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67. The Unités d’Action Communautaire

67.1. Short description

The Unités d’Action Communautaire are structures created by the Municipality of Geneva and they were implemented 10 years ago. Located in four neighbourhoods, they are managed by the social services of the city of Geneva. Their goals are diverse:

  • UAC are in charge of collecting information about the four areas where they are located. Proximity is a keyword of their action. They map resident’s needs, urban problems in safety, housing or public facilities. Diagnoses are made through everyday observation, involvement with residents and local statistics. This expertise aims to support the shaping of social policy and public decision at the end.
  • UAC are in charge of giving residents information about city services and opportunities they offer. UAC are rooted in the making of a new conception of social services in which social workers try to reach out to people in the areas where they live.
  • UAC are in charge of facilitating contacts between the associations/participants involved in the neighbourhood. They aim to reinforce the collective action in the area through a better coordination between participants.
  • UAC try to improve the density and quality of neighbourly relationships through coordination and networking (directly related to the above goals).

67.2. Conception and ways of addressing users

The UAC target individuals and NGOs involved in the area (in solidarity, in organisation of cultural activities, etc.) and does not directly work with vulnerable populations: in the UAC perspective, users are members of civil society and the latter is a welfare producer. The UAC aims to support the making and the organisation of this civil society through a better coordination of participants. Building a greater consistency of the diverse programmes, encouraging meetings and common projects and making the spreading of information easier are the main tasks of the UAC.

Moreover, this project is based on the idea that community work has to be based on a great knowledge of urban areas. Each UAC has a specific approach to the neighbourhood according to its characteristics. The UAC of Champel, a wealthy neighbourhood located outside the city centre, has developed a different approach to that used in the Jonction area. In doing so, the UAC acknowledge the diversity of the population’s needs and communities located in the neighbourhood.

Intensity of the NGOs’ and individuals’ involvement in collective action varies according to the neighbourhoods. In some of them, individuals such as caretakers for instance do fantastic work while it is less the case in other areas. One of the main strengths of the UAC is that they look at the micro level (V. S., Head of Social Services in the city of Geneva).

The UAC participants thus develop significant expertise in neighbourhood dynamics and this is helpful in the making of social policy. In a report for the managers of the social services, the UAC of the neighbourhood Jonction mentions the changes in the neighbourhood and especially the progressive gentrification in the north of the area: they also give information about how residents perceive these changes.

The UAC focus on the strengths and weaknesses of neighbourhoods in a matter of collective action and create a policy with the aim of fighting social isolation of vulnerable populations. The policy framework emphasises that collective action creates communities that favour the embeddedness of individuals into dense networks. To some extent, we again find the idea of stabilising communities that we highlighted in the ULT project.

67.3. Internal organisation and modes of working

The UAC is managed by the Department for Social Cohesion and Solidarity of the city of Geneva. They comprise 40 workers in the city as a whole and each UAC has a specific budget. The global budget of the UAC is quite important showing that they have been greatly supported by the city of Geneva. For instance, the salary of an employee of the UAC represents 120,000 Swiss francs per year (roughly 98,000 euros taxes included). Moreover, between 2004 and 2007, the city of Geneva founded important research regarding the work of the UAC. In Jonction, the team comprises four community workers. Finally, most of the UAC workers previously worked in another sector and they followed a specific certified training of 300 hours.

A first mode of working is the making of diagnoses of the neighbourhood dynamics such as the use of public spaces, housing maintenance, child care, public facilities, safety problems and evolution of the local population regarding socio-economic status. This expertise may support public decisions and relationships between politicians/policymakers and residents. Thus, in 2010, the UAC was in charge of preparing a report before a meeting organised in the neighbourhood. UAC participants used diverse methods: questionnaires, everyday observation (a strong side of the UAC), conversation with NGOs’ participants and residents, local statistics.

A second mode of working is related to the improvement of coordination between the diverse participants and NGOs involved in community action in the area. In doing so, the UAC workers collect information about collective action in the area, study the diverse emerging projects, they meet people and they favour contacts between all participants (NGOs and individuals) involved in the area. For instance, the UAC may support a group of inhabitants wishing to improve the quality of relationships in their building.

A third basic principle of the working culture in the UAC is that social workers should be more proactive in meeting populations needing assistance. Proximity is a key word in the UAC working culture as the Head of Social Services argues:

People working in the UAC are very different from social workers working in their offices and waiting for people who need their help. The main idea is that UAC professionals walk around to map the issues and the key-points of a neighbourhood. And then, they give people the information they need and they favour the making of social interrelations.

The UAC tries to develop new methods in order to be in touch with hard-to-reach groups. When the UAC were created, this approach – state workers on the ground – was definitely innovative in the local welfare context.

At the same time, the modes of working of the UAC are embedded in the Geneva tradition of subsidiarity in which initiatives from civil society are largely encouraged. Civil society put ideas forward and policymakers support them shaping a bottom-up process. The UAC appear as a tool enabling development and realisation of this principle of subsidiarity.

67.4. Interaction with the local welfare system

The UAC are directly related to a 2002 law on the reorganisation of social policy in the canton of Geneva. According to this law, the canton is in charge of individual measures (benefits, individualised support, home care, etc.) while the cities have to develop a community social policy. Following the law, the city of Geneva implemented the UAC, an original approach, which contrasts with the dominant individualised support of people and families. The UAC look at individuals in the urban environment and networks and clearly favour the shaping of stabilising communities able to improve social integration of individuals, which contrasts with the view of communities in some other welfare states: their significance is underestimated, they are associated with social segregation and they withdraw to their own small circle.

Nevertheless, implementation of the UAC in the local welfare state was quite difficult in the beginning. Although they have been clearly supported by the higher city management, local participants in the neighbourhoods were sometimes destabilised by the implementation of the UAC: some social workers were reluctant with respect to interventions differing from an individualised approach and some NGOs defending similar community values perceived the UAC as an attempt of policymakers to make their work more bureaucratic (Rossiaud 2007). Consequently, the UAC both have to prove their value added and make their goals clearer.

Another interaction with the local welfare system is also one of the limits of the UAC. Through this project, the city of Geneva encourages civil society self-organisation and offers significant subsidies to the NGOs. Thus, the UAC action significantly contributes to the proliferation of organisations in a specific field – isolation of elderly, assistance to migrants, etc. As the numbers of participants increase, they get into trouble coordinating and working together. According to the Head of Social Services, this is one the limits of the Geneva welfare system:

We have a very important number of participants in social policies. For instance, in a matter of assistance to the elderly, we roughly have 250 participants in Geneva – state workers, NGOs and so on. This is one of the features of the Geneva welfare. And it’s difficult because people do not always know each other… This situation is clearly linked to a large amount of money offered to the diverse organisations. When one of them needed money, the state supported it and we built a kind of “yarrow” with multiple layers. We forgot to develop a global vision of the whole.

On the one hand, the UAC works to improve the level of coordination and has helped the city of Geneva to get a clearer perception of what the NGOs do and how they work together. The state of Geneva thus tries to get out from a single logic of welfare benefits provider based on an instrumental rationality. Likewise, they also contribute to the proliferation of NGOs and their dependence towards the local government.


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67. The Unités d’Action Communautaire


67. The Unités d’Action Communautaire