Manchester, attacks in London, the horrific fire in Kensington – one thing has become clear. Civil society in its widest sense is central to how we respond. Immediately after the blue light services heroically dealing with horror come the volunteers – the churches, the community groups, the individuals giving money, pouring tea, putting down mattresses, opening halls. The frequently unsung response of solidarity at times of dreadful shock.


The new civil defence for new and different threats.

We saw it in the floods in the winter of 2015, in the 7/7 bombings, in train crashes and in disasters across the UK: a desire to help both the stranger and the neighbour which is at the core of civil society.

There are a few things about which we can be sure. There will be more of these unexpected tragedies, and civil society will continue to contribute.

Civil society brings immediate rescue. The tea urns, the offers of shelter, the clothes and mattresses. The rush of donations. The immediate response of providing relief. The warmth and comfort at times of acute personal distress and grief.

And as I have written elsewhere civil society helps us to remember – through ritual, and sharing of grief civil society provides some of the space for healing and recondition.

And it can help to build bridges afterwards. There will always be need for reconciliation – for deep understanding to enable people to come to terms with what has happened, and, if possible, prevent it happening again.

Civil society helps to get redress and enable the voice to be heard. Desperately distressed people needing advocacy and support both individually and collectively to negotiate their way through the inevitable bureaucratic nightmare. Advice about rights, and out insurance, about companion. Redress at a time when rights are challenged.


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And finally, civil society is about resilience. Its about building strength for the long term, getting ready for the inevitable shocks and crises, and going beyond the superficial declaration that this will not cow us, to a deep, stronger sense of preparation  for shocks.


In York where I live the Council for Voluntary Services has co-ordinated Ready for Anything – a response plan for the emergencies that will come and across the country there are similar examples of civil defence, led by civility.

Local community organisations, have deep networks, they command trust and confidence, they mobilise volunteers, they attract support. They have expert knowledge.

The task must now be to create a framework that gets support to the supporters quickly, safely and when it is needed. That allows the genuinely expert voices who know the community to be heard, and that commands trust.

After all, we never know when we will be turning to civil society for help, but we can be very sure that it will happen again.


Civil Society Futures is a national conversation about how English civil society can flourish in a fast changing world.


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