THE WORD “COMMUNITY” is currently experiencing a renaissance in Australian public-policy discourses. As global economic, cultural and social trends impact on Australian citizens’ opportunities for participation, there has been greater focus on building self-reliant communities.
In Australia, as in other countries, global trends have been accompanied by neo-liberal shifts toward “smaller” government. This places greater emphasis on responsive and efficient delivery of services, corporate social responsibility and the obligations of individuals to participate. Federal welfare reform has adopted the notion of a “national community” to legitimate a social-order agenda, which emphasises individual obligations, rather than a social-justice agenda, which emphasises individual rights. At the same time, state and local governments are constructing local “communities of place” as political spaces in which failures of the state and the market can be redressed.
In recent years, programs that take a place-based approach to local development have emerged. Variously referred to as “community building”, “place management”, “sustainable community development”, “social capital”, “community strengthening” and “neighbourhood renewal” initiatives, they are being implemented primarily by state and local governments. They have a dual emphasis on developing “soft” infrastructure – social networks, human capital and capacity for innovation – and favoring micro-interventions over structural adjustment in response to complex needs.
The increasing popularity of place-oriented policy reflects two distinct yet related trends. The first is increasing recognition of the spatial effects of inequality. Global economic restructuring and shifts towards supranational institutions have contributed to and highlighted the regional effects of global competition. Recognition of the “geography of social justice” by the OECD and European Commission in the mid-late 1990s provided the impetus for spatially oriented social policy. In Australia, this was fuelled by significant national research that highlighted growing inequality between regions and the rise of One Nation, which gave popular voice and political currency to the problems of regional economic and social decline. Understanding the spatial nature of disadvantage was accompanied by a growing recognition of the complex nature of disadvantage, increasingly referred to as “social exclusion”.
The second trend that contributes to and reflects the increasing popularity of place-oriented public policy may be described as the changing nature of governance in the network society. Sociologist Manuel Castells has argued that the network – that is, a flexible and dynamic system of interconnected nodes – is the basic organisational form of the information age. The current focus on community self-reliance suggests a blurring of the boundaries between state and civil society. This places increased responsibility for community success on local networks and organisations. At the same time, governments are seeking to find “joined-up solutions” to the “joined-up problems” of social exclusion through the development of network governance based on strategic partnerships within government and between government and non-government actors. In this sense, current policy approaches to community building simultaneously emphasise the importance of communities governing themselves and the obligations on government to find more responsive ways to facilitate local self-reliance.
As Lynda Herbert-Cheshire has pointed out, the language of community strengthening has proven persuasive. And why shouldn’t it? What is wrong with placing value on local networks of engaged citizens and organisations taking innovative approaches towards stimulating their local economies, preserving their natural environments, generating employment and educational opportunities for their young people and supporting their most disadvantaged with limited intervention (or interference) from government? In a word – nothing. Across the country, there are numerous examples of local citizens working together to achieve positive outcomes in the face of significant adversity, with or without direct assistance from government.
BEYOND SUCH REAL-LIFE examples, the very notion of “community” as an ideal is itself important. It can provide the focus around which to build a collective identity, thereby giving meaning to the activities and goals of local citizens. That is, being able to talk about, and invest ourselves in this thing we call “community”, gives shape to the actions we undertake to improve local experiences of the world in which we live. However, when this ideal is invoked as a political space in which all failures of the market and the state can be rectified, it becomes problematic. A growing body of research highlights a number of problems with the current popularity of community building as public policy. These relate to the general appropriateness of policy responses to socioeconomic inequality being located at the local level and the extent to which community-building initiatives fulfil their policy objectives. My research, which has focused on rural community experiences, echoes these concerns.
The principal criticism of strengthening communities as the most effective way to redress social exclusion is that it does little to deal with the broader structural issues that impact on local experience. Authors Ian Gray and Geoffrey Lawrence suggest that the emerging policy discourse of community self-reliance reflects a rise of the neo-liberal focus on the individual, which characterises community challenges in terms of individuals, with no recognition of the effects of structural relationships on local communities. As they point out, patterns of inequality in areas such as the education system have profound effects on local community capacity for self-reliance, while decisions about redressing this inequality remain well outside the reach of the communities they affect. Where community building is touted as the policy panacea for social exclusion, there is a real possibility that governments may “pass the buck” for major structural problems onto communities themselves.
In my research in small rural towns in NSW, this problem was highlighted in the specific example of road quality, with one town particularly disadvantaged by poor-quality (local, state and federal) roads. This was viewed by many residents as undermining their capacity for economic self-reliance and community wellbeing by limiting tourism in the area, undermining the safety of the community (as some emergency services could not use access roads in poor weather) and encouraging population loss as young people moved to the closest regional centre for work and education, rather than chance commuting via poor roads and unreliable public transport. Residents interviewed as part of the research described the problem as an ongoing battle with local, state and federal representatives, all of whom avoided taking responsibility for the issue. Despite what appears to have been a protracted and sophisticated attempt by this community to solve the problem, this was constrained by the broader political environment.
Examples such as this highlight the limitations of effective community building in a political context in which there is no explicit co-ordination between macro-policy approaches and community-building initiatives. Indeed, decisions made at the macro-level can significantly undermine attempts to build resilient communities. In this case, residents recognised that the “opportunity cost” of investing so much effort in the roads reduced time and energy for other initiatives over which they had direct control. This suggests not simply a need for effective public management through “joined-up solutions”, but raises a fundamental political question about the possibilities of community-building strategies in an environment of competing political agendas.
WHILE THERE ARE significant questions about the effectiveness of community-building strategies, given the broader structural and political contexts in which they are being implemented, there are also a number of questions about the effectiveness of the community-building approach on its own terms. An overarching limitation of current approaches is a tendency to construct communities of place as homogenous and distinct units with a common identity. The very word, “community”, suggests a unified, collective actor. This assumption does not reflect on-the-ground experiences, and raises a number of practical problems for community building as a policy strategy.
First, the valorisation of local communities as homogenous entities does not acknowledge the range of values and perspectives that exist at the local level and, as such, does little to account for how diverse needs and priorities are accommodated in community-building initiatives. While it is true that many of the development models being used in current government programs identify diversity as an important feature of strong communities, these models are generally silent on the very real issue of power and its effects on whose voices are heard in the community-building process. In my research, I have observed traditional community powerbrokers using their power to silence those with different perspectives or to derail collective development processes with which they disagree. At the other end of the spectrum, I have seen well-intentioned attempts to include diverse views fail where they do not address the underlying reasons why not all groups or individuals feel confident to voice their perspectives. Communities are not level playing fields simply by virtue of being local social systems, and this must be acknowledged if community-building programs are to fulfil public-policy objectives of meeting the needs of the most vulnerable in our society. This reinforces the importance of empowerment – which was central to community-development models of the 1970s and early 1980s but which is often overlooked in current approaches to effective community building.
A second and related limitation is that, by their very nature, community-building initiatives must focus on locales that have some kind of clear sense of “place”. These initiatives require as a basic starting point identifiable and discrete places of manageable scale. Further, these need to be places that make sense to the people within them, so that they can both distinguish “their” community and invest themselves in its development. While there is clear evidence to suggest that there is geography to social exclusion, it does not mean there is a matching geography of community identity. The community-building policy approach may prove effective in clearly bounded locales, such as small rural towns and inner-city and urban-fringe public housing estates. However, it is less clear if it can respond to the needs of citizens living in less well-defined “places”, and if it can, how. Just as importantly, community-focused programs do little for those socially excluded individuals who find they live outside the community-building “policy radar”. This is particularly the case for some long-term residents of rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods in inner-city areas.
These issues highlight the limitations of policy treatments that focus on a social system, “the community”, which is somewhat vague and difficult to define. The other difficulty that community-building approaches face is the development of local level self-reliance. If community self-reliance is the primary policy objective of community-building programs, then it seems clear that appropriate and sustainable mechanisms for local governance need to be developed. That is, long-term community building generally requires local-level organisational forms capable of co-ordinating community objectives and available resources, and able to provide a point of contact with external institutions and networks. To date, little attention has been paid to this issue in community-building programs in Australia. Indeed, current policy discourses of community tend to assume that communities have natural organisational forms through which they interact with the organisational forms of government and the corporate sector. In a number of member states of the European Union, where locality-based policy programs are advanced, the issue of local governance has been addressed by formal local partnerships as a condition of community-building funding. These have been subject to criticism – not all parties to the partnership are democratically elected to represent community interests – but the development of legitimate and accountable local governance mechanisms remains a key challenge if community-policy approaches are going to facilitate long-term self-reliance.
Finally, while one of the driving rationales behind the current rhetoric of community building is the importance of finding joined-up solutions to joined-up problems, it appears that very little is being done to facilitate the development of “joined-up communities”. One of the principal arguments for the network as a contemporary organisational form is that it facilitates innovation through information and knowledge sharing. Despite the significant level of resources being invested by state and local governments in community-building strategies, little is invested to ensure that individual communities network with each other (although, there seem to be ample networking opportunities for government-employed field staff). Some excellent information clearing houses, such as the NSW Government’s Community Builders website, have been established online; yet there are few properly resourced opportunities for local representatives from diverse communities to share their knowledge and experiences with each other. This impoverishes the community-building approach by failing to maximise the benefits of accumulated expertise and experience in local areas.
This brief outline has highlighted some of the limitations of community building as a response to social exclusion and some of the basic weaknesses of current approaches. Reifying “community” as the site of policy intervention is potentially ineffectual, especially if inadequate attention is paid to diversity and power relations within communities. Just as important, the current popularity of local-level development programs runs the risk of obscuring the ongoing and critical need to redress the structural inequalities that feed relative disadvantage across communities. Rather than adopt an “either/or” approach to community building and macro-adjustment, explicit recognition of the relationship between the two is necessary to achieve positive outcomes.
About the author
Dr Josephine Barraket has both research and activist interests in community building, and has conducted several commissioned and independent research projects on this topic.She...
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