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The concept of community development, an accepted and much lauded mechanism for interventionist and participative social development grew out of the many strange ironies of empire building. The British, after infiltrating and achieving political domination over the Indian sub continent and vast tracts of Africa, and thereafter ensuring the decimation of local trade, industry, handicrafts and self government initiatives, made its officers busy with action plans and initiatives to develop and empower communities in these nations at the local level. Nobody in the British establishment presumably thought of the need to find out from the benefiting (sic) community whether they wanted either the destruction and bondage, or the succeeding efforts to help in local development and empowerment.
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Notwithstanding the rather questionable beginnings of the community development effort, the concept has grown over the ages to become an established method for interventionist social development where external agencies, governmental or otherwise, initiate, encourage and help local community development efforts in numerous areas, including social and economic development, fostering a capacity for local co-operation and self-help, with the use of expertise and methods drawn from outside the local community. (Midgeley, 1995) Community development initiatives, while growing and adapting to the needs of local communities in the UK and the USA, and despite being adopted by voluntary organisations like Rotary International for world wide implementation, have also seen large scale failures in meeting its objectives, especially in the African countries. These failures, especially in areas where they were needed most, led to disillusionment, and a feeling that community development practices were ill founded, or based upon unworkable concepts, and should possibly be replaced with other modes of development.
Nevertheless, community development efforts remain globally strong and attract many young and well-intentioned people, to work towards achievement of economic and social improvement of underprivileged or deprived communities. It becomes extremely important for community development initiators, practitioners, workers and volunteers, to understand the principles and values of community development, in order to understand its potential and limitations, the many constraints and challenges that crop up in the development process, and the likely chances of the success or failure of development initiatives.
Community development has been defined by an official publication of the UK government as “ active participation, and if possible on the initiative of the community, but if this initiative is not forthcoming spontaneously, by the use of techniques for arousing and stimulating it in order to achieve its active and enthusiastic response to the movement. (Smith, 2006) This definition entails an inherent contradiction, namely that while community development works on the principles of local participation, initiative and self-help at the community level, it also calls for sponsorship by external, mostly governmental agencies, who see it as an avenue for implementing governmental policies at the local level. Development initiatives thus also involve a significant amount of social work, and sometimes, even activism, in regions characterised by illiteracy, backwardness, poverty, deprivation, inequality and oppression.
Community development initiatives are characterised by the presence of two elements, one local, meaning the existing community, and the other, external, which is represented by governmental agencies, not for profit service organisations like the Rotary, and private foundations and corporations. British American Tobacco (BAT), for instance, sponsors significant community development programmes for tobacco growing communities in Asian and African countries, while Rotary International works on village extension and community development programmes in many nations, in which it has a presence. Non-governmental organisations, however, still need to operate with the help of the local government in many areas, thus making the involvement of the state in community development a fait accompli.
The functioning of external agencies in community development involves a number of phases that commences with the localising of a community and ascertainment of its various deficiencies and needs. This initial assessment is followed by the agency entering the community, obtaining familiarity with the neighbourhood, ascertaining needs, objectives and roles, establishing contact with local people, influence makers and power centres, bringing people together, obtaining agreement on specific objectives, forming and building local organisations to improve local issues like health, education, economy and self empowerment, clarifying goals and priorities, catalysing action, helping in keeping the initiatives going, monitoring progress, and taking corrective action. At all stages external agencies need to work in a catalytic fashion, encouraging, helping, and assisting community work, while refraining. from taking on a controlling role. Empowerment, and the building and enhancement of local community capacity in various areas that help in development should be the main objectives, as opposed to achieving results through direct control of the development process. (Henderson and Thomas, 2001)
Community development activity can be general or specialised. Generic work takes place in a geographically demarcated area, takes up all the issues that lead to social and economic disadvantage, and works out participative programmes to alleviate or eliminate them. The context can be either urban or rural. While rural development has gained ground in recent years and is attracting more funds, community development is an equally critical requirement in the slums and underbellies of the world’s metropolises, which continue to be haunted by gang overlords, prostitution, substance abuse, and domestic violence, as well as lack of educational facilities and poor housing. Specialised community work deals with specific groups within a region, namely issues like homelessness, unemployment, child prostitution, substance abuse or ethic issues, or with identified issues like transportation, housing, public health or sanitation. (Hickey and Mohan, 2004) A USDA publication states that community development initiatives are best achieved through the creation of business initiatives, sustainable community development, community-based partnerships and building and initiating long-term strategic plans. (Key principles of community empowerment, 2002)
This complex situation demands great understanding, perception and ability from community development workers. These committed men and women are expected to handle a myriad functions that include identifying community issues, needs and problems, developing new community based programmes and resources, and evaluating and mentoring existing programmes. They also need to be outgoing, possess excellent communication skills, and be able to empathise with members of the local community, qualities that help in obtaining cooperation and help from government bodies, community organisations, and various sponsors, as well as in raising public awareness on relevant issues. Community development practitioners are also expected to provide leadership, co-ordinate programmes, facilitate and promote community self help, encourage and increase local participation, and challenge inappropriate political and social structures. Administratively, their functions entail formulation, development and finalisation of strategies, recruitment, motivation and training paid and voluntary workers, networking extensively to build contacts and raise funds, liaising with interested voluntary groups to build new programmes and services, mediating and negotiating with opposing parties, planning, attending and co-ordinating meetings and events, overseeing, optimising and administering limited budgets, preparing reports, and carrying out other required administrative tasks. (Community development worker, 2007)
Community development demands enormous integrity, stamina, maturity and compassion from practitioners, workers and volunteers. The inherent difficulties in working in alien locations in non-structured working environments and inherently dynamic and changing conditions pose significant challenges. In addition, the inherent contradictions of being human catalysts for social change in foreign environments, of being change agents, at once part and yet distinct from the community, instil feelings of inadequacy, and sometimes even rejection, in communities where intervention may not be welcomed by significantly substantial members of the community.
Community development projects aim to unearth local problems, resource limitations, and unsatisfied needs, and work towards their objectives through local participation and empowerment. Yet community participation often fails, once the operating agency withdraws, and much of the gains of community development are lost in the following years. Most agencies working in community development, e.g. the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and Rotary International, as well as governmental and private agencies feel this to be a major problem. Situations like this, as well as apprehensions of development of such situations, result in implementing agencies having to stay on in particular communities or with specific projects, much after their need has diminished, and their services and skills required elsewhere. (Bhattacharya, 2004)
This often happens because of confusion in community development objectives and the undertaking of roles, in excess of actual needs, by development agencies. This factor, when combined with the role assumed by development agencies in mobilising funds, often results in producing feelings of inadequacy and helplessness in the community. It strengthens attitudes that magnify community problems, link the success of programmes with the expertise, infrastructure, and fund mobilising ability of the agencies, and works towards disempowering the members of the community, instead of increasing their capacity to address their problems. This overstretching by development workers establishes and ingrains a sense of reliance of the community on the agency, which consequently tends to negate the essence of the development programme. Development practitioners need to understand the delicacy of their roles and the thin line that they must necessarily tread upon if the community is to become truly empowered. A greater appreciation of the necessity for producing change agents in the local community, rather than donning the mantle themselves for perpetuity, and the need for engaging local people, so that they can help communities create a common dream of a fair and sustainable future, becomes extremely important for the long-term success of community development programmes.
Community development practitioners play extremely important roles in today’s grossly inequitable society, and with their grass root developmental programmes, have been instrumental in improving lives across the globe. A better appreciation of the values and principles of community development will possibly help them in improving the results of their efforts.
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