Community and Development – a conundrum

Current government retrenchment with an ensuing devolution of responsibilities to more local areas is causing interesting dynamics in the field of community and economic development.  Traditionally considered the domain of more senior levels of governments such development has gradually been taken on by those involved in governance closer to the local level.  This necessitates new policy development focused on many questions, with two being:  Can local governments really represent and provide all the needs of a geographic community or is  there a broader milieu that needs to be harnessed and supported ?  Is “community development” a service to be delivered or is it something that evolves from individual and local initiative, and activities in a supportive environment?  Then, of course, encompassing these there is the continuing struggle to define what constitutes community. 

I have discovered in my current journeys that the issues that rural people everywhere are addressing are similar in themselves and not all that different from those of urban environments.  Nor are they new issues to human history.  Twice during this century, other generations experienced the precursor of the change we now appear unable to avoid.   The economic depression of the thirties and the social revolution of the sixties challenged established concepts and institutions.   Processes that were initiated at the margins of those eras were gradually adopted as mainstream endeavours.  Only when the economic and social impacts were felt by those more in the mainstream of society and conventional top down management found wanting were more experimental and personal forms of community development allowed to surface.  People arrived at these approaches from powerless necessity by coalescing around local issues and one another in “community”.

The nineties brings us to another similar juncture similar to those of the thirties and sixties but, perhaps even more profound because the impacts of technological advancement and societal evolution are being felt further up the social chain.  Local initiative and involvement are again being espoused as the route forward.  I would suggest, it provides those, who would in stable times insist on administrative authority, a release from their responsibility, as they promote devolution towards local control and to more individual responsibility.  By enunciating decentralisation, more senior governments can deflect accountability with skilful posturing.

The question is whether or not all this posturing will allow genuine community building to happen or, as in the previous eras will it be relegated back to the fringes when this latest version of human social crisis is “over”  Will community development be recognised as a continuum, or again perceived as last resort utilised by those in power when their own solutions are found wanting?

Development, I would argue is not something that can be delivered either in the form of programs, grants or infrastructure such as governments have attempted.  Money and organisational support in themselves are not the solution for rural and other marginalised communities.  The real challenges are human issues.  Therefore, policy and ensuing initiatives must focus on linking people, often those with disparate interests, so that real communications can take place and the legitimacy of those disparate interests recognised.  The real challenge for the nineties and beyond is the encouragement of people participation, thus providing them forums for legitimising their own talents, skills and beliefs.  Only from this type of process will the formulation of methodologies evolve that will ensure that society is improved and enhanced – the real purpose of development.

While I believe we are beginning to orient our thinking and may even be arriving at a new plateau of intellectual and spiritual understanding, I also believe we require a re-definition of parameters and a re-examination of our values.  Destroying everything is not the solution to any of these dilemmas.  Rethinking present structures as well as designing new ones are both necessary.

The widening economic and social divide suggests that there is a need to re-design our mechanisms for wealth-creation and wealth-distribution. There is also a necessity for new methodologies to integrate local decision making into regional democratic decision making.  Most importantly, we must develop supportive environments for people that allows true reflection and self-analysis to address the present avoidance and deflection of human issues which are fundamentally caused by fear  of change and our human resistance to it.

Overcoming the inherent intransigence of people to change is the real challenge.  Finding the key to unlocking the spirit of individuality while providing hope and support is basic.  Understanding how each of us fits and interrelates in society in order to complement each other is likewise fundamental.  These are spiritual issues, social issues, and economic issues.  The process will involve reviewing the past and re-establishing fundamental values while recognising the present world with all its technological advances and conceptualising the future as we wish it to be.

Written by Bill Pardy

March 20, 1997

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