The following aims to provide some concise opinions (and answers) to the queries I have received from the article: Thoughts on Community Development on this blog. I recognise that not all from the ensuing discussion has been covered, and I apologise for that, but please continue to send, whichever way you prefer, your thoughts and opinions on this subject, and clearly state if you wish to have your contribution published on L’Aquilone.
Many thanks, nic:-)
Community Development (CD) takes place in a myriad of settings. However, there are particular conditions that need to precede its processes. Those conditions can be generally described as oppression, injustice and inability to meet communities’ needs, to name just a few. Thus, in my view CD must aim to rebalance these conditions by engaging with those who are directly affected by them, and to develop new structures that will allow the community to meet its own needs.
For CD to occur, then participants must be aware that changes are necessary at both ends of the social sphere—the personal and the collective, this requires participants to engage in a political discourse. Therefore, the CD initiatives I’d like to see are those that engage community members in political activities that reframe the often held notion that politics is a professional career to be pursued by selected few, consequently, taking participants a step above deliberative democracy in order to recognise the value of participation in the political and democratic process.
In practice, such initiatives would need to explore the way that we are governed and get participants to re-enact the roles assumed by those in power and discover alternatives that can bring about change, ultimately inspiring people to directly participate in the same process in the real world.
Despite the banding around of the term ‘democracy’ as the right of citizens to decide on matters of general concern, most Western democracies operate under a system in which democracy is not longer direct but indirect. That is, decision making is relinquished to elected representatives (Representative Democracy). In a nutshell, RD involves the election of representatives who take charge of the decision making as a mandate from some of the people, bearing in mind of course that there are many community members that are not able to exercise the right to vote, as for example, youth, prisoner, etc. Effectively, RD involves the transfer of power to elites, consequently disempowering the people in whose interest democracy is supposed to work.
By contrast, in Participatory Democracy the people are supposed to participate directly in the decision making process. There are four characteristics of PD that are relevant to CD work: decentralisation, accountability, education and obligation. Decentralisation involves a bottom-up approach; accountability ensures that decisions and plans are carried out; education implies making informed decisions; and obligation requires participation in community life to buck the trend of individualism and the erosion of social capita.
Ife (2006) notes that strengthening PD requires deliberative democracy—the mechanisms that see governments engaging in community consultations before plans and policies are devised, thus drawing from community expertise. Although community consultation is a welcome practice, it cannot guarantee that it is more than a token gesture or a way to keep up appearance as the political actors engaged in the consultations are the same elite that assumed power by RD structures and institutions and are at the core of the oppression, injustice and inability to meet communities’ needs.
The obvious alternative would seem to require the elevation of those who are sought to be consulted to directly make the decisions. This can occur if people feel that their issue or activity is important; that their action will make a difference; that different forms of participation is acknowledged and valued; that there are structures that enable participation; and structures and processes are not alienating. In other words, a step above DD that sees community members choosing to nominate for political work or supporting candidates committed to the four characteristics of decentralisation, accountability, education and obligation.
Foto: Graffiti from San Lorenzo – Quartiere Libero, ’09. The text in the picture says: When a bird is given food and water without the possibility to procure it for itself, the bird relinquishes the privilege to fly.