Community Development Work – Science Fiction or Reality?

8. 9. 2008 - Tony Addy
The theme of community development work is an integral part of the programme ‘Put Yourself Into Integration’ (PYI). In this presentation I want to pick up four key points which came up during the discussion of the presentations and in the feedback from participants. I hope that this will help to fill out the discussions we already had and enable further steps to be taken in relating community development practice to the Czech context, so that it becomes more of a possible reality. This is not to say there is no community development practice, but that in reality it raises important issues. I am not going to repeat what was already included in the project presentations about values and principles. But I want just to mention a few important points at the very beginning.
The first point to notice that in community development practice the worker occupies a difficult ‘position’ somewhere between the ‘life worlds’ of the people with whom she or he works and the world of structures, systems and bureaucracies. This is a difficult position to handle, because the community development worker is not simply a ‘representative’ of the ‘system world’ of institutions with their norms and values. But neither is the worker a member, let alone a spokesperson or advocate for the group she or he works with. The community development worker is an ‘in-between person’ who has her or his own values and norms and who has to negotiate their position with both the groups they are working with and their employing organisation.
The community development worker aims to be close to the ‘life world’ of those with whom she or he works. This means that it is important not only to focus on ‘problems’ but on all aspects of life. Community development work starts from the strengths of those being worked with and aims to turn problems into issues which can be worked on together. This brings us to the second question, which is that of ‘expertise’. There is undoubtedly technical expertise, which is useful in its place and there is also the expertise of the professional social or community worker. The problem is that these types of expertise tend either to discount or ignore the expertise of those being worked with. Community development work recognises that the people being worked with are in a sense ‘experts in their own reality’. Their knowledge and expertise may be tacit and unreflected but it is expertise. The task of community development is to build on this expertise and not to deny it!
The third point is just a reminder that the community development approach can be used with communities of place (neighbourhood, village), communities of interest (disability, elderly people) and communities of identity (nationality, race, gender). I mention this because the first two issues I want to deal with are mainly related to the question of ‘place’.
So now I come to the four issues which came up very often in our sessions during the programme.
Community Development & Place
‘Place’ is a built environment, but it is more than the built environment – it’s the space where important needs for life are met. But ‘place’ is not neutral! If you mention any neighbourhood in Prague, people already have an image of its history, maybe some specific attributes and an idea which kind of people live there. And place is very important, witness the trouble people go to, if they have a choice, to find the ‘right place’ for themselves. It is not only the flat or house which is important, but also the environment. Of course it’s true to say that the locality is more important for some than for others (for example if you are a public transport user local space may be more important than if you have a car), and at some times of life (for example, for those with small children or for elderly people the quality of the neighbourhood and its facilities has a huge impact on the quality of life). In any case, the built environment has an impact in more subtle ways and neighbourhood identification can in some contexts lead to people being labelled and stereotyped or refused access to services (Oh, he comes from that place...).
Reflecting on what was said about community development work in relation to place in the PYI programme; it became clear that in the Czech context community development work is often construed as community planning. Community planning is a well known process of consulting people about how they would like to see their ‘place’ developed, what should be changed and improved and how. Community planning also may refer to social planning or the development of services for the population of a neighbourhood. This is at least an important step from planners simply deciding what is ‘best’ for people and implementing it! It is a form of consultation and good for that. But rarely does community planning concern itself with building up longer term structures of participation through which people could in some way have control over their neighbourhood, or even as stakeholders have a ‘structure’ through which they could have a say. Community planning is often the ‘episodic’ work of community consultants. It may lead to community development when practiced by some, but it often does not.
Community planning is, as I already mentioned, a process of consultation with people about what should happen in ‘their’ place. If we look more closely at it we can see that behind this process is essentially a ‘consumer model’ of society. Residents ‘consume’ services, or (in a sense) the environment - and they pay for these services through taxes. Because this mechanism has no relation to demand, then consultation is an ‘approximate’ method for measuring demand. This means it is not usually a model of empowerment or of resident or citizen action. Community development work, on the other hand, is a longer term business concerned with the relationships between people, very often on the basis of place. Public space is where the ‘drama’ of communal life unfolds – community of place is a point of intersection of different communities of interest and identity.
Community development work brings people into communication with each other and enables a dialogue about local issues, which is very important in cities with diverse populations. In such neighbourhoods, discovering ways not simply of ‘tolerance’ for each other but also of positive development is very important for the quality of life in the city. We know that we tend to mirror the behaviour expected of us by others and this is true of groups in society which do not come from the mainstream culture or ‘life world’. Very often ‘we’ get the feedback of the negative expectations of mainstream culture on minority groups. It is also very important to work on this right now because in Europe and North America, gradually and in some cases rapidly, the attitude to public space has become ‘mixophobic’. Mixophobia or the fear of contact with ‘the other’ has cause the rise of gated enclave communities where more affluent city dwellers retreat behind security fences. This serves to deepen the problems of exclusion and the segregation of marginalised people and groups. It also reduces the quality of public space which most people have to share.
To build a liveable city we need to recognise that it is in the city that strangers meet each other (or confront each other) in the living spaces. Community development work has its contribution to make in the process of creating ‘spaces’ where people with different ideas, values and expectations can negotiate together.

Community Development, Story and Identity
One of the problems which has affected our thinking about community development is what could be termed ‘golden age’ thinking! People identify the concept of community with the reality of village life! This normative model is very dangerous for a society which is becoming more diverse. For sure the traditional village had ways to deal with ‘strangers’ – as a rule, they pushed them to conform or they excluded them. To put it in a modern way we could say the traditional village was ‘oppressive of difference’. In industrial societies, a similar ‘village phenomenon’ was created as ‘urban villages’ built up around specific factories, mines and other large workplaces. In these places relationships were very strongly linked to place and the networks were very ‘dense’. There were multiple ties between people. This picture of ‘urban village life’ is often romanticised, but it was a reality and it was the basis also of political life in the city and the workplace. I also do not want to romanticise this model because very often the ‘different’ person or group was excluded and this reality was also a hostile environment for women.
This ‘model’ of community was broken by deindustrialisation and privatisation in the west and in a different way, by the communist system in central and eastern Europe. Privatisation and individualism have also played their part in this process. It used to be said that ‘we are all in the same boat’ – that we sink or swim together. But now it seems we are much more like the three men in the famous British novel, who were taking a boat trip. When stormy weather came and it appeared the boat was threatened, they each looked for their own barrel; for they knew that an upright barrel may survive the sinking of the boat. Now we are all invited to find our own barrel when we hit difficulties in our lives. There is little sense of common fate except at a very general level. The nation, with its bureaucratic control of life and its solid institutions as well as national industries created a real sense of shared fate. But now we are not ‘all in the same boat’ and we should, according to the dominant culture, each look for our own barrel! This is a very difficult environment for immigrant communities to enter and it is also deeply unstable and fragile, especially in times of stress or crisis.
But a city was always much more than a collection of urban villages. It was also a place of strangers, a place where people could in some sense be ‘anonymous’. That is one reason why people preferred cities to rural villages. However, the idea of the city as simply a collection of ‘anonymous individuals’ is very dangerous! In this city of ‘strangers to each other’ there is an ever present danger of creating closed ‘identity communities’ (even gated communities with their own security against the hostile ‘other’). We have seen the result of this tendency in the rise of violence in the French neighbourhoods, but it has also been seen in the UK and the Netherlands. For example there are neighbourhoods in towns in the north of England which have almost totally ‘South Asian’ populations and other neighbourhoods which are almost totally ‘white’. When people live parallel lives and there is a grievance the effect can be explosive.
The key to a liveable city and a liveable community is communication and shared interest. So we could say that community of place has to be accompanied by community of face. Even if we make efforts to organise communities based on shared identity and also bring different communities together in multicultural centres, this may not directly touch the lived experience in city neighbourhoods. Neighbourhood is an important factor in the liveable city.
I want now to say a bit more about identity communities. In the evolving situation of migration, identity communities may be a trap! It is an easy way of thinking for white people to ‘locate’ people by their national or other identity. But it reduces a person to one dimension of life (which ‘we’ decide is the most important) and it may unhelpfully freeze the boundaries between people. We know that people are increasingly not bound by one ‘fixed’ identity, they may share several identities! I have a Jewish friend who has both Canadian and British citizenship and people keep asking her ‘what she is, really’! We also know that identity is at least partly fluid and constructed through experience. For example people talk too easily about the Moslem community or the black community, but we know that concretely these do not ‘exist’ in a simple form. There are many balck communities and the ‘same’ community may react and behave differently according to their reception by the dominant or mainstream culture. In fact tradition and identity are not ready made; they are formed through experience, relationships, economics and politics. (As we already saw in the concept of ‘mirroring’ people reflect the expectations of those especially in the ‘majority society’ or its institutions).
The basis of community development work is to focus on the relationships between people and to work on their needs and issues, their hopes and dreams, their different future horizons. It can be a small part of creating a liveable city. Community development work starts with story – the stories people tell about their life, their relationships, about the issues they face and the place where they live. It is based on a questioning approach, always opening the question ‘why is it so?’ It is dealing with the many different meanings given to the same reality, the same place, maybe even the same street. With immigrant communities it is dealing with the internal clash or confrontation between different contexts and the reality of the ‘new context’. And out of this mix of dialogue, debate and confrontation maybe new traditions are also built. But the most important change takes place in the people with whom we work, who see themselves increasingly as subjects of their own lives, rather than objects of other’s decisions.
Community development work is aiming for concrete change in the living conditions faced by people especially on the margins of society or who are in some way excluded. It may involve organising particular groups for change in their circumstances. But it should be linked to wider community development work. If you focus on the needs of black and minority communities in a context where there are white people who are also excluded it may also create a difficulties.
In one neighbourhood of Antwerp where there are many different immigrant groups, there is a community centre which has focussed on working with the different groups on their own agendas. It has had a strong emphasis on the self-organisation and self action (wherever possible) of immigrant groups themselves. It has both a rights based and a needs based approach grounded in community development. But in that same city the extreme right Vlaams Blok is very influential so the centre has to focus on working with ‘excluded’ white communities on their issues, their empowerment, in the context of a shared space with all the groups in the neighbourhood. So community development work has to concern itself with all the differences we find in one locality.
I have already mentioned that the word community carries with it many ‘normative’ connotations from history, culture and religion which have made it ambiguous. It is not simply a descriptive or even analytic category. I have been increasingly using the word conviviality to describe the process of building life together in the present moment. We use all the tools of community development in this process and it also includes the elements we create to make our life enjoyable as well as dealing with the structures and issues which prevent people from having access the means of life and livelihood in the place where they live. It deals with concrete objectives and the meaning we give to our situation and story. But more importantly, it avoids reinforcing the myth of the ‘original’ national community and even more dangerously the myth of the (racially) ‘purified’ community, a spectre which once again haunts Europe.
Community Development and Project Development
What is the ‘position’ of the community development worker in relation to the community she works with? She is not (usually) an inhabitant of the community nor a member of the community of interest – she is in a sense an ‘outsider’ and has to negotiate her position. She may of course be a local person, or a member of the community of interest or identity. Perhaps in that case an ‘insider-outsider’! What I want to draw attention to is the fact that the position of the worker is complex. Whilst not being part of the community she is also working with the community and not on the basis simply of the organisation or institution which employs her. If we are thinking about processes of empowerment it is very important to reflect further on this position. It is very easy for community development workers to either ‘take over’ the responsibilities and tasks of the group or to ‘impose their own agenda’ or the agenda of their employing organisation. We are seeking for a dialogue with the people we work with, around these issues. Given that all sides have their own expectations of the outcomes of community development work this is not easy.
When we think about community development work, we could call it ‘the going out model’ because the actual position of the worker has to be close to the ‘life-world’ of the people, close to their daily life, their lived reality. We are not necessarily expecting people to come to an office, a centre and we are not (in the first steps anyway) inviting them to a meeting without having built up any relationship with them.
Furthermore, the starting point for working with people is not their ‘problems’ or their ‘weaknesses’, but rather their strengths and with a broad perspective on life. It is an important part of mirroring because when people meet professionals they are usually expected to tell about some problem or difficulty in life that the worker is supposed to ‘solve’ or at least alleviate! And we are aiming to change the relationship between the groups and the professional, so changing mutual expectations.
From these two starting points we can also relate to the question of different kinds of expertise. In community development work it is important to recognise that the people with who we work are in a real sense ‘experts’ in their own reality and that their strategies and tactics for survival and overcoming their problems have a grounding in that reality. For example many immigrant groups are very resourceful in finding ways to develop economically in a relatively hostile environment. It’s important for the worker to recognise that the logic of people’s actions, although different may also reveal something positive for the dominant culture and be a creative adaptation to a difficult situation. On the other hand the community development worker has the expertise of helping people to clarify the problems which they face and to transform them into issues which can be worked on collectively. The profession of community development worker has its own expertise. In addition to these forms of expertise, there may be technical experts of various professions brought into a specific project – financial, architectural etc. which can be useful in developing a community.
In the process of community development, the worker is aiming to work with people to clarify their hopes and expectations and to develop strategies for addressing the issues they face in their daily life and work. In this process there will be negotiation not only about concrete issues but also about the different (sometimes competing) visions and values which have to be negotiated.
This form of development work is very different from typical approaches to ‘project development’, ‘third sector development’ or ‘social entrepreneurship’, although community development work may result in projects and even the creation of organisations to deliver services or meet other social objectives. But the key difference is in the priority accorded to the issues defined by the community or issue/identity based group itself. It does not mean that the worker has to just accept what the group says about those issues; there is a process of clarifying the issues and setting priorities which is important. But the action must start near to the ‘felt’ or expressed needs of the community or group. This is a key issue in motivating the people. One of the key changes we are looking for is the change in the way in which people ‘see themselves’. Community development invites them to take action in the public space to deal with their problems and build life together.
Project development too often begins from expert identification of the problems and defines solutions without involving the people directly affected in the process of issue definition and strategy development. A great deal of money is wasted by the creation of ‘top down’ projects which do not correspond to people’s aspirations. Very often public money is spent on projects which are not effective because local people do not in any sense ‘own’ them.
If issue definition and participatory processes are two keys to community development, the third basic consideration is timescale. Very often projects have their own timeframe which is related more to institutional and even governmental time frames than to the ‘time’ of the local community. This means that very often in the urge to meet deadlines, the time needed to develop effective local involvement is not taken. This may be seen as an unnecessary cost, but it may lead to waste of finance and resources very quickly at a later stage. Nowadays it is quite typical for community development to be tied to outcomes related to pre-determined government strategies which may not meet locally identified priorities. If empowerment is a key objective, usually this approach will not produce results! The other side of the coin is that disadvantaged communities will very often seek for any and every useable resource. So even if there are no resources for dealing with the issue identified as most important locally, a project will be created to gain finance by twisting the objectives to approximately fit the (often governmental or E.U.) framework. Indeed in one locality in London, where the problems facing young people had not been identified as a priority, when the government launched a programme to meet these needs, the NGO concerned developed a project simply to take advantage of the funding!
A good example of synergy between government objectives and community defined priorities can be seen in the work of the Traveller’s Education and Development Group in Dublin, which is a rights-based self organisation of travellers. The Irish government had developed a programme to support new employment initiatives and it was also in favour of recycling initiatives to ameliorate environmental problems. The Group was able to develop an enterprise which took Traveller’s traditional expertise in collecting ‘scrap’ and recycling it into a more efficient and profitable community enterprise which was able to employ several people continuously.
Community Development and Civil Society
Civil society is that space between political society and the state on the one side and the free economy and market on the other side. In that way it is a ‘contested’ space, because each ‘side’ would like to co-opt civil society in its own interests. If organisations of civil society become too critical then attempts will also be made to discredit them or their leaders, or to suppress them. Simply put, civil society actors may legitimate political or economic actors or they may constitute a free space for critique and innovative action (the pursuit of alternatives). It has been suggested that civil society is the space where through discussion and action ‘common sense’ may be replaced by ‘good sense’!
In different countries, civil society has different histories. Here in the Czech Republic, the former dissident tradition used the ideas of civil society in its actions and writings. Indeed this tradition as well as the traditions of social thought in Central and Latin America under right wing dictatorships in the 1970’s and 80’s ‘rediscovered’ the concept of civil society. Paradoxically since 1989, it has been a slow struggle to establish an independent civil society and politically the concept has sometimes been strongly attacked.
In the UK, to give another example, there is a long tradition of organised civil society and voluntary action. However, there is a danger nowadays that civil society in the UK is ‘reduced’ in the social and economic field to the so called ‘third sector’ in the provision of welfare. Nevertheless, there is also a tradition of social dissent which preserves critical ideas. In Finland on the other hand, which is a more cohesive society, there may be civil society but it is often quite ‘integrated’ culturally into the mainstream of political society. In facing issues of the environment or international development, nowadays there is a tendency for state actors and the private sector also to create or sponsor civil society organisations either to legitimate or to carry out their policies.
Community development is about building up civil society on the local level, as a free and uncoerced space where people can develop their own initiatives and where appropriate develop their own services, if necessary with public support. Community development has an important function in preserving and enhancing a democratic society. In order for representative democracy to flourish there is a need for civil society and community development is a tool for its development.
But why do we need civil society when we have representative democracy? This question is often asked in the Czech Republic! In my understanding there are at least two very important reasons:
- Representative democracy ‘drowns out’ many voices – that is what it is supposed to do! Large parties represent coalitions of interests which then ‘package’ themselves as a party. This is essential for the management of democracy on the national level. It means there will always be ’excluded voices’ and amongst these are also those who for one reason or another are not allowed to vote.
- Secondly the big parties have to ‘market’ themselves to the electorate by making their (political, policy) product attractive. In Europe the level of citizen involvement in political parties (and in some cases voting) is quite low and therefore parties more and more resemble companies in a market place. It means the ‘citizen’ is reduced to a rather passive consumer. In fact too much participation may make it harder to manage the internal party policy. (As you can see in the evolution of policy making within ‘New Labour’ in Britain)
Now we can see where community development work fits into this scenario:
- It organises spaces where the ‘hidden voices’ which are drowned out of the debate in politics and the media can come into the public arena. If you want to have good and effective policies locally or even nationally it is very important to take into consideration not just the ‘loudest’ or best funded voices but also those who find it difficult to make their voice heard, or on whose behalf others (however well meaning) always speak. This can include specific interest groups such as people with disabilities or different immigrant and minority groups. Community development work insists on the need for many voices in the political arena (polyphony). These ‘voices’ have to be brought into a dialogue which, to continue the metaphor, will produce a harmony rather than a cacophony! And in the creation of such a harmony the different ‘voices’ are not erased! Therefore community work is not concerned only with single issue groups, or single neighbourhoods, but on developing networks of relationships between groups and in strengthening the relationship between groups and institutions.
- Community development work prefers to encourage people to have a ‘voice’ and this means an engagement with the issues and with action for change. Therefore it is a component of strengthening representative democracy by developing the structure and processes of participatory democracy. The opposite of ‘voice’ is ‘exit’ and it is very unhealthy in a democratic society if people feel so excluded that they have no ‘say’ or no ‘stake’ – if people are disengaged.
Community development work does not see citizens and residents only as consumers! As a consumer, I would only pay my taxes, leave everything to the politicians and civil servants and withdraw to my family. But we cannot forget how much the public arena shapes and conditions even our families’ quality of life, our children’s life chances etc. As we live in a society which is diversifying we have to find the ways to promote a more vigorous sharing of ideas about the future, about common responsibilities. Community development work is not aiming for a society of ‘satisfaction seeking consumers’ let alone ‘disciplined subjects’ rather it is aiming through self-organisation to bring more groups into the ‘political arena’ and to defend the person as subject of her or his own life.
Community development work focuses especially on groups and neighbourhoods which lack ‘voice’ and who may be excluded from the decision making. But perhaps there is also a need for others to work with those who are not on the margins but who have exited from the common life; because their voting habits may yet give us representative governments in Europe which are very hostile to the interests of those we are most concerned about in the programme Put Yourself Into Integration.
Representative democracy needs the continuous creation of civil society, it needs the voice of excluded and minority groups at all levels of policy making and implementation. It needs the voice not only of those who support ‘business as usual’ but also of those who, out of a concern for human wellbeing want to see changes made to policies and practices of government at every level. Community development work is one modest tool to support this health giving process!


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