Some thoughts on Neoliberalism and Asset Based Community Development

This was prompted by a tweet from Cormac Russell (10/3/22) with a link to his response to MacLeod and Emejulu’s critique of ABCD. 

It was not a surprise that MacLeod & Emejulu called their critique of ABCD ‘Neoliberalism with a community face?’[1] It comes as no surprise that Asset Based Community Development is easily co-opted as an asset based approach.

It also is no surprise the Cormac[2] readily acknowledges that it:

“…has not done enough to lift up the voices of women and especially women of colour. In more plain terms, it is over populated with the voices of white, middleclass men.”

Our critique of ABCD centres on the omission of equality, power relations or social justice and that it sets itself in opposition to what it calls ‘deficit based community development’. This is something that we at changes flagged up when we first came across it.

We were astonished that this new ABCD approach prioritised people’s assets without acknowledging the impact of very difficult external conditions facing some groups of people. We really felt for the many community development activists, workers, and managers who were working with people in difficult situations and whose approaches, passion and commitment were being diminished.

It was clear that this approach was ripe to be co-opted as part of the move to put responsibility for communities and its infrastructure onto people who live in those communities; it was ripe for adoption by systems and structures who didn’t want to focus on systemic inequality and oppression, or change how they do things. There was little that was radically new within it; the methodologies of ABCD have been around for a long time in community development and radical community education.

If inequality and social justice are not explicitly at the heart of community development, it will lead to the same old power relations establishing themselves within groups and community action. It is no surprise that white middle class man take up leadership roles and dominate community space when they are allowed to. Power relationships and social justice should run through community development theory and practice like Blackpool through a stick of rock. Class, race, disability, sexism, homophobia and so on have to be part of the conversations and the strategy.

In terms of the Scottish context, we were involved in another ABCD approach to community development; Achieving Better Community Development which was developed through the Scottish Community Development Centre in the late 90s. This was a useful framework. However, after a couple of years of working with this around the UK, we felt it was important to critically analyse and refine it. We developed it alongside our peers in the community development world. What emerged was DICE with something called the Community Empowerment Dimensions at the heart of it. See https://www.changesfoundations.net/  for more on this approach to community development. (You may have to log in – quick and painless.)

Community Development does not exist in isolation from infrastructure and is not just about ‘communities’, however we define them.  It is about the relationships between communities and those who work the levers of power around money, decisions and resources. It has to be about community influence, otherwise it is a case of communities being left to get on with it themselves with no change to infrastructure and external conditions; the neoliberal approach of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps.

A five year piece of work in Dudley led to two frameworks around community influence – Voice and Echo. Voice is about community influence and Echo is about how institutions and structures could respond to that influence. These have been used across the UK, in the States and Australia. Hopefully there is little chance of them being co-opted by neoliberal ideology, as they require institutions and officers to challenge existing ways of doing things. There is scope to improve them though.

[1] Neoliberalism with a community face?: A critical analysis of asset-based community development in Scotland (MacLeod, MA & Emejulu, A) 2014

[2] C Russell 2016 https://www.nurturedevelopment.org/blog/neoliberalism-community-face-critical-analysis-asset-based-community-development-scotland/

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