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Agenda: Time to celebrate communities for their work in tackling inequality

When I was a child I was aware my gran was someone of whom I should be proud.

She died young but, in her own small way, left a big legacy. On my granddad's wall hung the "Good Neighbour Award" created in his late wife's honour. Since then, more than 30 people have been recognised as unsung local heroes in the community she called home.

In today's society, in which poverty is often something for us to watch on reality television, it is easy to think the concept of community is a thing of the past. It's not.

One of my first acts as the new Head of Oxfam Scotland was to visit two of our inspiring local partners, a foodshare project and an organisation for the long-term unemployed. Both have deep community links.

At a time when more than 870,000 Scots live in poverty, despite many having jobs, these organisations are a beacon of community solidarity by which politicians at all levels should set their compass. This sort of re-direction is badly needed to deal with growing inequality in society.

Across the UK, just five families own the same as the poorest 20% of the population. Worldwide, the richest 85 people own the same between them as half the world's population. Some inequality is necessary for the economy to operate effectively, but not on this scale. In Scotland, in 2012 the richest 10% of households were 273 times richer than the poorest 10%.

More people don't even have enough to eat. The West Dunbartonshire Community Foodshare acts as a lifeline for some of them. It is staffed by volunteers, including former whisky industry worker Jimmy Comrie. When I met him, he was returning from a donation point at a local supermarket. The pile of bags in the back of his van highlighted the scale of community-wide concern.

Inside, volunteers prepared the "standard" food parcel: one can of soup; tins of beans, meatballs and potatoes; a bag of pasta; a jar of sauce; a mini box of cereal and a pack of tea bags. When I asked how long it should last I was told roughly a week, though those with children are offered more. People take only what they need and some reject items if they require more than a kettle for cooking.

All the while, our politicians battle to dodge the blame and capture the public's trust and votes.

The volunteers running these outlets deserve better, to hear that the increasing gulf between the "rich" and the "poor" is unacceptable.

This is the result of political decisions and it can be reversed, if the political will exists. Simply mitigating the immediate consequences of poverty cannot be a long-term solution.

At the social enterprise GalGael in Govan, traditional wood-working skills are deployed to carve out a better future for some of those left behind by an economy that simply fails to create enough decent jobs.

Worryingly, the manager tells me that, since Christmas, there has been a surge in the number of people who say they have thought about suicide. A growing number have had their benefits suspended or "sanctioned".

These are men and women, often with mental health or addiction issues, who are prepared to work, unpaid, to improve their chances of paid employment. Donnie, 61, was unemployed for five years when he walked into GalGael last year.

After his employer of 37 years went bust, Donnie was laid off, his marriage fell apart and his mental health suffered. Seven months on, his renewed self confidence is palpable.

"This place has made me the person I should have been 10 years ago", he said as he finished an intricately carved jewellery box, adding: "I always had the skills. I just hadn't used them in a long time."

We're told the outcome of the next UK General Election hangs on whether the so-called green shoots of economic recovery thrive or wither. For too many, they've yet to break the surface. Until they do, our communities are doing their bit, as they always have.

It's time their efforts were rewarded with political leadership. Now, that really would justify a Good Neighbour Award; one of which we could all be proud.

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