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Let's give some love to the butterflies of Galashiels

by Derek Mitchell, CAS Chief Executive.

This column first appeared in the Herald on 5 May 2021.

There’s a famous scene in Jurassic Park (the original and best) where Jeff Goldblum is speaking to Laura Dern and he talks about how something that happens in one place can have an impact thousands of miles away. “A butterfly can flap its wings in Peking,” he tells her, “and in Central Park you get rain instead of sunshine.”

It’s called, in shorthand, the butterfly effect, and it came to my mind recently when I heard about something amazing that has happened thanks to the work of one Scottish Citizens Advice Bureau.

I’ve written here before about the 80+ year history of the CAB movement in Scotland. The day after Britain and France declared war on Germany in 1939, more than 200 CABs were established across the UK, including in Glasgow, Aberdeen, Stirling and Dundee.

Today there are 59 CABs in Scotland, all rooted in their local communities and serving local people. Meanwhile our website and national helpline also support people across the country. It’s a model that works, and it works so well that it has influenced a similar service for tens of thousands of people on the other side of the world.

It was back in 2019 that Kathryn Peden, manager of the Central Borders CAB, welcomed Mushtariy Madrahimova from the Uzbekistan Ministry of Justice.

As a Fellow of the John Smith Trust, founded in memory of the Scottish political leader to support exceptional young leaders committed to making a difference in their countries, Mushtariy was on a fact-finding mission in the UK to pick up hints for the setting up of a network to provide free legal advice in Uzbekistan

As part of her visit she toured the Galashiels CAB, sharing traditional Uzbek halva sweets with the staff and volunteers there, and told our in-house magazine, Voice of her “warm impressions” of the visit.

“The atmosphere is very friendly and everyone feels at home,” she said. “I remember a small corner of the waiting hall, which had colouring pads for children, books for reading while waiting, and even a radio – every item in that corner was welcoming for people.”

Kathryn showed Mushtariy our CASTLE system, which is how all of Scotland’s CABs record information on the types of advice they give out.

This information paints a picture of advice demand across the country, showing what the growing issues in society are, and informs the advocacy work of Citizens Advice Scotland, where we tell politicians and decision-makers that certain policies or practices need to change.

The CASTLE system was to become the model for administration of the new Uzbek network, known as Madad.

“We’ve developed a case management system based on the practice I saw at Galashiels,” Mushtariy told Voice.

“Kathryn explained that besides the website, where people can access advice, there is a so-called ‘back office’ used by advisers to research relevant information for clients. We have formed the same in Madad for both our online and face-to-face consultants.”

There are obvious similarities between the two networks. But there are big differences too. Madad’s consultants are paid employees, and its volunteer force relatively small. Here in Scotland, last year alone, 2,300 volunteers contributed more than 750,000 hours of their time to their local CAB.

Madad’s volunteer pool is generally made up of young law students, and that’s something we’ll consider in Scotland: how we can open up more opportunities for young people to volunteer with the CAB network. That’s why we recently agreed a strategic partnership with Young Scot to get our message to more young people.

And while CAB outreach to people is mainly based around social media, press and the advice clinics in community centres, Madad’s outreach is a bit more direct, with consultants carrying out door-to-door visits in villages to find out if households need advice.

From Kathryn’s perspective, one striking difference was in the accommodation. “At Galashiels we own our premises, and money for the furniture and decoration is raised through the Friends of the Central Borders CAB. It’s a great team spirit, but inevitably it’s quite homely and mix ’n’ match, which I think helps clients feel at ease,” she says.

“The photos Mushtariy showed me of their organisation were quite a contrast. They have fantastic modern buildings, like a corporate bank – and all their advisers wear formal business dress.”

It strikes me that despite these differences, we share with our Uzbek counterparts the aim of delivering high quality, people centred advice. And if Mushtariy was to visit again she would see that we’ve adapted to maintain our services through the pandemic. Whatever the delivery model – be it face-to-face, telephone or video – a person-centred approach will always drive what we do.

Mushtariy has fond memories of Galashiels. “What impressed me most was the team of volunteers. Their commitment and determination to be useful to society really struck me.” I couldn’t agree more – volunteers are the engine room of our service and we couldn’t operate without their commitment.

As our world feels more global and interconnected than ever it should be no surprise that exchanges like this happen, but it’s still staggering to me that the help shown by Central Borders CAB has contributed to tens of thousands of people getting help in Uzbekistan. It makes me proud that our network can be such a fantastic example of community spirit and helping others, and that’s never been more obvious than during this pandemic.

So it’s true. A butterfly’s wings can be more powerful than they look.

And at the end of the day, access to free, confidential, independent advice is absolutely vital wherever you are, whether it’s Tweedbank or Tashkent.