Mary McManus has been working in the advice sector for 21 years and for the past 13 years has been director of East Belfast Independent Advice Centre. She is the current chair of Advice NI, the regional membership organisation for Independent Advice Centres. Through her current work, Mary is keenly aware of the need for economic change to improve the lives of people in poverty and is interested in Community Wealth Building as a means to bring about change.
In my work, in an inner-city advice centre, I feel I am constantly dealing with symptoms of much larger problems and I wanted to understand what these problems were.
For example, it was reported that we had full employment in NI, which sounds very positive. It has also been continually reported that the economy was recovering and growing over the past number of years. Some even saying that we were out of recession. However, in my work I could see that people were struggling and that we were sending more and more people to Food Banks. What people were presenting with in the advice centre did not match all the positive news that was being reported.
I had known Tony for a while, and he had told me about the economics course he taught in the community in Dublin. I thought it was a great idea and that we needed courses like this in Belfast. Aditya Chakrabortty’s article about a community economics courses in Manchester strengthened my resolve that we needed our own course here.
Since the banking crisis in 2008 we have had a policy of austerity. The voluntary and community sector continually deals with the ‘side effects’ of this policy. We have witnessed growing poverty and people being treated by the government in ways that I could never have imagined prior to 2008. In my work, I see how the social security system subjects people to conscious cruelty. We have Food Banks, and the numbers using them continue to grow. Yet, there is no outcry from the sector or from civic society.
I have long asked myself why this is. I think some people believed, and continue to believe, what the coalition government told us in 2010; that there was/is no other way and that we all needed to ‘tighten our belts.’ Others may think that bringing about change is impossible.
Increasing economic literacy will help people to see that there is nothing natural about the way things are. It is a system; there have been different systems; but this one is not working for the many. Most importantly there are alternatives.
I hope that economic literacy will give people the confidence to discuss economic policy with their elected representatives and to hold them to account. I hope it will help people to believe that they can have legitimate ideas about how the economy can work. It does not have to be left to the so-called experts. Lastly, I hope it will encourage people to understand that they can take action in their own communities that will contribute to a better local economic strategy.
All four course sessions were very enjoyable and stimulating. Tony prepared material that allowed us to understand the current economic system. It made economics come to life and demystified terms such as ‘externalities.’ It also prompted some great discussions among the group.
The group was mostly made up of women working in the community in some way, and one man from the private sector. Everyone had something to contribute from their own experience of the economy.
There were some great lightbulb moments, especially when we did the session on the creation of money and some people realised that not only does the ‘money tree’ exist, but there are in fact two!
All seven participants who completed the sessions felt that their understanding of economics has improved as a result of the course. On those four Friday afternoons, the meeting room of the East Side Partnership felt like an oasis where we were learning together and having great discussions about the issues that really matter.
The feedback from the course tells us that people really valued the opportunity to learn about economics and feel that this is essential in bringing about change for the better. Tony and I hope to run another pilot in Belfast building on the learning from this course. For example, the people who did the last course felt that the sessions could have been longer, more targeted and could have taken place in the evening. We will take these suggestions on board for our next course. Ultimately, we would like to see this kind of course widely available. We have made contact with an organisation in England who run this kind of course and Tony has links with Maynooth University. After our next set of sessions, we hope to develop a plan of how we can make community economics courses more widely available.