The Self Help Movement in Australia in the 1990s

Written by Sue Nash, for Community Quarterly, Melbourne, Winter 1999.

Self help is about people coming together with others who are affected by a particular issue (experience, disadvantage, discrimination, etc) to support each other and to work together to change the disadvantage affecting them. Activities that groups do include community education, information, mutual support, research, services and advocacy.

Self help groups are not charity or simply community based groups. They are made of and controlled by the people affected. Group members are not volunteers. Although the work is usually unpaid, members work to change their own situation and the support is mutual.

The term ‘self help’ is used internationally to describe this way of working. However, it is also used in other ways including ‘self help books’ , which are about people helping themselves, and ‘self help groups’ run by medical people to teach patients ways to manage health conditions.

Throughout history, people have formed groups with others who have something in common with them, and oppressed people have joined together to overcome the conditions they face. Self help groups, as we know them, go back at least to the 1930s, when Alcoholics Anonymous started.

The 1970s saw a significant number of groups identifying as ‘self help groups’ . Funding for community groups became available after the election of the Whitlam Government in 1972. The Victorian Council Of Social Service convened a forum on self help and auspiced the group that became the Collective Of Self Help Groups (COSHG). The Brotherhood of St Laurence opened the Action Resource Centre1, and numerous articles about self help appeared in journals. 2

The self help movement became well established in the 1980s, and Ross House, the building for self help and community groups, opened.

While self help groups have distinct characteristics, the philosophies of the self help movement overlap with various other ways of working. Community Development, which became established as a discipline in the late 1980s, shares the concept of empowerment. An example of the use of self help groups in community development was practised at the Fitzroy Community Health Centre. The workers facilitated small groups which, rather than being controlled by the workers, enabled participants to become involved in working to address disadvantages. 3 Others ways of working which shared some of the self help movement’s ideals and practices included Neighbourhood Houses, LETS, co-operatives, District Health Councils and the Poverty Action Project.

COSHG workers believed that groups were broadening their focus:-

At first, groups saw their members as having the ‘problem’ . They saw that each individual had a problem which they could deal with by joining the group. Members of the group gave support to each other and gained strength from this process. More recently, self help groups themselves have grown from their experiences in working in a broader movement. Now they are more likely to see the problems they experience as a result of the way society works. Self help groups now put more emphasis on changing the reasons for the situation of their members.

An important issue for self help groups is that they are controlled by their members. One of the reasons for self help groups forming was their members dissatisfaction with authorities (particularly the medical profession, and in earlier times the Church) having all the say on what was good for people’s well-being. Maintaining control is not always easy.

Funding tends to a two edged sword for self help groups and sometimes results in their autonomy being eroded. To get funding, a group puts in a ‘submission’ , which usually means ‘ submitting’ to some conditions. 4 Some groups start with no funding and manage for years without any money apart form what they raise from memberships and cake stalls and so on. They then get funding and employ people, rent office space, provide services, etc. Funding becomes vital, the ability to exist without funding is lost and so is the freedom to make decisions without deference to funding bodies.

Relationships between self help groups and professionals often present a challenge. Many health self help groups have worked extremely hard to win the respect of medical people. Sometimes professionals ‘take over’ help groups. In the 1980s, there was to be a national forum on self help organised by professionals who restricted self help groups’ involvement. After some protests from groups which were being excluded, the conference was renamed a conference on ‘co-caring’. 5

Self help is now a world wide movement. There are self help ‘clearing houses’ or networks in many countries 6 and an international conference on self help was held in Tel Aviv in June 1999. In Australian capital cities, there are six centres of self help. All the Australian centres are different. The Collective Of Self Help Groups (COSHG), in Victoria, sees self help as essentially bound up with the peace, environment, feminist, gay and indigenous rights movements. Some state centres have more links with the health and welfare sectors.

The state centres have very limited resources for reaching rural and isolated groups, many of which do not have contact with other groups and are unaware that the ‘self help movement’ exists.

In Victoria, the practice of self help is still thriving. There are at least 1000 self help groups in the state. However during the nineties, the ability of these groups to interact, co-operate and be a self help movement has been greatly eroded. A major blow to the movement was the withdrawal or reduction of funding to many self help projects in 1992. COSHG, which had been a widely known and respected centre of self help in Victoria since 1976 was totally defunded.

Following defunding, COSHG did not attempt to represent the self help movement, but focused on maintaining a resource centre and equipment that was shared and controlled by self help and social action groups. Anger, idealism and determination got this venture off the ground. The work was unpaid and those involved deliberately focused on social action and eschewed any referral, counselling and resourcing of students and professionals. These tasks were seen as work that should be someone’s job, and to do them unpaid would have been colluding with the Government’s defunding of organisations and encouraging the replacement of community development workers with volunteers. The COSHG resource centre was maintained for five years – a remarkable achievement!

Since 1997, COSHG has been in ‘chrysalis’ form, providing information on contacting and starting groups. The Collective now has a core group of four who meet over a meal once a month, and one person doing the day to day work. While still acting as a clearing house, COSHG is obviously not an umbrella group – being smaller than most of the self help groups that might need an umbrella to shelter under.

Apart from the defunding of COSHG, there have been many other set backs to the self help movement in Victoria in the 1990s:-

  • A number of places (such as the NOW Centre and the Disability Resources Centre) which once provided access to equipment have closed.
  • Groups often have a problem getting people to take on responsibilities. Many people say that this has been exacerbated as the quality of life for members has deteriorated. Hardships (including working increasing long hours or not having a wage at all) preclude some people from contributing unpaid work to the self help movement.
  • Liberal Government funding is directed towards organisations that provide services or charity and not to those which work for a fairer distribution of wealth. Many groups that lobby for a better deal for their members have been defunded. In 1997, most disability advocacy groups and public tenants associations lost their funding. Some self help groups have expanded and now provide extensive services (which attract funding) and also maintain a self help component. A few groups have stopped doing self help altogether and become ‘agencies’ run by people who are not themselves affected by the issue. Sometimes changes in focus are reflected in name changes. A number of groups have dropped words like Society, Club and Action Group from their names in favour of Council or Foundation. Currently short names, like …………….. Victoria are popular.

While there are many challenges, there are also reasons for optimism. There are still many groups that continue to do great work, find creative ways to live with nineties’ trends and still maintain their integrity. Other groups, including the twelve step groups, refuse funding and thus avoid upheavals with each change of government. These groups continue quietly doing their work, with Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, having about 300 active groups in Victoria. There are many new groups being started, and some large health organisations have a staff member who helps people start groups that fit the organisation’s guidelines. Internet access is providing some groups with a way to network with people overseas or to involve people who do not have the mobility to attend meetings.

There are a number of organisations that are not self help groups, but allies in working for a more equitable society. While working the COSHG Directory, we have found ourselves grappling with listing organisations that do not fit into a category, but are making a great contribution to achieving the aims of the self help movement as we see it. These groups are independent of funding and thus have scope to act fearlessly and develop new and creative ways of working. Some examples are Friends Of The Earth, Community Radio 3CR, LETS (Local Exchange and Trading Systems), Heart Politics 7 and Grasslands 8. The variety of ways of working make the nineties an exciting as well as challenging time for the self help movement.

The self help movement is here to stay. The question is, do we (people involved in self help) wait for more favourable times, believing that the pendulum must swing? Or can the self help movement be a significant force for making change happen?