Mutual aid is a form of community cooperation where groups of people in a particular area, or from a particular community join together to support one another, meeting vital community needs without the help of official bodies. Oftentimes arising due to neglect in government provision for certain classes of people, mutual aid is a tool for collective social and economic cooperation. Mutual aid, in simpler words, is cooperation for the common good.
Mutual aid – in all of its forms and varieties – is a universal practice, rather than a catch-all term, or definition. All of the examples listed on this site attempt to speak to the universality of this practice, but by no means aim to define them as a singular concept.
Solidarity, not charity – the words of Uruguyan writer Eduardo Galeano still underpin the philosophy of mutual aid efforts today:
“I don’t believe in charity. I believe in solidarity. Charity is so vertical. It goes from the top to the bottom. Solidarity is horizontal. It respects the other person. I have a lot to learn from other people.”
Mutual aid is an age-old practice that has characterised social relations between numerous species from the animal kingdom. As a term, it was first conceptualised by Russian naturalists and zoologists, most famously Karl Kressler’s paper “The Law of Mutual Aid”. This research was used to counter the narratives of Darwinians and Social Darwinism, who solely focused on ‘survival of the fittest’ as the most significant factor of evolution, and one which would justify wars and social engineering on oppressed groups. Building on this tension, Kropotkin advanced the theory of human nature rooted in cooperation in “Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution”. Inspired by his observation of birds, beavers, and other “sociable animals” weathering the brutal Siberian tundra, Kropotkin saw all organic life as defined by a communal management of scarcity and reciprocal care.
“A lone individual in the wilderness will survive for a time; but with the slightest injury or illness, they will quickly succumb to the elements, starvation, or predators”
– Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution
For this reason, it is impossible to use any one example as the foundation of mutual aid. It is an evolutionary factor as old as life on Earth. Mutual aid – in all of its forms and varieties is a universal practice, rather than a catch-all term, or definition.
Mutual Aid Disaster Relief
It is no surprise then, that natural or man-made disasters often become a mobilising moment to bring communities together to pool their resources.
During “ordinary” disasters – a hurricane, an earthquake – there’s a phenomenon called volunteer convergence, whereby people eager to help gather in the impacted areas. Sometimes so many people and so much donated material shows up that they even pose management problems – as witnessed during the Grenfell Tower Fire in 2017.
“Every picket line needs reinforcement, every rent strike needs support, every comrade deserves care and aid. Instead of envisioning mutual-aid to contain the beginnings of a new world, we have to apply mutual aid to existing organizations that actually are.” – Gus Breslauer
Strike funds are financial reserves held by trade unions, which exist to provide material support to members who are on strike, sometimes for extended periods of time.
Bail Funds and Legal Support
In the US, where conditional release, or bails are monetised, structures like the National Bail Fund Network coordinate a directory of community bail funds to support people who cannot afford to meet these conditions. In the UK, following mass protests and police repression of the student movement in 2010, Green and Black Cross was established to provide protesters with 24/7 legal support and guidance.
Street Clinics and Medical Support
‘MayDay Mutual Aid Medical Station’ was the first formation (before it as formalised into the Common Ground Collective) to provide medical relief in the Algiers neighbourhood (poorest in New Orleans) to the victims of Hurricane Katrina (2005). Street medics, doctors, nurses, herbalists, and massage therapists all became a part of this operation. Similarly, the Black Panther Party People’s Free Medical Clinics ran between (1969-1975) to address the health inequalities and systemic discrimination against Black people in hospitals.
ROSCA (Rotating Savings and Credit Association)
otherwise regionally known as cundinas (Mexico), hagbad (Somalia), stokvel (South Africa), susu (West Africa and the Caribbean), hui (會) (Chinese communities), paluwagan (Philippines), Gam’eya جمعية (Egypt), kye (계) (South Korea), tanomoshiko (頼母子講) (Japan), pandeiros (Brazil), cuchubál (Guatemala), juntas, quiniela or panderos (Peru), C.A.R. Țigănesc/Roata (România), arisan (Indonesia), lenshare (เล่นแชร์) (Thai), and dhukuti or dhikuti (Nepal).
…and many more