Community De-Development

In my first assignment I defined community development as the process by which “an increase in generalized reciprocity erodes the barriers that prevent the flow of social capital between social fields, corroding barriers to access to social capital across a locality”. After considering the role of the Canadian State in the provision of humanistic services, specifically health care and housing, I would add to this that for community to develop in the context of service provisions, those services must be provided out of the communities own resources, or at minimum out of resources which the community has stable access to. I have come to this view through the recognition that state involvement in in the nonprofit sector looks more often like a form of community de-development. For government to play a positive role in community development today it must remain keenly aware of the way its involvement impacts community’s abilities to self-develop, both in terms of controlling its resources, and also the tendency of communities to internalize the state’s paternalistic attitude towards them, which causes inertia and dependance on fundamentally unstable cycles of top-down support.

In “Partners in Public Service”, Lester Salamon argues that a severe theoretical inadequacy exists concerning the relationship between the public and nonprofit sector. He suggests this oversight is the result of a shared interest in avoiding the topic for thinkers on either side of the traditional political spectrum: “whereas conservatives have had an incentive to exaggerate the growth and power of government in order to emphasize the threat that government poses to private action, liberals have had a corresponding incentive to downplay the role of voluntary agencies in order to buttress the case for a government role”(108). Positioning himself in the neutral, sensible middle ground, Salamon argues for a theory of “partnership” between the public and nonprofit sectors. He does this by identifying a set of key weaknesses in the voluntary sector, and argues that government partnership serves as a fitting supplement to charitable organizations. The weaknesses he identifies are the inability to generate enough philanthropy to cope with the service required by an advanced, industrialized society, the tendency of organizations to focus on particular subgroups, the distillation of too much power over the services into the hands of a few wealthy donors, and an amateurish, not adequately professionalized approach to confronting major social problems. Salamon sees government as the solution to these weaknesses – the government can provide a stable flow of resources, particularism can be overcome by making access a right, the state (instead of wealthy donors) can set priorities in a democratically accountable manner, and amateurishness can be ridden out through setting quality control standards. The resulting harmonious, complementary situation is enough to elicit a chorus of “it’s a small world after all” in the reader’s inner ear.

Like the Disney ride, however, Salamon’s harmonious account is not radical enough because it fails to question the economic and political situation of advancing industrialization in which the key weaknesses he identifies in nonprofits begin to manifest. Salamon’s “solutions” to the weaknesses of non-profits are in fact a program for accelerating the community de-development which has been instigated by the inability of the community to mobilize resources adequate to meet the increasing social needs of modern society’s social problems. The problem of inability to generate resources, and of too much power becoming concentrated in the hands of a few benefactors are not failures of non-profits as such, but failures of non-profits in the context of an economic system where resources (i.e. capital) are highly concentrated among a small portion of the population. When the resources of a society become highly concentrated, individuals and communities find it more difficult to meet needs without relying on the centralized distribution of surplus (i.e. taxation). However, this “solution” takes nonprofits, which were born of needs and resources of a community, and whose existence was a form of genuine community development, and makes them primarily accountable to a non-local, politically motivated, and unstable master. Rather than having the state re-distribute a portion of surplus to the community from which it was extracted, it would be better for government to find ways to facilitate the transfer of wealth to communities, to increase the amount of capital controlled by communities and community members.

In the context of a state which is too weak to prevent the flow of capital out of communities and into the hands of the 1%, perhaps the best model for Government funded humanistic services which retains a structure amenable to the development of community are community health centres. By offering secure funding and creating community governance structures, community health centres offer framework which may help communities strengthen themselves by creating social connections and building social trust. Also, doctors who work in the centres tend to be ideologically motivated to serve and benefit the communities they work in, and are willing to make less money than they could find elsewhere in order to do so.  If the communities in which these centres exist take psychological ownership of them, becoming involved in their governance, and trusting the community-building, public-health conscious health care professionals working inside, then these centres could be sites where community is formed and strengthened. However, because the community does not own the centre, because the centre was not built by and for the community, and because there is no clear way that the communities in which these centres exist could finance them themselves if the state decided they were no longer an optimal way to provide health care services, I doubt they will ever be as strong centres of community development compared to organizations that are born of community needs and born out of community resources.

In too many cases, Social housing projects have begun by “slum clearing”, which is literally community destruction. At its best, the construction of social housing meets the basic material needs of a community, allowing it to flourish. However, when it is built with the trash bins out front to encourage tenants to move out as soon as they can afford non-subsidized housing, and when it is not maintained to a comfortable, healthful standard, social housing is a way that a society’s moralistic, pathologizing attitudes towards poverty are concretized into the daily life of many of the less privileged members of our society. So, rather than ask “is social housing a form of community development”, I find it more useful to ask “what kind of housing would be a socially conscious form of community development”? In order for the development of housing to be a form of community development, it must be developed by and for the community – the process itself must a problem-solving engagement that crosses social fields, that builds trust, and that encourages folks to take responsibility. In other words, co-operative property developments where the capital is controlled by the community itself. And in Ontario, much of the social housing which has been built was built as family housing co-operatives. However, despite the fact that the family housing co-ops own themselves, and the movement has the resources needed to continue to develop more co-operative housing, very little new co-operative housing has been built in Ontario without specific funding for the construction of new co-ops. This is very concerning, and it speaks to the failure of the co-operative movement in Ontario to develop community self-confidence. Compared this with the group equity co-operative movement in the United States, which since the creation of NASCO properties in 1988 has created many new co-ops through financing internal to the movement – not dependant primarily on any state funding initiatives. When attempting to explain why the Co-operative Housing Federation has not been able to do something similar I can’t help but focus on the dependancy of Family housing co-ops on ongoing state funding (the “operating agreements”) as a form of internalized statist paternalism –  a mindset that says nothing can get done without state funding. Social housing as community development must find its motivating principle in the community which is development itself. The state can play a role in getting things going if the community doesn’t have the resources, but the fact that state funding remains a primary concern blocks the community from taking charge of itself. It obscures the more fundamental power shift that is proper to co-ops – the transfer of capital into community hands. When that community-controlled capital can be mobilized as a resource by the community to meet the needs of the community, this is the point where we can say that the provision of a humanistic service is a form of community development.

A community is not a nation, and before we cross those two concepts let us not forget that Volksgemeinshaft remains a term which is basically unusable in German because of its association with the 3rd Reich. Lester Salamon calls it a weakness, an inadequacy that nonprofits tend to serve “particular” communities. But this particularism is not a problem – it is the solution. A community is not universal, one is not a “citizen” of a community, because the belonging is too particular, too mediated by specific relationships of belonging. At its best, a community is a series of porous boundaries which hold trust and responsibility, at its worst it’s a barbed wire fence, excluding someone from moral consideration because of their colour or religion. While there is never an excuse for a state to participate in processes of oppressive discrimination, it would also be a mistake to strip community organizations of the content of their particularity, because it is the fabric which stitches them together.


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