Home as a site for civil society and global development

Date: 26 October 2020

Author: Dr Sarah Peck, University of Northumbria

Photo by author (2020). Artwork by Jo Peel.

The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown new light on our working spaces, and the role, suitability and function of the home as space of work. This focus on the home as a workspace emphasises some of the racialised, gendered and class-based inequalities embedded within our society, of who is able to work within the ‘protection’ and ‘relative safety’ of their home environment, and who must go out to work.

The home can be a place of restriction, containment and violence. During Covid-19 there have been concerns about increasing levels of domestic violence and abuse and the way this is being portrayed.

As in other sectors, many civil society and voluntary sector organisations increased their virtual operations and use of home workspaces. They remain vital actors in broader global development practices.

In her 2015 book ‘Spaces of Aid’, Lisa Smirl discusses how aid and humanitarianism occurs through physical spaces such as SUVs, gated communities and hotels and the ways in which these material environments have shaped how aid is understood, planned and delivered. These spaces, she argues contribute to how people imagine development processes. We need to add to this list the home as a key site through which the global development industry operates, particularly in the context of the connections between the home and civil society.

The relative neglect of the home within civil society and global development thinking should be understood in the Eurocentric, racialised and gendered context of the discipline. Within wider literatures Black and feminist scholars have reconsidered the importance of the home, with bell hooks reclaiming it as a site of Black women’s resistance and Nancy Fraser in her feminist critique of Habermas’ public sphere articulating the need to acknowledge the importance of private spaces for associational life.

The home then, as Katherine Brickell contends can be understood as an extraordinary political space, showing both the ways in which political forces shape our lives but also as an arena in which political identities can be formed.

Our public, private and political worlds flow through our homes and are shaped by them. Covid-19 has sharpened the focus on the home as a site of the political and has emphasised how it reflects inequalities and injustices.

The importance of the home as a site for civic activity was apparent in my research into civil society and sustainable development in the Eastern Caribbean islands of Barbados and Grenada. The project, completed in 2018, intended to think about the everyday lived experiences of civil society actors.

It was clear that even prior to Covid-19 the home was key for many civil society activists. Civil society around the world has been fundamental in the context of Covid-19, from disseminating public health information to delivery of food and medication to holding states to account over their handling of the pandemic.

The work done by civil society groups has taken them out of the home as they seek to engage with and represent marginalised, discriminated against and vulnerable communities. This activity outside of the home is likely to have been complimented by a greater increase in working from home, as access to offices, meeting spaces and forums have been restricted. In the following discussion pseudonyms are used to maintain anonymity.

For many civil society actors home is a space of productivity, where they can think, write and plan. Home for many was the site in which project proposals were laid out, grant funding bids completed, and constitutions drawn up. Home also plays a crucial role in building relationships and trust with other members of the community and being at home represents being embedded within the community they are representing.

Activists told me how important it was that their constituents knew where they lived and could come to their house at any time. One of the civil society actors I talked to used her home and garden as a test site for organic agricultural techniques that would then, if successful, be used in the wider community. Her home then was a site through which development practices were forged and shaped. Community members and volunteers would work on these techniques, coming in and out of her house for lunch, chats and rest breaks.

In this example, home was a site in which new forms of development could be tried out and discussed. Home also has the potential to place civil society actors in the heart of the community, symbolised by being welcomed into the homes of others. Trevor, the Founder of a Grenadian CSO stressed the importance of home to his position in the community. He demonstrates that he is part of the community, he is working for the community and he is inclusive of the community views.

‘Over the years you build up a certain amount of trust. I don’t have a house I have a bad relationship with. I can knock on every door and feel comfortable and go and sit down and that had [to be] developed – it is not instant.’ (7 March 2016).

For some civil society actors home was entangled with exclusionary, restrictive and reductive processes. Their homes were not equipped with the space, digital equipment or connectivity required to engage fully in civic activity. This is likely to be more pronounced with increased socio-economic insecurity and represents an exclusionary side of home-based civic activity that is likely to have been exacerbated by Covid-19.

Some of the civil society actors I spoke to felt their home was not a space in which they could be productive, they were unable to hold meetings there or to think clearly about the goals and objectives of their work.

The home as a space of restriction was obvious in my conversation with Keith, the Founder of a Grenadian CSO. I met him at his home, as we sat on the balcony, he discussed some of the challenges of civil society work.

‘We don’t have a community centre in [here]. To have this interview you come to my home…A physical meeting place we don’t have that’ (23 February 2016).

Keith highlights the limits of provision for community activities in his locality and directly links this with difficulty in harnessing civic activity. The lack of a physical meeting space in the form of a community centre directly impacts on the participatory, visible and inclusive nature aimed at through much civic activity.

A reliance on home spaces has the potential to re-create existing power imbalance and exclusionary possibilities. This idea of home as restrictive was also apparent in a conversation with another civil society actor who saw the home as a potential site of oppression and as a space through which your activities could be monitored.

Home, for some civil society actors I spoke to, was understood in relation to a homeland and processes of returning home. A few of the civil society groups I engaged with were run by Grenadians and Barbadians who had spent time away from home and on their return had channelled their energies into civil society activity. They saw this as a way of embedding themselves back in the Caribbean, and a chance to be part of island life and ecology.

For others entering into civil society, activity was a way of returning to their community, of giving something back and an opportunity to see home from a different perspective. One of the civil society actors I spoke to had spent some time in Canada, she then returned to the Caribbean and set up her own CSO.

The activities of this group were about drawing on aspects of her experience overseas and a desire to reimagine her homeland. This return to home offered an opportunity for these civil society actors to (re)establish a new political identity for themselves within their communities.

These brief examples have intended to think about the intersections between home, civil society and global development. They have shown that home within global development processes can be thought of as a physical entity and also as something that is imagined and spatially extensive. Home for civil society actors working in development is a space in which alternative modes of development can be rehearsed and where new political identities can be forged but it is also an arena of exclusion and restriction.

The Covid-19 pandemic has reimagined the home as a workspace for some, but for civil society actors home has always held a particular relevance. This emphasis on the home challenges the more normative ideas about civil society as the public sphere, the professionalisation of civil society and home as a space of political insignificance.

Dr Sarah Peck is an Early Career Leverhulme Fellow at the Centre for International Development, University of Northumbria. Her current research project is: Deterritorialised responsibilities: Everyday diasporic life, civic space and global development.