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Where is the Community? The importance of participatory development

May 2017

Jeff Paddock

Today it is common knowledge that including the community in the development process is essential and the baseline of community development theory. The effectiveness of one’s project often hinges on how involved the community is in decision-making. Naturally, the more an organization communicates with community members the less cultural or social problems will arise later, but despite our agreement on this, it still proves to be very difficult to accomplish.


Frequently we talk with community leaders and form committees, but still see faltering commitment levels when the project takes off or worse, in fighting and lack of cohesion. There is a baseline assumption we often make that undermines us: we often forget to define community.


The phrase ‘community development’, like too many other things, emerged from the postcolonial era. British colonial officers coined the term in the 1930s when they didn’t have enough funds and handed over responsibilities to the locals instead. After 1948, it became part of an exit strategy. Unfortunately in the modern day, we are still making similar mistakes as did our ancestors, drawing invisible lines around an area or a group of people and proclaiming it a community ripe and willing for development. We ought to stop and ask ourselves, where is the community in this situation?


There are three things we should consider when answering this question. First, we need to know what the unifying factor is for the population we’re working with. Second, what levels of awareness exist regarding this factor, and third, what forces are working against the unity that will present us with obstacles in the future.


Our default reference for ‘community’ is typically a group of houses clustered together in the same space. However, relying on a spatial definition is inadequate to understanding its inhabitance. Communities rely on a sense of ‘belongingness’ to unify them and it is exactly this sense of allegiance that promotes collective action when the time comes. Place association is often not as strong as relationships with other people. Just because someone lives in an area does not mean they are committed to it. They might have a stronger bond with someone outside the area rather than their neighbors.


Communities can be broad and diverse, drawn along ethnic, religious, or socio-economic lines. Usually the unifying factor in a community has to do with a shared ideological view. Members of a club will seek each other out in times of crisis just as a family might prioritize their relatives creating ‘communities of function’. People band together in ‘communities of competition’, uniting as a team and competing for resources. ‘Communities of interest’ might be industry workers or laborers that share the same skills or employer. ‘Communities of status’ are the most obvious since they unite upon class divisions. Finding the unifying factor allows us to map community groups ideologically as opposed to geographically.


Although a group of people might be prone to collective action and perfect for a community development initiative, they may not know it. With various informal social and economic factors in developing nations, people are often not aware of the communities to which they belong. We can’t be fooled by short term unity when implementing a project. Studies show different communities can overcome interpersonal barriers in light of a new initiative for collective action, but the results are never long-term. Just because we’ve organized a group of people around a project, it doesn’t mean we’ve founded a new community.


Knowing the community and understanding what unites them will illuminate who feels like they ‘belong’ to what group. Hence, community profiles and extensive assessments are important. If the community already exists outside of the project environment, the impact on community participation will be substantial. That being said, even within a standing populace there are forces working against this unity that will undermine even the strongest bonds.


Community development is messy, especially when implementing democratic and decentralized organizational models. The processes and social divisions among communities are dangerously entrenched. In group meetings, marginalized community members are relying on the rules of the development organization to make sure that they are heard. True community development takes into account cross-cutting issues (gender, elderly, disabled etc) and ensures the process includes these voices in the discussion. Send invitations by personally distributing them to low-income households instead of via community leaders. Limit the number of elected representatives from the elite class. Make sure the process of development isn’t reinforcing the small oligarchy already established inside each community.


Social diversity can add to the mosaic of opinions and ideas that promote problem solving in community development, but when these forces turn on each other the divisions can be detrimental to cohesion. Communities characterized by sharp ethnic divisions will not provide as many public goods as a homogenous one might. While ‘belongingness’ defines community boundaries, levels of trust determine how well members work together in harmony. Working in the developing world means knowing who we’re working with and how they work with one another.


Community development is a lot like inception in this way. It’s like taking an idea and implanting it amongst a group of people who make it their own; who have to believe it’s their own, while institutions like us nurture its growth with funding and technical expertise. For this process of difficult odds to succeed, the inceptor has to know who their subject is, how they function, and how their conscious works. Grassroots work takes place in the communities that internalize their mission. Without these prerequisites, development organizations will see varying degrees of effectiveness and change. It pays to ask ourselves, where is the community in this situation?

About the Author

Jeff works on the ethical considerations of economic development and cash aid programs around the world. He currently works in Honduras, supporting local community projects through micro-finance and holds two degrees in Philosophy and International Affairs.

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