Kevin Lewis wonders whether asset based community development risks being just another coat of gloss on community development
Among the exhibits at yesterday’s People Powered Change meeting was a picture of Jim Diers and Cormac Russell at the door of No 10 Downing Street. Does this mean community development has come of age? Here are two respected representatives of community development practice, poised at the threshold to influence British government at its heart. Has community development finally made it to respectability, ready to play a consistent role in social policy?
They complement each other as speakers. Jim, from Seattle and elsewhere, delivers his experience of involving local people in creative neighbourhood action in a refreshingly unEnglish, impassioned, relentless enthusiasm. Cormac is thoughtful, reassuring, precise. Both are shunting in front of them the incontestably desirable benefits of good community development – local people becoming empowered and transforming their own circumstances in ways that have innumerable benefits all round.
But think back: only a few weeks ago the government showed the funding door to the likes of the Community Development Foundation, the Community Development Exchange and the Urban Forum. So what’s going on?
The fresh breeze blowing into UK practice comes from the opening of another door. The Big Lottery Fund has a largely untapped wealth of local project experience, is developing plenty more, and wants to get its new programme conceptually grounded. The ABCD brand (asset-based community development) represented by these inspirational speakers seems to fit perfectly. It all helps to raise awareness of community development in the context of national policy. The meeting felt like an effort to bring a broad consistency to the vaguely community development ethos that is expected to infuse social policy.
All this is more than welcome, but perhaps too much was made of the ABCD badge. The emphasis on assets is intended to restore balance towards local people rather than outside institutions, generating aspiration and confidence, and reducing dependence. But some of us will always be suspicious of anything that brands itself into an institution. And you don’t have to be a card-carrying sceptic to wonder what the first two initials add: all community development is asset-based, or should be.
Gabriel Chanan, who’s surely done more than anyone else to make community development acceptable to government, quips that “to justify AB you have to caricature CD as having been deficit based. It isn’t, but it could do with the boost.” Our protagonists presented ABCD as a “glass half full” model. In the past, they claim, too much intervention has implied a half empty glass, focusing on what is wrong in localities – crime, poverty, ill-health, poor housing – and is thought to need fixing from outside. Such interventions may be insufficient but should not be mistaken for community development.
By presenting community development as deficit based, it gets confused with misguided top-down regeneration policies. The key point is that hitherto, established community development has not succeeded in influencing such policies sufficiently. Therein lies the enormous promise of ABCD.
Of course, it’s politically convenient to shift the focus from the practical realities of deprivation. And it’s not hard to see the “glass half full” rhetoric as a top-down device which is used for palming-off objections without feeling you have to pay them due attention. Under this ethos, as Jacqui Karn illustrates forcefully in Narratives of Neglect, challenge gets portrayed as negativity, disagreement as intimidation, until the only options are assimilation or being seen as ungovernable.
Good community development practice doesn’t over-emphasise disadvantage and injustice; but it isn’t seduced into ignoring it, and it also has the robust courage to challenge the causes. In lieu of experienced agencies promoting these values, let’s hope they get reflected in the People Powered Change programme.
Community development needed vigorous refreshment, and we seem to be getting it. But ABCD risks being seen as the application of gloss. At a time of widespread austerity (sorry, I’m probably not supposed to mention that), that would be a pity because we’re going to need all the understanding we can get. However symbolic the appearance at Downing Street, the people-powered change programme needs the whole breadth of community development experience to make the impact that it promises.