A new report from the Woolf Institute finds that local communities – especially faith and other minority groups – are increasingly important in times of crisis, from austerity and the migration crisis to political instability. Here the report authors Jan-Jonathan Bock and Sami Everett discuss their findings.

Image: Flickr, Betul

Our ethnographic research since 2015 for the Woolf Institute “Trust in Crisis” project compared community experiences across four European cities — Berlin, London, Paris, and Rome — in which trust in state institutions has been tested severely by transformative developments and events. In all of these cities the economic, social, and political difficulties experienced since the 2008 financial crash have resulted in often overlapping local-level challenges. These are driven in particular by austerity measures, growing insecurity in the face of globalisation, the arrival of asylum seekers and refugees, and political instability. One of the report’s key findings emerged out of a trend across the most diverse neighbourhoods in these cities. We found that the importance of local communities — especially faith and other minority groups — has risen for the purposes of welfare provision, combatting austerity measures that have reduced state social services and protection. As we put it in the report:

“… it is local communities and locally-based volunteer organisations which confront direct and immediate needs in times of crisis. They are more in tune with realities on the ground and are able to plug the gaps left by austerity.” (pp. 13)

In Berlin, the impact of such challenges was particularly prominent outside Lagesco (Landesamt für Gesundheit und Soziales, or, Regional Agency for Health and Social Matters), the city government institution responsible for the registration and management of asylum seekers. Unable to cope with the numbers of new applicants, a makeshift camp was setup in a nearby park, overseen by a local voluntary association called Moabit Hilft! (Moabit — the name of the neighbourhood — Helps!). However, the proudly multi-faith Moabit Hilft! and other civil society actors, whose efforts and refugee solidarity would be coined as a part of Willkommenskultur (welcoming culture), were not just relevant social actors filling gaps left by the state, but through their actions they implicitly highlighted the effects of cuts to social services and local administration as the root cause for ill-prepared public institutions.

A similar set of structural circumstances as those of the Lagesco camps also underpinned the provision of basic needs by and for local communities such as the emergence over the last decade of foodbanks in London. In areas such as Peckham, individual citizens, distressed at witnessing breadline poverty on their doorsteps, draw on the networks and savoir-faire of local church-based faith volunteer organisations, acting for example under the umbrella group of the Trussel Trust founded on Christian principles. Charities such as the Christian organisation Pecan demonstrate increased civic involvement — in food provision and distribution — which is highly effective and though nominally Christian, not necessarily linked to a specific faith identity. Rather, we found that the social imperative of these quiet citizens, whose relevance must be highlighted under austerity, transcends possible social or religious division. Shared social values brought together volunteers from a range of backgrounds, therefore challenging the supposed prevalence of ethnicity for processes of identity formation in emergent community and citizen groups.

Much quiet work has been undertaken since the 2015 attacks in the northern district of greater Paris called Aubervilliers, currently undergoing urban regeneration. Home to recent and older migration from North Africa, in spite of a recent inflow of professional classes the neighbourhood is still a symbol for French Muslim socio-economic difficulties. The French arm of Islamic Relief (Secours Islamique) has gradually increased its presence as a local actor engaged in poverty alleviation in this area over the last 20 years. As the infamous social housing towers of the Parisian banlieue have reproduced social failure and deepened inequalities in places like Aubervilliers those unable to pay the rent have been forced into the underground car parks of the buildings in which they lived before. On several nights of each week in winter, discreetly and without proselytising, Secours Islamique enables encounters between different social strata by providing food and some solace in these car parks, this way volunteers face the direct consequences of privatised social housing.

While grassroots responses and their positive impact could be exploited to justify further cuts to social services by central governments, the report instead suggests more investment on local and regional levels to channel precious local initiatives more efficiently:

“Local organisations in all four sites repeatedly stressed the need for more resources and support from the government. A strengthening of local resources will enable local governments and volunteer organisations to address new challenges.” (pp.36)

Trust in Crisis found that local Christian, Jewish, Muslim and multi-faith initiatives – born of particular challenges related notably to austerity — based on volunteer time and often on faith community resources such as Church, Mosque and Synagogue space, networks and reach are significant. Faith communities are the root of a new kind of citizenship crafted through trust and built in times of crisis that can cross social boundaries. Such initiatives help to energise and politicise the notion of citizenship by conducting quiet yet remarkable work that counters the shrill voices of exclusivist nationalism.  As such we strongly recommend greater appreciation of local faith groups as sources of trust and social cohesion for people facing social and economic challenges.

Dr Bock and Dr Everett are currently working on a manuscript that will add further depth and texture to  the “Trust in Crisis” report (the Executive Summary for which can be found here).

About the authors

Dr Jan-Jonathan Bock is Junior Research Fellow at the Woolf Institute and Research Associate at St Edmund’s College, the University of Cambridge



Dr Sami Everett is Junior Research Fellow at the Woolf Institute and Research Associate at St Edmund’s College, the University of Cambridge



Note: This piece gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Religion and the Public Sphere blog, or of the London School of Economics.