In all areas of academic or practical work related to disaster risk, climate change and development more generally, community and its adjunct community-based have become the default terminology when referring to the local level or working ‘with the people’.
The terms are applied extensively to highlight what is believed to be a people-centred, participatory, or grassroot-level approach. Today, despite, or because of, its inherent ambiguity, ‘community’ tends to be used almost inflationarily. This paper aims to analyse the way the concept of ‘community’ has come into fashion, and to critically reflect on the problems that come with it. We are raising significant doubts about the usefulness of ‘community’ in development- and disaster-related work. Our approach is to first consider how ‘community’ has become popular in research and with humanitarian agencies and other organisations based on what can be considered a ‘moral licence’ that supposedly guarantees that the actions being taken are genuinely people-centred and ethically justified. We then explore several theoretical approaches to ‘community’, highlight the vast scope of different (and contested) views on what ‘community’ entails, and explain how ‘community’ is framing practical attempts to mitigate vulnerability and inequity.
We demonstrate how these attempts are usually futile, and sometimes harmful, due to the blurriness of ‘community’ concepts and their inherent failure to address the root causes of vulnerability. From two antagonistic positions, we finally advocate more meaningful ways to acknowledge vulnerable people’s views and needs appropriately.