Sue Kenny, Jim Ife and Peter Westoby (eds) (2021)
Populism, Democracy and Community Development
Paperback: ISBN 978-1-4473-5384-3, £29.99
Hardback: ISBN 978-1-4473-5383-6, £75.00
eBook: ISBN 978-1-4473-5387-4, £29.99
The editors of Populism, Democracy and Community Development – Sue Kenny, Jim Ife and Peter Westoby – deserve congratulations for their ambition and audacity in putting together a book of this scope. They take on three bulky conceptual ideas – populism, democracy and community development – and analyse how they interact with each other. Not content with this challenge, they then examine the different trajectories and interactions taken by this ménage à trois across half a dozen nation states over nearly 50 years.
This volume, which forms part of the Rethinking Community Development series, starts with a thoughtful introduction by the editors. They acknowledge that contributors take a variety of approaches in relation to the book’s three overarching ideas and how these interact in different historical and political contexts. It is refreshing to gain insights that stretch beyond the UK–US nexus: authors in Part 2 examine interpretations of community development from Finland and Germany to Latin America, Hong Kong and Indonesia. Nevertheless, there is a sense that, the further we move from that typical nexus, the harder it is to sustain the idea that we are dealing with the same practices and ideas. Notions of activism and civil society remain close to the community development family, but perhaps at times – and in different contexts – they resemble close cousins rather than sisters and brothers.
For many of us, over the years, the term ‘community development’ has presented an attractive process and a rallying call. It has stood in contrast to notions of ‘top-down’ bureaucratic decision making while favouring voluntary and community citizen involvement in ‘bottom-up’ approaches to local development. Nevertheless, Kendall and Knapp’s (1994) famous description of the voluntary sector as a ‘loose and baggy monster’ might also apply to community development. Indeed, definitions or descriptions of the term have sometimes run to several pages or more. The editors of this volume recognise how the term holds multiple meanings for different stakeholders and wisely embrace this complexity. Sue Kenny’s approach, in Chapter 2, provides a helpful starting point in framing it as ‘a process in which communities take collective action to gain control over their resources and futures’ through democratic means.
The examination of community development practice in relation to populism offers fascinating and challenging paths that have not often been taken. Here, populism is analysed through the notion of a political culture – in which we are all immersed – which frames our thinking and practice in relation to the social world in general and community development in particular. The authors in Part 1 consider important interactions between this practice and populisms of the right and left. In particular, Saul Alinsky’s notion that community activists need to ‘rub raw the resentments of the people’, as examined by Peter Szynka in Chapter 7, points to very similar activities undertaken by populist leaders on the right and left. Nevertheless, as Szynka argues, the community developer tries to understand community problems and resolve them cooperatively, while the populist may stoke irrational hate with terrible consequences. In this context, Jacques Boulet, in Chapter 6, points to the emergence and growth of a ‘social-media-weaponised’ populism. Drawing from Arendt, Orwell and Foucault, he points to the invasion of these platforms in our society as a ‘morbid dedication to IT and the social media’.
Marjorie Mayo extends these ideas, in Chapter 5, to an examination of how community-based education may draw on ‘popular’, as opposed to ‘populist’, education. The former approach is close to – and acknowledges – a debt to Paulo Freire and others. It represents a pedagogy that starts from people’s own needs and their understandings of the social world. In this way, a popular education process seeks to build a ‘direct link between education and social action’ as a retort to both authoritarianism and populism. This discussion also draws on Hoggett’s (2016) psychosocial exploration of emotions and how community development work may engage with this realm. Certainly, the editors have been careful to note how community development may be present, albeit with a variety of faces, in differential democratic regimes.
The dangers of the community development process in the UK being gradually co-opted by the contracting culture, especially from 2010, are discussed by Andie Reynolds in Chapter 13. Public sector professionals – including community development workers – and voluntary community groups’ were encouraged to form social enterprises to run contracted-out public services. Meanwhile, over a five-year period, the government’s budgets for Communities and Local Government were cut by 51%. Against this background, Reynolds examines the competing discourses and considers how far community development and left-populist strategies may connect.
The operation of clientelism, in both the northern and southern hemispheres, is perhaps underplayed as a significant – and perhaps disruptive agent – in democratic processes and community development. Hence, systems of favour where citizens receive ‘material benefits … only on the condition that the recipient returns the favour with a vote or other forms of political support’ (Stokes et al, 2013: 13) are prevalent both in the South and, to some degree, in the North. Marcelo Lopes de Souza, in Chapter 9, examines how populism has weakened environmental justice in Brazil. It has, according to Lopes de Souza, largely ‘demobilised Brazilian civil society and the activist citizenry and community organising that goes along with genuine community development’. Nevertheless, the role that subtle or blatant clientelism may play in relation to local communities, and community development, in the North remains less examined.
The complexity of the task the authors have undertaken in this volume is both admirable and remarkable. Across 14 chapters, this volume provides high-quality – and tightly argued – contributions, with a critical and international perspective. It offers important resources to scholars and practitioners active in the community development field who are engaged in reflective practice within their own settings. Meanwhile, for those involved locally or nationally in the wider voluntary sector, this book can aid a critical analysis of the spaces for interaction between voluntary action and democratic processes.
Kendall, J. and Knapp, M.RJ. (1994) A Loose and Baggy Monster: Boundaries, Definitions and Typologies, in R. Hedley, J. Davis Smith and C. Rochester (eds) London: Taylor & Francis, pp 66–95.
Stokes, S.C., Dunning, T., Nazareno, M. and Brusco, V. (2013) Brokers, Voters and Clientelism: The Puzzle of Distributive Politics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.