Organisation overdose

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How many more community organisations are likely to mushroom, simply as a salve for personal egos, asks TANVEER AHMED

Is there anyone out there in the South Asian community who has not started their own organisation yet?

Barely a week goes by when I don’t notice a new Indian association claiming to better represent Indians, or a Bangladeshi group assured of its greater legitimacy within the community. They are almost universally, projects driven by men of my parents’ generation, often as they head into semi-retirement within their paid careers.

Ethnic community organisations play a valuable role in the multicultural landscape. They provide a meeting point for many new migrants. They allow for a renewal and transmission of cultural content from our ancestries and allow for latter generations to have exposure to the culture of their parents.

(I should add at this point, however, local community organisations have usually been very poor at channelling creative content from their children or thinking about how their activities might be modernized).

The organisations can provide an important conduit between the broader community and ethnic groups. For example, many MPs look towards community associations to gain a sense of how important constituents like say, Indians in Parramatta, are thinking about key issues.

In fact, barely a decade ago, associations like the Bangladeshi Association of New South Wales would give critical advice about how refugee applicants should be processed by the government. This was stopped when it became clear that local community leaders were abusing their authority and advising of residency often on spurious grounds.

Community organisations can also receive funding from the government, be it to undertake services on behalf of the government – bilingual aged carers are an example – or run programs as they see fit.

So there is little doubt that they are useful.

But at what point is their usefulness destroyed by the constant battling of egos determined to claim for themselves the supposed glory of their own association? For example, within the Bangladeshi community there are several examples of new associations being begun by ex-members of more established ones almost entirely because they weren’t elected Presidents of the original groups. To make matters worse, the new ones often copied the names of the old ones and tried to usurp funding as a result.

I have heard of similar trends within other ethnic community groups as well.

Competition can be useful, particularly in business, but among community groups where united views are critical in influencing the decision makers, it can be fatal.

One of the biggest problems with this kind of behaviour is that it condemns our communities to being ineffective when it comes to lobbying with the government or other organisations. The major Indian associations in Sydney are often wooed by MPs and business for they see the growing numbers of South Asians as well as the rise of India more broadly, but they are probably the exception, and not the rule.

As a psychiatrist, I can’t help but think some of this behaviour is a kind of hypermasculinity in the face of a feeling of lower status in the wider community. Most elders in the community occupied jobs of much lower status while living in Australia, when compared to what they were likely to have achieved back home. This is one of the sacrifices of migration, undertaking jobs of lower status to ensure the following generation can prosper. My impression is that much of the grandstanding and power-broking that goes on in ethnic community groups, usually inconsequential and trivial in any broader sense, is more about creating a space where powerless, somewhat humiliated men, attempt to exert themselves as men of status, power and influence.

This is of even greater significance when you consider that the organisations are likely to die out with their founders, given that the children who grow up in Australia have shown little interest in getting involved in what can appear as silly and pointless community politics.

It will only hurt us into the future. As more and more issues arise where expatriate communities can influence governments and business into making decisions that favour our communities, the less and less likely we will be in a position to make it happen.

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