Community Development - is there anything new to say?

18 August 2015

You might think not… but the buzz at the Community Development Journal’s (CDJ) 50th Anniversary Conference suggested that there is a lot more to say. The participatory approach taken by this event meant sessions were full of conversation and debate. Diverse experiences of working with communities were exchanged. Diverse views on what community development (CD) is were aired. Consensus seemed to cluster around key points - community development is political, it is ever more important as austerity bites harder, and it is an essential underpinning to any proposals for global development.

A critical space for reflection and inspiration

The conference took place in Edinburgh during July, and was attended by around 80 people - practitioners and academics - from the global North and the global South (although these terms were of course, questioned and debated). It was an opportunity to look back at the colonial origins of the Journal when it was set up in 1966, and to find surprises even then – such as an article in the first issue on poverty and community development in the UK. This retrospective stimulated reflection on community development – how it emerged in the UK and evolved, how it took on a critical approach and how community development has spread and is practiced in different settings and traditions.

It was particularly interesting to learn about the experience of other CD practitioners and researchers, and reflect on their accounts of working with diverse combinations of participatory approaches. We heard how CD approaches are being used to work with young people and build community in areas affected by the war in Ukraine, and in work with sexual minorities in India who face multiple forms of oppression. Others spoke of their work in Bolivia, Scotland, Nigeria, USA, Palestine, Australia, UK and Georgia.

A discussion developed over the three days of the importance of this space – enabled by the conference - as a forum for practitioners to share and engage with ideas and academic knowledge outside of the academic rigor of a journal. Many had felt isolated in the work they are doing - there is not a ‘CD community’ where they are. They spoke of feeling inspired by others’ work, and described a sense of moral support through meeting and talking about their work. This support often takes place below the radar, and through these discussions they felt that ‘what we’ve been doing is validated’.

Keeping the faith of inclusion in community development

It is striking that community development still holds the tension between top-down policy processes and bottom-up democratic engagement. And it is community development that still keeps the faith that it is necessary and possible to include people living in poverty and marginalization in researching, discussing, prioritizing, monitoring and evaluating development initiatives that impact on their lives.

There are continued challenges, and there was consistent emphasis throughout the event on the need for community development to have a critical dimension– and for the need to deepen this through the CDJ Forum. Participants from the UK were particularly concerned about the need for a forum in which to reflect on the challenges of community development given the trend towards depoliticisation. Participants from East Asia also reflected on how community work is increasingly marginalized. Forums such as CDJ are a form of resistance against this tendency, driven by neoliberal policies, to coopt and neutralize community activism.

Community development and the SDGs: a continuing global conversation?

Community development can be accused of parochialism, and accounts of community practices no more than an array of colourful descriptions of disparate local processes. The conference challenged this, as links were made within and between sessions, and a debate emerged about the contribution of community development in a world of increasing inequalities, within and between countries. IDS researchers and partners who had been involved in the Participate research programme came together on a panel to discuss the relevance of community development in the coming era of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Their accounts also feature in a special themed section of the fourth issue of the Community Development Journal in this, its 50th year. This was a timely opportunity to talk about the global policy process that, whilst ‘global’ and concerned with setting universal development goals for every country to implement, took place with very little domestic attention in the global North. As Pradeep Narayanan pointed out, the MDGs were goals set by the North, for the North, to organize its work in the South. The SDGs have had a much more open consultation process. The experiences and priorities of people living in poverty and exclusion made their way into the discussions, via participatory research and advocacy initiatives such as Participate and Beyond 2015.

But beyond this consultation period, the challenge is how to build participation into the implementation and monitoring of the SDGs. This is an agenda for community development practitioners in every country, and there is an ever-increasing need for a global community development forum in which critical approaches can be shared and debated, and international links and solidarities can be built. The Edinburgh conference demonstrated that there is enthusiasm and energy to make this happen – let’s hope that we can build on this and make this forum accessible and useful into the future.

Jo Howard is a Research Fellow with the Participation Research and Knowledge Cluster at IDS. She uses participatory action research and learning processes with marginalised people, civil society and government.  Her work spans issues such as women’s empowerment, state-civil society partnership working and participatory governance, in both the UK and the international development arena.

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