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Community development faces various intrinsic challenges for which there are no easy answers. Although individual workers may well find pragmatic solutions that reflect local conditions, personal preferences and political priorities, expediency sometimes wins out over principles. Practitioners experience tensions and dilemmas arising from their numerous roles and commitments. The situations they face are often characterised by dynamic uncertainty, conflicting loyalties and confusing ‘role strain’ (Hoggett et al, 2009).

Community development intervenes at different levels, from supporting standalone grassroots activities to campaigning locally for the aims of global social movements. Community organisers are located in a wide range of agencies, including trade unions, faith-based organisations, even some political parties. Where community-oriented posts still exist within local authorities, they may be found working in different departments with limited co-ordination. Years of falling budgets oblige specialist teams to cover several large areas, while their jobs are often located at the margins rather than the heart of the organisation. The purpose of community development is still contested in some quarters and it is frequently carried out through short-term micro-projects, fragmented funding and precarious job contracts, making it difficult to carve out a strategic and sustainable approach.

In the UK the loss of core funding for the major agencies promoting community development has led to a decline in resources and training, eroding its fundamental commitments and leaving a fractured and insecure occupation split across different programmes and models. Internationally, the position is often just as bleak (Clarke et al, 2021). The key national infrastructure and membership networks that in the past brought practitioners and activists together and acted as champions for community development have closed down.

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This chapter begins by tracking the way in which community development has evolved over the years and the factors that have shaped this evolution. It then identifies some of the recurrent policy themes that have driven interest in community development and describes the contribution that communities can make to these: welfare and service reform, democratic renewal, restoring community, and regenerating places and economies.

Community development today has many foundations in the past. Some lie in communities themselves: the mutual organisations, co-operatives and friendly societies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, for example, where, as industrialisation gained pace, working-class people banded together to pool their resources, meet common needs and campaign for improved rights and better conditions. Some can be found in external initiatives, such as the university settlements which, from the 1880s onwards, brought students into poor urban areas to live and work with local communities. More recently, after World War Two, the UK government introduced community development in its colonies as a bulwark against communism and to foster economic development in the interests of empire. It was then deployed to prepare indigenous populations for a peaceful transition to independence. Marj Mayo (1975) traces similar ‘colonial’ antecedents in the US, where, she argues, self-help projects were supported in order to stave off discontent among Black and minority ethnic (BME) populations and ensure a skilled and disciplined labour force.

Community development also has roots in housing and planning. The origins of the tenants’ movement, for example, lie in the rent strikes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

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Community development can contribute to outcomes in many different policy fields: community safety and crime reduction, culture and the arts, education, environment and sustainable development, health and well-being, housing, planning, regeneration and local economic development among them. However, as the following sections demonstrate, many of these issues cannot be divided neatly into policy silos or dealt with by separate professional disciplines. Community development strategies that reduce inequalities and community tensions generally, for example, also aim to improve well-being, living conditions and life chances.

Fear of crime and nuisance behaviours are real issues for many communities. On the one hand, they make people unwilling to engage; on the other, legitimate unease can be whipped up into vigilante campaigns – against street sex work or ‘county lines’ drugs dealing, for example. While residents might understandably want to take action to protect their neighbourhood, local communities should be persuaded to organise group activities that minimise harms without confronting the perpetrators. By addressing milder forms of vandalism or dangerous and antisocial behaviour, community development can increase people’s sense of local pride and mutual responsibility, thus giving them confidence to address more serious issues.

Community safety strategies cover several issues that trouble both policy makers and local communities, including domestic violence and hate crimes. Community development approaches have been used by public authorities and voluntary organisations to improve community safety, for example in relation to arson, gang violence, traffic accidents and/or nuisance behaviour. These involve public and peer education about risks, alongside a commitment to listening to community concerns, developing solutions that will work in given circumstances and generally trying to improve relations between community members and public services such as the police, firefighters and planners.

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As we saw in Chapter 2, community development is fundamentally concerned with enabling communities to organise collectively and gain greater influence over decisions that affect their lives. Its purposes are:

  • to promote the common good;

  • to challenge injustices; and

  • to nurture individual and collective capabilities.

Community development has a number of core commitments that workers strive to incorporate into their beliefs and practice. It is primarily concerned with mobilising people and assets to overcome disadvantage. It is frequently deployed in places where the whole community is stigmatised and excluded, for example in areas where there has been social breakdown or long-term failure of the local economy. Such communities are characterised by low levels of voluntary activity and often lack suitable spaces to meet socially and to organise. Consequently, within these populations, informal networks may be unravelling and there will be further tensions caused by different forms of oppression, such as transphobia or ageism. Community development interventions sometimes start from supposed problems and deficits, because these difficulties are constantly eroding the capability of communities to tackle the issues they face without additional support and funding. Consequently, existing strengths and assets may be overlooked that have enabled communities to survive, if not exactly thrive.

This chapter will look at the methods, resources and attitudes that assist communities to develop a sense of their own rights and responsibilities, while growing their capacity for collective action. It reminds us that important principles underpin community development and considers what is needed to support effective practice, including recognised skills and techniques. In doing so, it will address long-standing debates over whether community development is best seen as practical activism, an occupation, a profession, an intervention or a movement.

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COVID-19 has demonstrated the risks associated with predicting the future. Prior to 2020, few could have imagined the global crisis that it has created. And even as countries took steps to contain its spread, hardly anyone expected these measures to be required for so long. As vaccinations begin to provide some protection and restrictions ease, we can perhaps allow ourselves to see a post-pandemic future. But we are conscious that, by the time this Short Guide is published, the wheel will have turned again. We do not yet know what this will mean. However, in some respects, the pandemic has simply served to expose or accelerate underlying trends. This chapter considers how these trends are likely to affect local communities in the coming years, what community development can offer and how, in turn, prevailing conditions are likely to change the nature or focus of work with communities.

The first edition of this Short Guide was published shortly after a Coalition government had come to power in the UK, with the incoming government pledging to give communities more powers and devolve decision-making and responsibilities downwards. But since that time, the commitment to empowering communities has wavered. The community development infrastructure has been seriously hollowed out and those working with communities have faced new challenges posed by austerity and widening inequalities as well as the entrenched divisions exposed by the Brexit referendum and its longer-term consequences. As we write, the UK, along with many other countries, faces a likely economic downturn as well as the unknown effects on mental health of social isolation and interruptions to education that have accompanied the pandemic, especially for adolescents whose rites of passage into adulthood have been disrupted.

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‘Community’ is a concept that seems always to be in fashion with policy makers. In some quarters, the existence of community is seen as a natural and enduring facet of society; others lament its decline. One of the primary purposes of community development is to boost the effectiveness of community action and build grassroots capacity. As such it has been repeatedly ‘discovered’ by governments worldwide as offering ways to ‘restore’ community, to enhance democratic participation and to tackle poverty, alongside other seemingly intractable social problems.

Not everyone sees the necessity of strategic interventions to promote community development. Indeed, the term itself is problematic, with the approach also being called social development, popular education, critical pedagogy, community organising, community engagement, neighbourhood renewal and community education, for example. In the UK some prefer the term ‘critical community practice’ (Butcher et al, 2007), which describes a broader approach to working with communities. Nonetheless, internationally, community development is commonly adopted as a means of developing infrastructure, local economic initiatives and good governance. But governments have also been confronted by communities who have decided to mobilise for themselves, organising services, protest actions and self-help movements to improve living standards and claim important civil and human rights. This is also a form of community development.

In the 1950s the United Nations defined community development as ‘a process designed to create conditions of economic and social progress for the whole community with its active participation’ (United Nations, 1955, p 6). The International Association for Community Development (IACD) has adopted the following guiding principles for working with communities.

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The only up-to-date, accessibly written short guide to community development, this third edition offers an invaluable and authoritative introduction. Fully updated to reflect changes in policy, practice, economics and culture, it will equip readers with an understanding of the history and theory of community development, as well as practical guidance on how to do it.

This is a key text for all students and practitioners working with communities. It includes:

• a broad overview of core themes, concepts, basic practices and key issues in community development;

• an analysis of the impact of COVID-19 on community life and well-being, along with the implications for longer-term community support;

• additional brand new content on the pressing issues of democratic decline, social fragmentation and isolation, social care pressures, technological developments and climate change.

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This chapter gives a brief introduction to some of the theoretical perspectives and concepts that inform community development. We look at ways of understanding the context within which community development works and its potential for social change.

Chapter 2 described the core values and principles of community development; these tell us what it is trying to achieve, but not how it might do so. Theories help us to understand why and how facts and events come to be as they are and provide an analytical framework to guide our judgements and actions.

Theories from a variety of different disciplines can help community development to understand the world in which it operates and to consider which strategies to pursue. These disciplines include economics, sociology, human geography, political science, psychology and management theory, for example. There are theories that help to explain how communities function (or not), how power works, how policies are made, how democracy works, how people can be mobilised and what motivates them, how collective action can be organised and how systems operate and adjust to change.

A short guide cannot do justice to all the theories that might prove useful to the student or practitioner of community development but in this chapter we set out some of the ideas that we have found most helpful. For deeper insights, we recommend that readers follow our signposts to further reading.

We start by exploring the idea of community and associated theories of social capital. We then discuss some psychosocial concepts that shape the processes involved in community development as well as recent thinking about identity, individual motivation and collective efficacy.

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This chapter focuses on different understandings of community development. As indicated in Chapter 1, we use ‘community development’ as an umbrella term to cover a range of different methods for working with communities:

  • to open up opportunities for collective action;

  • to improve living conditions and services;

  • to uphold and extend rights; and

  • to support individual advancement.

We set out the core principles and processes that characterise community development and distinguish it from related approaches and concepts. We review different models for working with communities, as well as exploring the relationship between community development and similar strategies for achieving change.

Internationally, community development encompasses many approaches, contributing in different ways within a set of core principles or expectations (see Boxes 2.1 and 2.2).

The European Community Development Network (ECDN, 2014) has adopted a similar common framework that brings together the values and principles shared by its members.

Many people and agencies contribute to community development. This chapter will focus primarily on the role of the community worker or organiser, who is often an outsider, usually in a paid job that involves working with residents or community members to support leaders, activists and volunteers to come together, co-ordinate their efforts and achieve the change they desire.

As we will see in Chapter 5, community work is skilled and strategic, but its starting point always involves learning to understand the community from the inside, listening to people’s experiences, identifying priority concerns and long-term goals. Arising from these conversations, the worker will help groups to form or engage with existing networks, agreeing broad aims and establishing how they want to run themselves.

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Building Capacity for Meaningful Participation by People Living with Dementia is being undertaken in Canada under the umbrella of the federally funded Dementia Community Investment. This four-year Building Capacity Project (2019–23) models a bottom-up cross-sectoral approach to building and connecting community-based activities that provide meaningful opportunities for people with dementia to remain active and socially connected. In this chapter we examine how the project is designed to build practical knowledge from the ‘ground up’, working closely with people who are most directly affected by the issues (especially those with lived experience of dementia), and taking local context into account using methods of asset-based community development and developmental evaluation. Most importantly, this work is being carried out in two very different places, which is allowing us to both leverage our unique strengths and discover the common principles underlying successful approaches that can then be scaled up more broadly, including nationally. Ultimately, the aim is to create and share new knowledge about how this kind of ‘grass roots’ approach can lead to sustainable change at individual, community and institutional levels to promote social inclusion, raise awareness and reduce stigma around dementia.

Recognising the importance of place in this project, we begin by describing where the work is happening. This allows us to make explicit the significance of local contexts, be they geographic, social, economic, cultural or political, which are intrinsic to how we are developing and evaluating the various activities and programmes.

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