cdCommunity work takes many forms. Professional helpers, volunteers, activists, charities, all of whom provide hosts of activities intended to help people who are poor, sick, neglected, marginalised and vulnerable. Nonetheless, these people can easily be made into the objects of the “help industry” to be moulded and shaped by the community services to justify the existence of such an industry.


Community services are often presented as an essential, if not indispensable part of society existing to respond to the many inequalities in housing, health care, education and income. These inequalities are rooted in social structures and institutions in which those who have gained material success and social status are able to remain successful, and indeed pass on their material and social wealth to the next generation. On the other hand, the same social structures and institutions erect barriers in an attempt to exclude the poor and marginalised from avenues of equality, power and influence.


As a response to inequalities a community work vernacular has emerged around key terms such as capacity building, empowerment, participation, resilience, community engagement, to name just a few. And although at first glance these terms seem to be well intended, unless they are practised from a particular approach to community service, they become window dressing achieving little to change the lot of the people the help industry aims to assist, and much less to remove the barriers erected to prevent people improve their lot and meet their needs.


Moreover, the ways in which help is provided can often cement and perpetuate the structures that have created the inequalities in the first place. This quote from Tolstoy, although gender-centric, illustrates the point:

I sit on a man’s back, chocking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means—except by getting off his back.

(trans. Maude and Aylmer, 1975).


One approach to community work is community development. Although contested, community development endeavours to respond to the many problems faced by society by exploring, identifying and developing solutions from within the cluster of individuals who identify themselves as a community.


This is often called a “bottom-up’ approach. An approach that stands in direct opposition to the “top-down” style of community services that often patronises those people identified as in need of assistance, but mostly, is unable and unwilling to accept responsibility for the consequences of the invasive models of help it subscribes to.


The following will attempt to describe the community development approach, firstly, by exploring a model analysing the nature of community work. Secondly, by briefly describing the context in which community development has been established. And finally, by looking at some of the defining aspects of community development approaches that distinguish it, but do not necessarily exclude it, from other models of community services.


Community service organisations operate from within particular worldviews. In other words, we don’t see the world as it is, but we see it as we are. Morton (1995) describes three distinct but related examples of worldviews shaping community services: charity, project and social change.


The following (quoted in Deans 2003; p.257) summarises each example:




Social Change

Charity involves delivering direct services to individuals, often for a limited time. Decisions about the service and control of the service remain within the provider.

Project models define problems and solutions and implement plans and programs for achieving those solutions: e.g. building home for low-income families.

Social change initiatives address root or structural causes of social injustice. People affected by the change participate in the work. The ultimate aim is to change the whole system; e.g. working with low-income parents to establish a child-care cooperative.


These three approaches are not mutually exclusive. However, Deans (2003) warns that respect and reciprocity are central to delivering effective community services. Further, the “helping the less fortunate” or the “serving clients” discourse that may emerge from the charity and project approaches, indicates unequal and vertical relationships in which the giver stands from above and the recipients accept from below. Arguably, eroding human dignity and obstructing the creation of partnerships based on reciprocity in which all actors give and receive according to their circumstances.


While all these three approaches to community services facilitate an opportunity for change in the lives of the individuals they aim to assist and the communities they live in, it is the social change model that is best equipped to challenge the structures that have created the inequalities in the first place. In this sense, community development is closely associated with the social change model.


Community development has emerged out of the quagmire of social services that fit the three approaches described above as an alternative to community work. Primarily, community development’s intent is on working with communities and not for communities. Nonetheless, community development remains a contested idea for similar reasons to those pertaining to the debate that contests the concept of community.


Community is a subjective experience (Kenny, 1999; Ife et al, 2006) that exists within a descriptive and prescriptive sphere. That is, community may refer to social relationships based in geographically defined areas, but also on more abstract and ideological levels such as class, gender, ethnicity, culture age and so forth.


National and international literature comprehensively exposes how the rise of the industrial society, and indeed capitalism, has contributed to the erosion of community structures and the ascension of an individualist ideology (Putnam, 1995; Cox, 1995; Kenny, 1999; Ife et al, 2006).


Further, in the 19th century, the German sociologist Tönnies drew distinction between what he called Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. The former denoted a self-contained community united by kinship and common bonds, the latter signifying an individualist, competitive and impersonal society whose bonds among its kin are based on contractual ties (Kenny, 1999; p.40). Tönnies believed that the process of industrialisation and urbanisation would cause alienation among individuals, thus leading to a loss of social support, intimacy and security.


Community development has largely emerged from a background of alienation among individuals and societies that have experienced a paradigm shift in the provision of social support as a result of the establishment and evolution of the welfare state. But importantly, community development has identified the need to rekindle, through collective activities, the relationships that have been erode by the individualistic ideology of industrial capitalism.


It is important to understand that community development does not hold a romanticised view of a traditional society that is close-knit and enjoys equal distribution of wealth and power among its members. For community development a community comes about according to the sum of its members and the sense of solidarity, trust, respect and reciprocity they make available within their own community. The process that facilitates the establishment of solidarity, trust, respect and reciprocity is community development.


Moreover, community development understands the contradictions, diversity, and conflict that exist within a community and does not pretend to be able to overcome those but accepts them as the characteristics of the reality of the community that has been constructed by its own members.


One of the defining aspects of community development approaches is that it does ordinary things with ordinary people. The difference is that those ordinary things that many people who live on this side of the track, including many community workers, take for granted like affordable housing, adequate health care, access to education, an adequate income and safety have been placed outside of the reach of others by political, economic and social structures and institutions intent on maintaining a division of power based on the appropriation of material and intellectual means of production.


To this end, community development aims at rebalancing the inequalities caused by these structures and institutions by engaging with those who experience the inequality to develop new structures that will allow the community to meet its own needs. For community development to occur participants must be aware that changes are necessary at both ends of the social sphere—the personal and the collective.


Contrary to other community service approaches in which professional intervention is constructed to be not only impartial and objective, but also consumerist, as in the professional-client relationship, where the legitimisation of paternalism is disguised by “care”, community development assumes that there is no value-free objective interpretation of society (Kenny, 1999). And therefore, community development is acutely aware of the dangers that some community work poses in disempowering communities by not addressing the root causes of inequalities in society.


The critique toward social services delivered by professional helpers is not to be interpreted as a rebuke of professionalism in favour of activism. On the contrary, community development promotes professional development and requires its practitioners to be clear about the challenging environment that it operates in. Such challenges are not only presented by the structures and institutions that are at the root of inequalities and injustice, but are also advanced by collectives of community workers whose approach promote different models of intervention.


Importantly, community development is informed by theoretical paradigms that require judicious dedication and critical assessment of the values, ethics and practices that are employed to ensure that its activities provide a clear and realistic alternative to improve the lives of community members it operates within.


The paradigms that offer significant theoretical basis to community development approaches are those that recognise class inequalities and struggles. In this sense, Marxist and Feminist paradigms, although not exclusively, resonate with the needs for social change. The former understands the state of conflict between oppressors and oppressed and rests on a strong intellectual underpinning, although it stops short of considering other aspects of class inequalities outside of the economic sphere. The latter offers a formidable critique of the structures and institutions that continue to create a multi-layered citizenship based on gender while disguising themselves as open and egalitarian.


Community development is also acutely aware of a range of theoretical paradigms including liberalism and fascism that have embraced community development approaches to substantiate their particular ideology, but warns that fundamental to community development a human rights approach must be of the essence. It also warns of the dangers of political ideologies co-opting with community work. In other words, the possibility of community work exploiting individuals and communities to ensure its own survival or the buttressing of specific ideologies.


Clearly, community development exists in a challenging environment. Its tasks are quite complex, weighed down with contradictions and paradoxes and often stressful and unthankful. Nonetheless, Kenny (1999) suggests that community development must be committed to at least eight principles:

  1. Powerless people and social justice
  2. Citizenship and human rights
  3. Empowerment and self-determination
  4. Collective action
  5. Diversity
  6. Change and involvement in conflict
  7. Liberation, open societies and participatory democracy
  8. Accessibility of human service programs


While these principles appear lofty and idealistic, and often claimed by other models of community service as broad visions or mission statements, but viewed as unrealistic and not grounded with the immediate problems faced by community workers, community development attempts to apply them in everyday practice by utilising what McArdle (1993) calls the community development tools.


The following summarises the community development tools:

·         Information collection: including needs surveys, statistics, information on community attitudes and culture;

·         Awareness raising: including educating the broader community about social issues, inequalities and the need for change;

·         Advocacy: including influencing policy-makers and passing on skills enabling community members to access the system;

·         Self-help: bringing people together to develop and utilise structures that enables communities to meet their own needs;

·          Service provision: including responding directly to individual needs before tackling underlying social or lifestyle problems (often the first step of community development);

·         Networking: developing links between individuals and community services to enable a community to meet their own needs from a variety of angles;

·         Participation: removing physical, cultural, structural and other obstacles to participation in decision-making and service delivery; and

·         Resource provision: ensuring adequate funding and resources to enable the community to develop appropriate structures.


The single and most pertinent aim of community development is to empower communities to take control over their lives by ensuring that the decision-making process is in the hands of those who are most affected by the outcome. Further, the action that emanates from the decision-making process must result in the development of alternative power structures and the reform of existing structures (Ibid, p.7).


The tools of community development, although always in need of evaluation and refinement, provide a starting point from which disadvantaged people can take full control of their own lives in the knowledge that social structures and institution need to change and can be changed. This is the fulfilment of the vision of self-directed communities and self-actualised individuals.




Cox, E. (1995) A Truly Civil Society: 1995 Boyer Lectures. Sydney, NSW. ABC Books

 Deans, T. (2003) Writing and Community Action: A Service-Learning Rhetoric with Readings, New York, Longman

 Ife, J. & Tesoriero, F. (2006) Community Development: Community-based alternatives in an age of globalisation. 3rd edn.Frenchs Forest, NSW. Pearson Education Australia

 Kenny, S. (1999) Developing Communities for the Future: Community development in Australia. 2nd edn. Victoria, Australia. Thomson

 McArdle, J. (1993) Community Development. Resource Manual for Facilitators in Community Development. Windsor, Victoria. Employ Publishing Group

 Morton, K. (1995) The Irony of Service: Charity, Project and Social Change in Service-Learning, in Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, No. 2

 Putnam, R. (1995) Bowling Alone, America’s Declining Social Capital, in Journal of Democracy, Vol.6, No. 1, pp.65-78

 Tolstoy, L. (1975) What then must we do?  trans. Maude & Aylmer, Great Britain. Oxford University Press


Foto: Tiwi Islands, ’07