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Power, policy and the people: Striking the right balance

In response to David Boyle’s essay and timeline on the history of community development, leading community engagement researcher Gabriel Chanan sets out why we must rethink the terms of resident-led action.

David’s wide-ranging personal trawl through eight decades of community development will reignite for some of us the question – vexed or amusing as you may prefer – of how this amorphous field should be defined. Part of his point is that these kinds of initiative and practice don’t fit in boxes. They keep adapting to changing conditions and issues. You don’t have to be able to define it in order to do it. Whatever community development is, it will always bubble up from communities themselves and from people working in social fields. And thank goodness for that.

Recognising community achievement

But this fuzziness is also a weakness when it comes to trying to spread the understanding of community development beyond its spontaneous enthusiasts, to get it recognised and supported in policy and funding, and in communities themselves. The fortunes of community development rise and fall with economic trends and political fashions, and it loses its footholds in funding and policy as often as it gains them. When this happens, thousands of community groups and projects have the rug pulled from under them, often without knowing why. David’s vista of heart-warming achievements is silently paralleled by thousands of community projects that were allowed to dwindle or were starved out or couldn’t get off the ground in the first place.

The movement belongs to communities themselves. Without their driving force nothing else happens, and they should be the primary decision-makers.

Another consequence of this landscape of invisible community development corpses is that politicians feel free to reinvent a preferred version when it serves some other purpose for them, ignoring or even destroying the cumulative experience of past achievements.

Defining the language of community development

Sustained pro-community development policies, like all social policies, require some compromise with the language of definitions, criteria and measurement – processes almost antithetical to the organic nature of community development. I think the way to square this circle is by a triangle: community development should be seen as both a movement, an area of policy and a set of practices. The movement belongs to communities themselves. Without their driving force nothing else happens, and they should be the primary decision-makers. Policy is public recognition, support and funding. And practice is the contribution of professionals, where their help is needed.

Research shows that huge numbers of community groups see themselves as doing community development alongside their other issues.

Of course, the three are often in a state of tension – that is the nature of the beast. The importance of community development is precisely that it works at the contested boundaries between people and governments. An authentic professional contribution navigates these perilous waters to strengthen the hand of communities, enlarge the responsiveness of authorities and benefit society as a whole. A misguided professionalism aggravates contenders and results in a sterile standoff between communities and authorities. I think it was unwise for the International Association of Community Development to revise their definition of this field a few years ago as being solely professional. The three points of the triangle always need to be affirmed. Research shows that huge numbers of community groups see themselves as doing community development alongside their other issues, many without paid help.

Explore a history of community development

Striking the right balance

The Community Development Foundation (CDF), where I worked for many years, did best, I think, when it consciously walked this tightrope, balancing different inputs, with communities always as the fundamental players. It did this first in the 1970s when it learned from its own fieldworkers that you could not operate successful youth projects, which it had originally been set up to do, in isolation from the needs and wishes of their communities as a whole. So it changed its name from the Young Volunteer Force Foundation. As an arm of government – or more proportionately a little finger – CDF understandably had to contend with a degree of mistrust from the professional field – that was part of the job. But there was much less distrust from communities themselves, who readily recognised practical help when they saw it.

If we want democracy to survive and flourish, we must resume our engagement with paradoxes about definitions of community development.

Probably the most useful thing CDF did was to get some of the much bigger arms of government and local government to recognise that their social and economic policies could only work if they included genuine support and resources for communities’ own initiatives, and that this meant sharing practical power at many levels. It was easy for politicians to gild their statements and documents with vague rhetoric about communities; harder to translate this into specific budgets, guidance, local decisions and culture change. CDF’s best local projects embodied and demonstrated the triangle – tangible improvement to local conditions through joint working between communities, authorities and professional support.

Where does the power lie?

In a sense the whole history of modernity from the French Revolution onwards hinges on this question of how to navigate the interpenetrating streams of government policies and people’s control over their own conditions – and over government itself. We can’t do without a degree of centralisation for many purposes, but centralisation means concentration of power, which has to be both held to account and redistributed equitably at all levels.

The ability of communities to develop themselves at all presupposes political freedoms which have to be fought for and guaranteed at national level, to prevent communities being divided and conquered. If we want democracy to survive and flourish, and to empower local communities as a matter of course, we will need to resume our engagement with these paradoxes about definitions, systems of support and professional ethics – and then question them all over again.

This blog is part of a series responding to David Boyle’s essay and timeline on a history of community development. Explore more brilliant insights here.

About the author
Gabriel Chanan

Gabriel is a researcher and writer on community development, literature and art. He also writes and produces satirical plays about contemporary politics. He is researching the relationship between literature and democracy from Shakespeare onwards, and currently presents zooms on renaissance painting and the history of landscape.