Saturday, 16 March 2013

Community Development at the Crossroads

The notion of ‘community’ has always attracted polarised observations. Some people praise communities as the cradle of moral values and social cohesion, while others warn against their oppressive tendencies and regressive influence. The truth is that communities can be the foundation for realising more fully what is good in human nature, provided they are steered away from stultifying dead-ends and guided forward in a democratic and inclusive direction (see, for example, ‘Communitarianism Revisited’).

That has been the challenge for community development in its broadest sense: stepping in to enable people to identify their shared interests and work together as equals to achieve common objectives. Since the 1960s, in the US and UK, community development work has been supported with public funding to build the confidence and capacity of countless neighbourhood communities to press for improvements, which would otherwise be overlooked or rejected. During the 2000s, the Labour Government actively supported community development work and developed programmes such as Together We Can to promote more effective community empowerment.

But its reliance on public funding makes this model of social improvement highly vulnerable to political shifts. In the UK, community development organisations at the national and local level have suffered severe cutbacks as the Conservative-led Government brought into office its ideology that communities should be left to their own devices rather than receive publicly funded support.

Community development thus faces a difficult future. There are suggestions that to survive, it must learn from other approaches to facilitating community action. For example, community organising relies on volunteer leaders to work with other volunteers to identify shared concerns, and raise money from corporate and individual donors where necessary to pay for specific activities. Community asset transfers provide a means for community members to raise money through land/property transferred to their ownership. Community cooperatives are supported by the financial and in-kind support given by their members whose shares both help to fund their organisation and guarantee each an equal say in how it is run.

At one level there is no question that community development should engage with other methodologies to establish an alternative basis to pursue its core objective. It can integrate other community-unifying techniques into a seamless offer for inchoate groups. It can be the hub for bringing people together to discuss priorities, resolve differences, plan for what they can address by themselves, and put pressure on those who have a duty to respond to their concerns.

At a deeper level, however, one has to recognise that the barriers, which community development practitioners work tirelessly to help their fellow citizens overcome, afflict all attempts to build community solidarity. There will be times when they are divided by conflicting interests in terms of funding needs or organisational profiles as well. And there are plutocrats who stand to gain from such divisions and they will do what they can to fuel them so as to prevent communities from developing a common front against their exploitation.

To address this problem, we need to draw on three sources of support: first, a shared framework for empowering communities to work together (see, for example, the ‘open-source’ approach of ‘Cooperative Problem-Solving’); secondly, a network of mutual-aid, which will require cooperative advocates, practitioners of diverse forms of community development and empowerment, and democratic educators to come together; and thirdly, vibrant leadership to build greater unity over current separations. Above all, community development activists need to apply what they have always promoted to those they seek to help, namely, identify others with a shared interest and unite behind an agenda for joint action.

[The above is based on my presentation for the Keib Thomas Memorial Seminar organised by the CDNL (Community Development Network London), 13 February 2013. CDNL offers: free membership; regular e-bulletin; 2-3 open meetings a year; a planning group which meets quarterly. For more on CDNL, contact Matt Scott via]