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Conservatism and Community Development January 12, 2012

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Economy, Irish Politics, The Left.

I’m reposting this response by Carigeen to the What You Want to Say thread from yesterday because I think it deserves the widest possible readership. The points it raises are multiple, but perhaps the position of class and the issue of ‘respectability’ is what strikes me most of all.

In 2010-2011 I did a extra-mural community development course run by a university in a small midlands village. It was an extremely frustrating and demotivating experience.
Did I really sit in a room in 2011 and listen to ‘community development’ workers tell me about wonderful Father X is and how good he was with young people? Are people really that unaware of their environment?

There seems to be an extremely conservative atmosphere developing in the community development area. Like everything it’s related to the economic situation, the money to buy off groups is not longer available.
This a bit of feedback I wrote on the course.
“There is no such thing as a neutral education process. Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of generations into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes the ‘practice of freedom’, the means by which men and women deal critically with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.” —Richard Shaull, drawing on Paulo Freire
Community development is a very important and powerful process. It brings together people and resources from communities to achieve tasks that are perceived as being of value to the community.

However it’s important to be aware that there can be another, much darker, side to community development. Some community groups actively use community development as a tool of social exclusion. These groups follow Groucho Marx’s maxim, “I’ve a good mind to join a club and beat you over the head with it.”
Groups like this practice community development in order to help ‘our’ kids overcome the disadvantage of having to associate with ‘their’ kids.

Many of these groups act in direct opposition to their stated aims. For example, even after twenty years I’m still bitterly angry at the group that named the Travellers workshop in Athlone St. Jude’s Workshop (the patron saint of hopeless cases).
I’m concerned that the entire course misses a very important aspect, the right and duty of community and activist groups to challenge authority in a fundamental way.

Community development that does not do this leads to an extremely conservative focusing on small scale, respectable causes. There were a lot of community organisations in existence during the heyday of the residential institutions but not a single ICA guild, or IFA branch, or Muintir Na Tire guild, or trade union said a single word in protest against this crime.
Even worse, the groups who claimed to be interested in protecting children, the ISPCC and Barnardos, actively colluded in recruiting children into this terrible system.

The first step in social exclusion is not to see people. The half-starved, dirty children from the residential institutions were invisible to the respectable people and so the system endured and flourished for 60 years. Similarly no one has seen, or cares to inquire about, the 500 asylum-seeking children that have disappeared from HSE care in the past decade.
In general community development projects are very focused on respectable issues and services delivered to socially acceptable client groups. Typical isues are child care, community centre development and care for the aged. Even projects that seem to be on the edge, such as youth justice programs, tend to focus their activities on mitigating the problems caused by their clients to their “elders and betters” in the wider community.

These projects offer no challenge to the existing way of doing things and so are approved of and funded by various authorities. Projects that challenge the existing consensus are marginalised and ignored.

My list of problem areas that are passed over in silence are (I’m sure others will have a different but similar list):

• Refugee and asylum seeker isolation and poverty

• Travellers rights issues

• The arrival of heroin in the country towns and villages

• Young people, drink driving and speeding. This costs about five lives in the midlands each year.

• The homophobic culture that exists unchallenged in schools and society. This is closely related to the number of youth suicides.

• The ecological devastation caused by Bord na Mona’s operations.

• Effectively uncontrolled rural development leading to a large number of septic tanks. This will eventually lead to irrecoverable contamination of the ground water.

• The abuse of non-English-speaking migrant workers in small industry, particularly the mushroom growing plants
• The unsustainable dormitory suburbs in the coming age of high unemployment and high fuel prices. The recently discovered cannabis growing houses in a ghost estate in Leitrim are a straw in the wind.

• Glue sniffing (done by deprived children) is ignored while a big campaign is mounted against head shops (used by middle class teenagers).

I think that a course that does not critically investigate the political, social, economic and ecological aspects of the society cannot accurately be called a community development course. I accept that these issues need to be approached at an appropriate level to that everyone can benefit from them. So far I see it as a course providing techniques useful in operating, but not changing, the existing environment.


1. popeepopt - January 12, 2012

That pretty much coincides with my experience or many voluntary groups. And my impression is that it is getting worse. The culture is closing in on itself, especially as the malcontents and outsiders leave.

A society that cedes power voluntarily and is systematically abused as a result, becomes blind the internal abuse of its own weakest.


2. Laurence Cox - January 12, 2012

Carigeen’s comments echo those I’ve heard over the years from many people working in rural community development in particular and the whole “service-delivery” approach more generally. There are some projects which genuinely struggle against this and refuse to operate in this way, but they are certainly a minority within a process which has overtaken so much of the “sector” (a word which in itself highlights half the problem – understanding yourself as part of the state’s policy process or as part of some funding mechanism rather than as part of a social movement against inequality and injustice).

There are some outstanding US analyses of this experience, notably Piven and Cloward’s *Poor people’s movements*, Nancy Naples’ *Grassroots warriors* and INCITE!s *The revolution will not be funded* – as well as some vocal critics within Ireland fighting to restore the radical purpose and defend or develop genuinely bottom-up, grassroots-democratic movements for change.

I’ve found over the years that while there have always been community activists willing to grumble and be critical, the crisis (and the collapse of funding for these co-opted approaches, the attack on social partnership etc.) is freeing up some at least to act outside the whole “managed” community system, or to operate “within and against the state” as John Holloway and others once put it.

There is a massive demobilisation to be overcome – part and parcel of the earlier history of choosing professionalisation over mass participation, funding over independent purpose, service delivery over advocacy etc. – but “another community development is possible”…


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