Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Funding and the Muslim third sector - part one

There used to be a time when people used to do things for free. I remember it well. Sacrifices were made, spirits were high and we did things because we believed it was the right thing to do and needed to be done. Today, this is no longer the case. Today, much of it is about funding, and how sad it is that it is about funding.

I was involved in what can be loosely termed ‘Islamic work’ from the late eighties through to the late nineties, after which I took some time out to complete a thesis on Muslim identity politics and reconsider my own Islamic ‘alignment’. When I returned to the Islamic scene, one of the first things that I noticed in the change in culture was that there was a new word doing the rounds: funding. Everyone was interested in one thing: funding. When I suggested an idea, people would ask: ‘Do you think when we could get funding for it?’ or say ‘That’s a good idea, should be able to get some funding for it’. I began to become quite frustrated with this attitude, because the key question of Islamic organisations was not whether they were fit for purpose, rather it was: are they fit for funding?

This change is obviously related to the policy context. The early nineties were a time when there wasn’t much finding about and by the late nineties New Labour policies had begun to impact on government departments and resource distribution. European funding streams were in full flow at about this time as well.

New Labour has two basic approaches to social problems which can be summed up as ‘what works’ and ‘if there’s a problem, throw money at it’. New Labour has done so in health, education, employment etc. through various initiatives aimed to improve conditions in many urban areas sometimes through concentrated efforts such as health or education action zones and sometimes through general policies that are implemented through local councils or strategic partnerships such as neighbourhood renewal. This has meant that there has been millions of pounds ploughed into many cities and Bradford has benefited also. Trident, Regen 2000, Manningham SRB, Royds – there are various initiatives which were undertaken as part of regeneration projects. Many of the people who were previously involved in Islamic work or thereabouts became involved in such initiatives and the results have been mixed. Some projects have yielded strong results, others have floundered, while others have squandered public money.

There has always been one key structural problem in the delivery of this ‘throw money at it’ agenda – whether it was about Sure Start, education initiatives, regeneration initiatives and even community cohesion and this was about leadership. The assumption was that the money was enough to solve the problem, but these problems required more: they required leadership, good analysis and partnership working. However, many of these initiatives that were required to involve local communities would usually be led by outsiders – people who had the cvs to match the person specification required to lead such a project – the local community was unable to provide such candidates because they had simply not had the experience, sometimes for reasons of cultural exclusion. It would take a couple of years for the management to get a good handle on the problem and then a year or two more to get some partnership working with the community by which time it was time to assess the project or in some cases to close it down. Progress on some key deprivation-related issues has therefore been slow. The problem with all of the funding up to this point (and up to a point) was that the Muslim community never really got a handle on it, it has been a case of many opportunities lost.