Friday, 24 January 2014

What is community development?

What is community development? The idea of community development grew, in large part, out of the activities of colonial administrators. We examine this legacy and the theory and practice that emerged. We also look to the body of overlapping ideas, including community participation, community organization and community work. In this piece we suggest that community development is perhaps best used to describe those approaches which use a mix of informal education, collective action and organizational development and focus on cultivating social justice, mutual aid, local networks and communal coherence.

Like many of the terms around the community work and community education field, the notion of ‘community development’ is beset with difficulties. In this piece we suggest that it is helpful to describe those approaches that look to cultivate social justice, mutual aid, local networks and communal coherence. In many respects as a body of thinking and practice it links strongly to more recent concerns around the cultivation of social capital.

The colonial legacy

The notion of community development owes a great deal to the efforts of colonial administrators. After the Second World War the British Colonial Office became concerned with ‘community development’. Mayo (1975: 130) suggests that administrators ‘concocted’ the term out of their attempts to develop ‘basic education’ and social welfare in the UK colonies. For example, a 1944 report, Mass education in the colonies, placed an emphasis on literacy training and advocated the promotion of agriculture, health and other social services through local self help (Midgley et al 1986: 17). This was a set of concerns similar to those surrounding the interest in rural development and educational ‘extension’ in North America in the first two decades of the century. Community development was defined in one UK government publication as:

active participation, and if possible on the initiative of the community, but if this initiative is not forthcoming spontaneously, by the use of techniques for arousing and stimulating it in order to achieve its active and enthusiastic response to the movement. (Colonial Office 1958: 2)
The concern with community development was, in part, a response to the growth of nationalism, and, in part an outcome of a desire to increase the rate of industrial and economic development. The notion began to feature strongly in United Nations documents during the 1950s – and these drew extensively on the British literature and experiences in Africa and India (Midgley et al 1986: 18). Three important elements were identified:

a concern with social and economic development.
the fostering and capacity of local co-operation and self-help.
the use of expertise and methods drawn from outside the local community.
Within this there does appear to be a certain contradiction. Community development emphasizes participation, initiative and self help by local communities but is usually sponsored by national governments as part of a national plan. While from one side it can be seen as the encouragement of local initiative and decision making, from the other it is a means of implementing and expediting national policies at the local level and is a substitute for, or the beginning of, local government (Jones 1977; see also, informal and non-formal education, colonialism and development).

The focus on the social and economic, local and global, also helps to situate debates about community development – and the disillusionment with its achievements that was widespread in many Southern countries by the 1970s. Many governments, particularly in Africa, failed to provide adequate financial support but nevertheless extolled the virtues of self-help. Community development was soon recognized by the people to amount to little more than a slogan which brought few tangible benefits. (Midgley et al 1986: 18)

However, we should not forget in this process is that community development had also spawned a growing literature. Workers were not only able to draw on the extensive American literature of community organization (see below) – there were now various guides and discussions arising specifically out of the experience of ‘developing’ countries, for example, Batten’s (1957) classic textbook Communities and their Development.

It is not without significance that while the community organization literature became broadly located in social work, the community development literature had far more an ‘educational’ hue. Yet, we do need to take some care here – just because a discourse found expression in North American social work does not mean that it was not informed by educational thinkers. However, the institutional location of the work, combined with the orientation of its proponents is important. Batten, for example, who wrote a string of influential books (e.g. 1957; 1965; 1967) was based at the University of London Institute of Education. As we will see when we come to look at the experience of community work in the United Kingdom this educational orientation was to wane there also in the late 1960s.

The move away from education

To make sense of the notion of community development it is helpful to situate it alongside other strands of community work practice. Here it is useful to consider Thomas’ (1993) discussion of the five main strands or approaches that characterized community work in the early 1980s. He talked about:

Community Action. Community action was seen as focusing on the organisation of those adversely affected by the decisions, or non-decisions, of public and private bodies and by more general structural characteristics of society. The strategy aims to promote collective action to challenge existing socio-political and economic structures and processes, to explore and explain the power realities of people’s situations and, through this twin pronged approach, develop both critical perspectives of the status quo and alternative bases of power and action.

Community Organisation. Community organization, according to Thomas, involves the collaboration of separate community or welfare agencies with or without the additional participation of statutory authorities, in the promotion of joint initiatives.

Community Development. Community development was seen as emphasizing self-help, mutual support, the building up of neighbourhood integration, the development of neighbourhood capacities for problem-solving and self-representation, and the promotion of collective action to bring a community’s preferences to the attention of political decision-makers.

Social Planning. This orientation/approach was presented as being concerned with the assessment of community needs and problems and the systematic planning of strategies for meeting them. Social planning comprises the analysis of social conditions, social policies and agency services; the setting of goals and priorities; the design of service programmes and the mobilisation of appropriate resources; and the implementation and evaluation of services and programmes.

Service Extension. This is a strategy that seeks to extend agency operations and services by making them more relevant and accessible. This includes extending services into the community, giving these services and the staff who are responsible for them a physical presence in a neighbourhood. (Thomas 1983: 106-139)

In Britain the notion of community development became associated for some with shifts within community work towards more radical approaches (following the experiences of workers within the Community Development Projects of the early 1970s). In particular this involved a movement away from what could be described as an informal education perspective, into what would be better labelled social action (see above). However, the radicalism of many of the workers attracted into the work in the late 1960s and early 1970s in many northern countries was not to last. The waning of key social movements, the increased influence of managerialism, and more general economic and political shifts around marketization and globalization (see globalization and globalization and incorporation of education) meant that there was in many countries, a gradual drift into a policy orientation and a focus on the implementation of social care and regeneration initiatives (see the discussion in the article on community work). In other words, there was a significant movement into approaches to what people described as ‘community development’ that looked to what Thomas described as social planning and service extension.

In some places there were countervailing forces to this movement away from education and from mutual aid and community. In Scotland, for example, the developing professional and political interest in community education kept a stronger focus on more locally-based and associational work. In a similar way the experience of non-formal education programmes in some countries retained an interest in the ways in which local people understood their situation and reflected more of a ‘bottom-up’ approach to policy formation.

Capacity building

Some of the classic concerns of community development found expression in the early 1990s in the notion of ‘capacity building’. There was an interest in developing the ability of local groups and networks to function and to contribute to social and economic development. On the whole, though, the idea of capacity building often remained associated with a technicist and economistic viewpoint – a concern with competencies, ‘investing’ and so on. There were those that looked to the ‘bottom-up’ and more convivial aspects of traditional community development. A few contributions also emerged that had a more thorough theoretical basis. Eade’s (1997) approach, for example, and that of development agencies such as Oxfam, was linked into certain fundamental beliefs, for example: ‘that all people have the right to an equitable share in the world’s resources, and to be the authors of their own development; and that the denial of such rights is at the heart of poverty and suffering’ (1997: 2). Strengthening people’s capacity to determine their values and priorities, and to act on these, is the basis of development.

(C)apacity building is an approach to development rather than a set of discrete or pre-packaged interventions. So while there are certain basic capacities (social, economic, political and practical) on which development depends, Oxfam seeks to support organisations working for sustainable social justice. (Eade 1997: 3)
From this flow a number of implications. That:

capacity building must not be seen in isolation.
all have capacities that may not be obvious to outsiders and it may take time to discover these.
if it is to be inclusive, interventions must take into account different and sometimes negative, ways in which the impacts will be experienced.
flexibility is important but this must not be at the expense of a loss of direction with regard to wider processes of social and economic transformation.
capacity building is not ‘doing development’ on the cheap or against the clock. Nor is it risk-free. (Eade 1997: 3).
The problem was that many of those interested in capacity building located it within a particular paradigm. It was capacity-building within a particular set of policy parameters. There was not often a disposition to build capacity that might oppose or fail to the ‘importance’ of state interests and priorities.

Community participation and debates around social capital

In the late 1960s there was some exploration of different models of participation and their relationship to community development. Since then concern around popular and community participation in key agencies such as the United Nations (see community participation) has been part of the discourse of community development. As Midgley et al (1986: 23) have noted, the notion of popular participation and that of community participation were interlinked. The former was concerned with broad issues of social development and the creation of opportunities for the involvement of people in the political, economic and social life of a nation, ‘the latter connotes the direct involvement of ordinary people in local affairs’. As such community participation can be seen as linking with older concerns with associational democracy and the like. In some countries the notion of community participation has reappeared in discussions around the need to bring some local services and facilities more directly into the control of local people. For example the 2005 election manifesto for the British Labour Party argued for ‘new opportunities for communities to assume greater responsibility or even ownership of community assets like village halls, community centres, libraries or recreational facilities’ (2005: 105).

This concern with local control and networks had some roots in the debates that emerged around social capital in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Significant press attention was given in the United States and the UK to Robert Putnam’s arguments around the diminution of social capital in the USA (and the impact this had upon people’s health, education and happiness). It also encouraged some important debates within academic and policy circles (see lifelong learning and social capital). While there has been some exploration of what a concern with deepening social capital might mean in terms of work in communities (see, for example, Putnam and Feldstein with Cohen 2003) it has been, on the whole, rather disappointing. Part of the problem is that it entails policymakers and practitioners entertaining and making sense of issues within a markedly different frame of reference than that which dominates discussion and policy today. The work involved is long-term, dependent upon process and concerned more broadly with flourishing and happiness. State intervention is largely short-term, looking to outcomes and interested in economic growth and efficiency.

Reappraising community development

With moves in Scotland, for example, from community education to community learning and development, and continuing debates around the notion of community development, there have been some interesting changes in the way the notion is being approached in some key quarters. One of the significant aspects of this has been the resurfacing of education – in particular informal education – as a central feature of the work. Here one of the most helpful contributions has been that of Alison Gilchrist and Marilyn Taylor (2011). They place achieving greater levels of social justice at the core of activity and go on to argue that the ‘focus is on individuals, groups and networks that want or need to cooperate in order to achieve change at a local or community level’ (op. cit: 9). They continue, ‘Adopting a community development approach means ensuring that the issues and priorities are identified and agreed by the communities themselves, and that people are encouraged to work together towards a collective solution to a shared concern’.

Gilchrist and Taylor suggest there are three vital aspects of community development:

informal education – learning that takes place predominantly through direct involvement in community activities
collective action - finding the power of combined voices and determination; the strength of many people acting for their mutual benefit or to champion the interests of those who cannot stand up for themselves
organization development – helping groups and bodies to evolve a form that enables the members to achieve their goals, to act legally and to be accountable to the membership and wider community. (extracted from Gilchrist and Taylor 2011: 10-12).
This reworking of community development is helpful in that it reconnects three areas of practice in the service of development – and makes sense of a lot of the activity of local practitioners. One of the questions that remains is the relative strength of each strand – and for example, an over-emphasis in some NGOs and in state sponsored work on organization development.  The focus on focus on cultivating social justice in Gilchrist and Taylor’s work – and here also on mutual aid, local networks and communal coherence – is an important counterbalance to this.


Along with Thomas and others we argue here that there is some merit in restricting the notion of community development to those approaches that focus on the cultivation of local democracy, mutual aid, local networks and communal coherence. Economic development and the quality and appropriateness of state and other services may well form a part of this attention – but are not the foci around which activity revolves.

Over the next few years it will be interesting to see how more convivial notions of community development fare. There are strong forces for continuing centralization and marketization in many states (see globalization and education). At the same time, it appears that many of the older policy imperatives such as the focus on economic growth are not cutting it in terms of people’s feeling of well-being. There appears still to be some yearning after community and a feeling that something has been lost in many countries. Whether this can be turned into significant activity is an open question.