echo

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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Community leadership / active citizenship

Our community leadership and active citizenship development work started in Wolverhampton in 1998 through a women’s community development and health project, when the focus moved from running workshops on ‘dealing with the menopause’ and ‘how to be a mother and stay sane’ to working out how women can influence the decisions that affect their lives. It evolved from a series of workshops around women and leadership which, by 1998 had expanded to include a programme of training, practical support and mentoring. The first accredited ‘course’ of this type began in January 2000 and it focused on women’s own experiences and opinions whilst setting out to explore local, national and European decision making structures.

Funding came from a variety of sources – Health Action Zones, National Lottery, Barrow Cadbury Trust – to develop ideas around women becoming more active in community and public life through using a community development approach, countering the notion of elevating a few women as community leaders to talk on behalf of others, engaging with civic structures as a token (and not necessarily particularly representative) voice for women. A key aim of the programme was to encourage women from a whole range of backgrounds to speak out and make their voices heard in whatever context is most appropriate and relevant to them.

The success of the pilot courses led to further developments around the main topics – citizenship, democracy, leadership and participation – and then to an invitation by the Home Office Active Learning for Active Citizenship (ALAC) programme to showcase the IMPACT! approach as a creative learning initiative (2004-06). We commissioned our own evaluation of the Impact! initiative to identify what it was that made the difference.

The experience of Impact! contributed substantially to the development of the Framework for Active Learning for Active Citizenship; the document was jointly written by Jill Bedford from Impact! and Helen Marsh from London Civic Forum and launched by CLG in November 2006. The Framework was subsequently named the Take Part Framework and the original group of seven ALAC projects became the Take Part network. The ALAC initiative was evaluated by Professor Marj Mayo and Alison Rooke from Goldsmiths College and their findings, including comments about IMPACT! are available at takepart.org.

changes was asked to present a paper to the Expert seminar on citizenship and belonging – part of the Commission of Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning (2008). The focus was ‘Moving on up: the role of lifelong learning in women’s journeys to active citizenship’.

In 2008, changes started working with Dosti, WVSC and Wolverhampton Council to develop a Take Part Pathfinder in the Black Country: funded through CLG (2008 – 2011) Details are below:

Purpose of the Initiative
To increase the level of influence people and communities have over the decisions that affect their lives and that this influence is shaped by the values of participation, co-operation, social justice, equality and diversity.

Delivery outline
The initiative encompassed work with individuals and communities as well as pubic sector organisations and agencies. There were five main delivery strands:

  1. Learning and support to build skills and confidence, within a community context – this would include active shared learning leading to community leadership; increased individual and collective voices, action and influence. This included courses, support network, buddying scheme, and information on opportunities for civic and civil involvement.
  2. Initiatives for community and voluntary groups and networks around monitoring and increasing their capacity to influence. This used Voice, one of the Axes of Influence, which was researched and developed in Dudley.
  3. Initiatives for public sector agencies to assess their openness to community influence using Echo.
  4. Joint dialogue across sectors and boroughs on themes of active critical citizenship, community empowerment, involvement and engagement.
  5. A pool of local facilitators developed and supported through training, shadowing and provision of materials

Women Take Part
During 2007 members of changes were approached by Government Equalities Office and Communities and Local Government to undertake research on under represented women in public life. This was called Women Take Part and built directly on the work of Impact! and other Take Part hubs. The Women Take Part (WTP) research was funded by the Government Equalities Office (2007 – 2008) to examine the participation of women, in particular under-represented women, in governance and decision making, in both community and public life. Women Take Part collected information about two sides of the story: ‘what works’ in terms of approaches, initiatives and learning models that encourage different groups of women to become more involved, and ‘what needs to happen’ so that structures, policies and organisations work in ways that encourage the recruitment and support of more women.

The report (published September 2008) provides a summary of the research findings and guidance on models and approaches which can be used to encourage, equip and support women. It is a resource which can be used by agencies, to extract information and ideas to inform delivery of relevant performance targets. The report draws upon research and knowledge which confirm and articulate the inequalities surrounding women’s active participation in public life. The need to develop and grow the ‘pool’ of women available for civil participation and civic engagement is emphasised. Despite being researched and written in 2008 the report and the framework developed from the research is increasingly relevant in 2013.

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