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What is Self Help?

If you want to print this, it will take several pages. The following is the text of a booklet produced by COSHG. We hope that it will be useful if you are interested in self help or if you are doing study or research. If you want to quote from the booklet, please give credit to the COSHG people who wrote and published it, by acknowledging where you got this material from. That is:

What is Self Help?
by the Collective Of Self Help Groups, Melbourne 1992

Table of Contents

1. History

It is usual for people to form groups with others who have something in common with them. Throughout history, oppressed people have joined together in order to overcome the conditions they face.

However, self help groups are seen as a relatively recent addition to the sorts of groups which exist in the health/welfare/social services area. Most people trace self help to the setting up of groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, Disabled Motorists and the Combined Pensioners Association who have been around for quite a few years.

Many other groups did exist at the same time, and before these, such as the suffragettes. Their low key nature and informality mean that they are not entered in history books or talked about in schools. Sometimes the groups are ridiculed and their work played down. And sometimes, people have simply forgotten them. So self help groups have been around for some time, but they have only recently been recognised as a movement.

There has been great development within the self help movement. New groups appear all the time, they learn from others, and join together to make themselves stronger. At first, groups took the view that it was their members who had 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.

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2. Membership

The membership of self help groups is one of the things which makes them different from other sorts of groups.

Members of self help groups share a common condition or life circumstance. Group members work together to overcome the difficulties they experience. Those directly affected are the ones who control the activities and priorities of the group.

This makes self help groups different from traditional welfare and charity organisations. In these organisations, those people being ' helped' are not those in control of the show. The difficulties experienced by self help group members represent disadvantage and discrimination. The disadvantage they experience means a number of things:

* their needs are not being met
* often their needs cannot be met by the existing services or organisations who are supposed to provide their needs
* community attitudes cause discrimination for them
*they do not have power over the decisions which affect their lives, or the resources they need to live full lives

In practical terms this means that some people do not have the same access to goods and services, or the same opportunities to take part in the usual life of the community. Basic necessities like food, housing, clothing, income and fun are not equally available to all people.

So self help groups work to give power back to their members. This means they challenge the way that society is built and the way it works to benefit only some people.

Self help groups are not just consumers of goods and services. They are not happy with being defined by their need to get access to the basics of life. They do not accept that they are ' clients' , ' patients' , or ' welfare recipients' . They question their role in society, and question the way that society is organised.

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3. Structure

There is a wide variety of ways in which self help groups organise themselves, but there are general principles which they usually follow as part of their philosophy.

They are generally small groups which emphasise face to face contact. All members of groups are able to be involved in the activities as they choose. Groups often set up other ' branches' or satellite groups to keep this intimacy and participation.

Core groups of members may work in their homes. Despite their own survival needs, they assist other people who are 'in the same boat' . Membership is open and people move freely in and out of groups, when they need support and have the energy to put into the group.

At the same time, there is a broader ' reference group' of people who benefit directly and indirectly from self help groups. These people use groups' services, advice, support, and information. They benefit from the campaigns and community education done by the groups.

However, self help groups also recognise that there is strength in numbers. They join together to form groups for this reason. A number of groups also will get together to learn from each other or push together for some change they see as important.

In all these relationships, self help groups approach each other as equals. Because members have all experienced the same or a similar condition, they do not see anyone as ' better' than anyone else. No-one is just a ' helper ' or just a ' client' , ' target' or ' patient' .

But this co-operative working does not come easy. Many of us have had no experience working in these ways before because we have not been seen as equals. We must relearn how we relate to other people, and learn new ways of doing things. We must also learn to trust each other, to rely on each other, and to respect each other' s ability to make decisions. We have to learn to work collectively, to make group decisions rather than doing it by ourselves alone. We have to learn to share experiences, knowledge and skills. We also have to learn to accept our mistakes and failures.

Self help groups are quite clearly about personal development and social change as part and parcel of the same process. The difficulties they must overcome as individuals and as groups are major. Their focus on the way they do things as well as the end product also makes them different from most other organisations.

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4. Activities

The things that self help groups do are as varied as the issues they are formed to deal with. These activities are determined by the members of the group rather than from outside people. They are aimed at reducing or softening the effects of disadvantage on their lives, and on changing the causes of the disadvantage. Activities include:

  • Community Education
    Self help groups educate the wider community by using media to argue the case for a self help perspective, by talking with individuals and other groups about self help issues, and by exposing the underlying factors which cause problems.
  • Information
    Information is provided through leaflets, posters, telephone, and face to face. The information from self help groups is different from other information because it comes from the point of view of people who have lived through the experience. The answers to problems, and the short cuts they have discovered are invaluable to other people.
  • Research
    Again this is from the point of view of self help members. Research carried out by self help groups is more often ' action research' , where the results will be used by people to their benefit rather than to further the careers of professional researchers. Mutual support This is done by peers who have an emotional under standing of the issues rather than an academic or intellectual understanding. This aspect of self help groups is usually seen as the only thing they do. While it is often the initial reason for people getting together to form a group, support is only one of the functions of self help groups.
  • Services
    These are provided where, how and by people selected by the users of those services. This direct accountability to the people who use the service is an essential difference between self help and other organisations. The services provided by self help groups can include material assistance as well as less obvious things.
  • Advocacy
    Finally, this is an integral part of the work of self help groups. Groups campaign for changes in their situation by pushing government, or institutions/ agencies to improve their game. This may be by writing letters, making deputations, holding demonstrations or more exotic activities depending on the imaginations of those involved. Generally, self help groups undertake all these functions, and they may start out as one sort of group and then move on to other activities and other goals.
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5. Purpose

These activities are done to achieve a range of ends. As mentioned above, most groups are concerned about both personal and social change on a broader level. Self help groups usually know these are both interconnected, and need to be going on at the same time.

Other goals of groups include long and short term strategies. The immediate concerns might be to overcome the practical obstacles which affect members' lives. Longer term aims might be to change the community attitudes which allow some people to suffer disadvantage while others benefit greatly from the way things are.

Groups try to prevent problems and change the causes at different levels. Some groups are working on issues which most people would see as problems. For example, unemployment is seen as causing problems for many people, and a number of groups are working to prevent specific problems or reduce their effects.

However, they also work to reveal the real causes and prevent blaming of those people without an adequate income. In this way they aim to prevent the worsening of the problems, and prevent blaming the victims of the problem for its existence.

Groups are also working on showing the community about future problems they see coming but which are not yet recognised generally. In another sense, self help groups work on making structural changes to society to stop problems continuing, or stop them happening in the first place, or to stop the reasons for the problem existing. Self help groups, then, are about dealing with causes rather than symptoms. They want more than a temporary disappearance of the problem, or a cover up.

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6. Philosophy

Given this approach, self help is about people gaining power over their lives when they previously have not had control over the decisions which affect them. Individual growth and collective strength are about transferring power (resources, information, opportunities) to t he powerless.

This is based on the idea that all people irrespective of their sex, disability, age, sexuality, ethnic background, health condition, unemployment or low income, should have equal access and opportunities within the community.

It is also based on the principle that people define themselves rather than being described and categorised by their needs and the role given to them by others, e.g. 'patient' or ' client' . People in self help groups develop their own personal identity according to their own ideas and the way they see themselves.

Similarly, self help groups see the problem as being part of society and not the problem of each individual. Rather, they recognise that the individuals who are the victims of the system are also used as scapegoats and blamed for things over which they have no control. Involvement in self help groups implies working to gain control over our lives and our future so that this process does not continue. It means a commitment to the rights of people rather than giving crumbs to the ' deserving' .

Self help proposes an alternative way of organising society which does not discriminate against people on arbitrary grounds. It proposes a society where changes come from the ' real world' , or grassroots rather than being imposed from above.

This approach has been described as ' bubble up' instead of ' trickle down' . It suggests a different way of looking at the world, and a different way of making changes.

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7. Self help is not. . .

A number of things were mentioned above as being different from self help.

Self help is not the same as welfare or charity because it is when people work to change things that directly affect them, not other people. It isn't victim blaming because it focuses on the causes of the problem or situation rather than the people who experience it. It is not consumerism because disadvantaged people are not only users of goods and services: they have particular needs which they should expect to have satisfied.

Self help is often confused with other approaches. Some of these are important to mention because they result in big problems for self help groups. Self help groups are not just ' community based ' groups. They do have some things in common with those groups. Both sorts of groups are not part of government or for-profit business. So their aims are different, and they are more accountable to the specific parts of the community who are most affected.

But self help groups also consist of those people directly affected by the situation. For example, people with disabilities may form a group to overcome their disadvantages. This self help group is different from a similar community based group which is made up of, and controlled by people who do not have a disability themselves.

Most members of self help groups are also unpaid for their work in the group. But this does not mean they are ' volunteers ' . Volunteers work to give assistance to others who are seen to be in need, while self help groups work to support and change their own situation.

However, self help does not mean ' pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps' . It does not mean disadvantaged people using their meagre resources to do it all by themselves. Self help means those people gaining the resources to better their situation and prevent the same thing happening to others.

The logical place for these resources to come from is government. The role of government should be to shift resources from those well off areas and people, to those disadvantaged by the system as a whole. Government also has a responsibility to ensure that those resources are provided in an efficient way direct to those people who need them, rather than through intermediaries and ' middle people' .

However, many people see self help as a way government can get a whole lot of things from those most disadvantaged, for nothing or very cheaply . It is true that self help is efficient because it is not top heavy with administration, and because its work is determined by those people who know from their own lives what is needed, how and where. But, self help also means that these things must be paid for.

Self help groups have extreme difficulty doing their work when they do not have adequate resources, and the needs of their members are so great. It is unjust and ridiculous to expect disadvantaged people to change their lives without the resources that other people automatically have.

Self help is not ' helping yourself ' . It is not about people using self help groups to set themselves up to be better off than everyone else. It is not about putting those at the bottom of the heap up to the top of it.

Rather, self help is when people work together to change the way the whole heap is set up, so that all people gain control over their lives.

Members of self help groups do, of course, gain skills, knowledge and experience. They benefit personally from their involvement--gaining confidence in themselves as well. But this confidence and power is directed towards ending the oppression they face as a group.

Self help is not self care or therapy . Self help groups do assist members to manage their personal situation or condition, but they are not set up and run by professionals as an addition to their services. Nor are they structured programs with an ' expert' who leads them. Self help groups are different from the so-called ' Self Help' guides. These usually take an individual approach to dealing with a problem or situation.

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8. Conclusion

Self help holds great potential for real changes because it focuses on those directly affected by disadvantage and discrimination. Self help is when these people gain power over their lives--over information, resources and decisions.

The challenge for the self help movement comes from those who would use self help for their own purposes, to control and limit the ability of groups to change this balance of power.

Individuals facing oppression join together and work collectively to overcome their disadvantage. In the same way, groups of disadvantaged people join together to meet this challenge.

This is self help.

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