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]

Friday, 1 March 2013

The Power Hypothesis

For any social, economic, or political arrangement, a key question to ask is whether its distribution of power is so uneven as to allow some to exploit others without the latter being able to resist. If the answer is yes, then the arrangement is oppressive and inherently deficient, and should be reformed to reduce the prevailing level of power inequality.

So long as no one has so much power that they can bribe or threaten others who would otherwise be unwilling to act as instructed, then people will over time relate to each other in broadly reciprocal terms. All will know that either they are helpful and respectful towards others, or they would have to face others who would decline to be helpful and respectful to them. With no one side being able to take any unfair advantage over others, everyone has to find ways to interact on mutually beneficial terms. Any attempt to take from others without offering to give anything in return would be easy to detect, frowned upon, and duly dealt with.

Conversely, the further society departs from an even distribution of power, the Power Hypothesis predicts increasing prevalence of exploitation, as growing tension takes the place of reciprocal cooperation. A prince, a lord, a king, who has enough power that others fear that any opposition would be futile, would be able to ride roughshod over them. The same applies to heads of a household, a village, or an empire.

It also applies to international relations, where for centuries nations have sought to secure peace by means of a ‘Balance of Power’. And not surprisingly, when Spain, France, England, Germany at different times surged ahead of others in their socio-economic capability, they launched aggressive military operations against them.

Similarly, across contemporary society, oppressive behaviour surfaces where those in charge of organisations are not accountable to those they manage. Without a structure of employee rights to counter-balance managerial edicts, staff can be badly treated, and routinely see their share of the firm’s financial success disappearing into the inflated salaries and bonuses of their bosses.

Even worse treatment is meted out in institutions whenever there is a lack of democratic scrutiny to ensure those in charge do not abuse their authority in dealing with those placed under their jurisdiction: e.g., in care homes for the elderly, mental institutions, juvenile facilities, or prisons.

The only effective antidote in all such cases is for the power of all to be shared through a democratic system of governance. As a worker cooperative or a democratic state, such a body would treat each member as an equal, give each the support and protection they need, and expect from each an equal commitment to defend the common good.

Instead of arguing in broad generalities about ‘capitalism’ or ‘socialism’, ‘hierarchical traditions’ or ‘anarchic modernity’, we can apply the Power Hypothesis to the specific features of any form of human association and discover if they need to be reformed, and how far, to achieve greater power equilibrium. It has stood the test of time in differentiating harmful instability from sustainable cooperation. The more we use it as a guide to social and organisational development, the better off we would all be.

[Henry Tam’s book, Against Power Inequalities, a historical account of the problem of power inequality is available in e-book or paperback.]