When the pandemic hit in March 2020, we experienced vividly both the immense potential and the deep fragility of civil society. On the one hand, we saw the negative impacts of enforced isolation and the curtailment of people’s freedoms, but we also saw an upsurge in community activism, mutual aid and social solidarity in often innovative ways – both civil society’s strengths and weaknesses were exacerbated and put under the microscope, and food banks were at the centre of that. Yet the growth of food banks tells us something about not just the strength of civil society but also its boundaries and limits. Food bank volunteers are the best of us – and yet they are providing a service they should never be expected to provide.
Civil society is fundamentally about what we owe to one another, and the shared values which underpin those relationships. When I think of civil society, I think of values like compassion, dignity and community and the institutions which reflect these values in our lives. In responding to the pandemic last year and the current cost of living crisis, food banks embody these values in so many ways – in their service to their communities and in the spirit of voluntarism which aims to leave no one behind. The volunteers who run them are the very best of our country and our society. Yet paradoxically, the existence and growth of food banks represents a societal failure to embed these values in practice. For every food parcel delivered there is a compassionate volunteer but an uncompassionate system.
The growth of food banks puts into focus where the boundaries of civil society should lie – it asks us to consider the role of individuals, society and the role of the government respectively. The big question at food banks is, can we continue like this? And more importantly, should we be expected to?
The signs of the normalisation of emergency food are already with us. During the pandemic both civil society and government in many ways stepped up to the challenge – yes, we had a burgeoning of community support, food banks and mutual aid, but we also had the Universal Credit uplift and the furlough scheme. It is notable now that it is only the civil society response which is making its presence felt in responding to the cost of living crisis, and we are not seeing the same scale of government action which could make such a difference to people on the lowest incomes.
This is in many ways the tension at the heart of what civil society means. It means being there for your neighbour or your community, and building the institutions to deliver this support, but in doing so we can risk normalising the very injustices civil society seeks to combat. What civil society means and the role it must play is no abstract question; it is people’s livelihoods and dignity that are on the line.
Perhaps some social problems are not the responsibility of civil society alone, and in expecting it to rise to the challenge we allow our political leaders to abdicate their responsibilities. We also become a less civil society and a more divided one in the process. The unacceptable growth in the need for food banks underlines this reality particularly starkly.