Last month, we attended the International Federation of Settlements conference in Helsinki – learning from colleagues and celebrating the power of community with neighbourhood settlements around the world.

Democracy – is it in danger?

People on stage at the IFS conference

The theme of the conference was ‘Democracy – is it in danger?’ We discussed the rise of populism, the distorting effect of social media, and the marginalisation of minority groups. We heard stories from many countries all facing a similar set of challenges:  the erosion of spaces for public debate and participation; growing social and economic divides, driving communities apart; a rising feeling of powerlessness and lack of control.

Given these topics, it could have been a very pessimistic experience indeed, but we came away uplifted (and not just because of the nearly constant daylight hours in Finland this time of year!).

Our optimism is because while democracy faces many threats, we have the power in our communities to defend it. This is the spirit behind the IFS Declaration of Democracy which we signed up to at the conference. Neighbourhood settlements are the training ground of democracy, building participation and providing routes for people to organise for change in their community.

In the U.K. the instabilities in our current democratic model are clear. Representative democracy has dominated our democratic experience for too long and we have become too used to traditional hierarchies of power.

The EU referendum was widely recognised as an expression of just how deep our democratic deficit goes, and the lack of agency and control that people feel they have over their lives. It is clear that we need a renaissance in participatory democracy and a commitment to building democracy from the ground up. But we also need a social infrastructure capable of delivering this.

Doing more to put communities in control

We have explored these challenges through Locality’s recent Future Places work, as well as our Localism Commission’s report ‘People Power.’ At the IFS conference we delivered two workshops to share learning from the Locality network about how to build power in our communities, and also learn and discuss different models and mechanisms for local power in other countries.

We had some particularly interesting discussions on how community organisations themselves can do better at putting communities in control. Community engagement is obviously core in so many organisations– but we also spoke of the dangers of complacency.

As one neighbourhood settlement put it ‘we shouldn’t always assume we know best as established organisations, otherwise we will be a block to engagement.’ Sometimes we need to recognise power hierarchies that we ourselves play a part in.

Others spoke of the challenges of balancing service delivery with advocacy. For some organisations, advocacy is expressly prohibited through contracts with the state. For others, they spoke of the difficulties of maintaining relationships with funders while also campaigning for change.

Organisations that have years of experience of balancing and negotiating local politics and public sector relationships have worked hard to become the ‘voice of reason’ – to advocate for greater investment in local social programmes. But in being that ‘voice of reason’ they must not lose their ability to challenge or be disruptive when it’s needed.

Community development is vital for the health of democracy

Like so many organisations in the Locality network, community organising is an important mechanism of community engagement for neighbourhood settlements around the world. It allows space to discuss issues as they come up from within the community – rather than purely tackling the issues that present themselves within service delivery.

Community development remains central to the health of our democracy. Despite funding pressures and challenges to independence, neighbourhood settlements continue to prioritise involvement, voice and participation in everything they do. That is why it is inspiring to be part of this global movement. Is democracy in danger? Absolutely. But we have the power in our communities to defend it.

Watch our video on the Declaration of Democracy to find out more.