Special Articles / Abraham P. Francis, Venkat Pulla / Community Work : Theories, Experiences & Challenges
In this last chapter, the authors intend to provide a snapshot of the main discussions, themes and issues that have emerged for us. As has been evident from the previous chapters, community practice takes places in a wider socio-political context and social workers/ community development workers are urged to ‘work with people rather than for people’. We appreciate that we live in a world of uncertainties and we do not know what the future holds for us either. This is true for several communities across the globe that are deprived of basic necessities in life and are dependent on the NGOs or Government interventions to find a solution to their everyday concerns.
This poses a question about the approaches and underpinning theoretical foundations in community practice,that is, how can we possibly work with people in the ever-changing socio-political situation and when governments slip and slide away from their commitment to welfare because of emerging neo-liberal considerations, heavily influenced by globalisation? In this concluding paper, we attempt to revisit these aspects, namely, globalisation and uncertainty, and their impact on communities. Emerging literature, our practice experience, and our challenges are presented to the reader in a community development perspective.
It is generally accepted that people are living in uncertain, unstable and inadequate times of welfare services (Ife, 2002;Tesoriero, 2010;Office of the High Commissioner forHuman Rights [OHCHR], 2002). The world is facing social, cultural, economic, and environmental crises. Millions of people living in developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin-American continents are not able toaccess basic needs fortheir lives, such as health care, education, housing, safe water and hygiene sanitation, as there are so many issues with unemployment and poverty. These disadvantaged and uncertain conditions force community researchers, politicians, governments and humanitarian organisations, such as the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), non-government organisations (NGOs such as World Vision and Plan International), and communities to seek appropriate approaches to address these issues. This is indeed a call for response from social workers and human service professionals.
This bookhas handled a number of themes on community work and we would like to mention a few of them here to generate further discussion and discuss their implications in the context of current community practice. In the preceding papers the authors have discussed the role of community-based organisations in fostering a socially inclusive society; community development (CD) theories; community practice in working with immigrant communities; working with people affected by natural calamities; the concept of safety net groups; the impact of globalisation on rural communities; and case studies of micro-finance with the marginalised etc. Certainly this highlights for us that community is an ever-changing, fluid term. It cannot simply be defined by words but rather shaped by its members (Kenny, 2011).Community members’ commitment and involvement, through active, organised, and informed citizenship, is at the core of community functioning and therefore if this central value is absent or is wanting in one form, shape or another, it is a clear sign that the community foundations are shaky and it is questionable whether they may be sustainable in any form or shape.
Crucial to this is the degree of our understanding about partnerships and people’s participation. This is crucial. As authors of this paper, in our practice we have noticed the important roles played by the community members in demanding their needs, in collaborating with service providers and in working with the local communities. Several years ago, working with poverty groups in an Indian context, VenkatPulla (1987) in explaining community development in that context maintained that it has two sides:
the first is the development of the capacity of the people to work continuously for their welfare; the second is the alteration of institutions so that human needs are addressed at all levels, specially the lowest, through the process of improving the relationship between the expressions of needs and means to attain them. (Pulla, 1987, p. 9)
Closely linked to the idea of needs that has not changed much over the years is the idea of people’s participation. If the projects are not people-driven, the entire development initiative tends to record less participation. It has been noted that where community-based ideas flow we can find that the members actively participate (Flint, 2013).We agree that all development calls for enablers, helping professionals or committed people with an articulate program based on an ideology that wishes to meet the expectations of the marginalised in our societies. This fact is our learning: the learning that as community practitioners, we need to be thinking and talking about creating stronger ties and partnerships with people and relevant stakeholders with a view to sustaining their interest in the community. The question is how to conceive, develop and implement such processes in the community practice context?
Globalisation and Community Practice
Previous readings in this book have particularly looked at the ways in which globalisation has had an impact on communities around the world. ‘Community development globally has grown in the scope of its practices and forms of organisations. Huge, wealthy, and influential institutions like the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund have played major roles in shaping community development in developing countries’ (DeFilippis & Saegert,2013,p.1). While we all agree that globalisation has an impact on the communities, [t]here is a great deal of value in the globalisation-from-below movement. It encourages community workers not simply to fight or ignore globalisation, but rather to seek to redefine it in the interests of people and communities rather than in the interests of profits and multinationals, and to find ways that their own communities can benefit from new information and communication technologies. (Ife, 2005, p.5)
Uncertainty and Community Work
‘We live in times of crisis and uncertainty, but times of crisis are also times of opportunity, and in uncertain times the impossible can become merely difficult, and the difficult can become feasible’ (Ife, 2003, p.7). Communities in Australia and internationally are experiencing massive changes. One of the changes concerns climate variability which is an aspect of change with which social workers are now grappling. Communities are not sure what will happen to them in a few years in relation to the climate that may affect their way of life. Although social workers are responding to social realities, uncertainty in practice is an issue. This uncertainty calls for attention from social workers:‘The uncertain future is an opportunity for social workers… these events are an opportunity to demonstrate the profession’s commitment to human rights and social justice in work with individuals, communities, and the wider policy environment’ (Mason, 2011, p. 376).
What are Someof the Challenges?
Social workers/human service professionals working with communities are often confronted with many uncertainties and dilemmas in their practice. These challenges often provide an opportunity for the practitioners to critically reflect on their work. It is worthwhile to examine the work by Westoby and Dowling who state that ‘coming to an understanding of community development requires practice, constant effort and reflection based in a person’s own experience and context’ (2013, p.2). This is a challenge for practice. A correlated concern is also about framing a problem in a social context: who decides that it is a problem? and how can a coordinated community effort be initiated to address this? It is in this context that ‘a focus on the social dimensions of development is clearly as urgent now as it has ever been’(United Nations Research Institute for Social Development [UNRISD], 2011,p.3).The document further elaborates:
The challenge for contemporary development thinking is thus to move beyond critique towards alternative and multiple ways of framing the development problem, leading in turn to the recognition of diverse development paths. The response to crisis must place greater emphasis on recovery and development that is about people, society, social relations and institutional arrangements, and not simply be about a return to growth. This involves recognizing a diversity of possible development objectives, not only income growth and poverty reduction, but also enhanced productive capacity and employment, equity and inclusion, social justice and empowerment. Such alternatives need to value diversity of ideas, strategies and policies, rather than seeking a single solution; to have the flexibility to respond to uncertainty at multiple levels; and to recognize that political process and power configurations (whether at local, national or global level) are also important in determining policy alternatives.(UNRISD 2011,p.4)
This advocates for creating and looking at developing diverse pathways to engage with individuals, groups and communities. This can happen only if there is a ‘sense of vision’ among the communities, practitioners and funding agencies (Pulla, 1987).
In order to make progress or to do anything a man must awake from his sleep,a community must likewise be awakened from the sleep of backwardness, of living from day to day without concern for the future.A Jesuit priest Michael Van den Bogaert and a practising rural community development visionary in India used to saythatpeople whose minds were asleep do not have aspirations and no objectives to strive for. This meant that the disadvantaged poverty groups in context must become aware that they have problems/needs to resolve and objectives to achieve. They must look for opportunities to make use of; look for resources which are locally available and which till now nobody may have thought about. They must begin to realise that there are weaknesses within individuals and the groups and the enemies or handicaps inside or outside of their communities which hamper their social achievement. (Pulla, 1987, p. 9)
As said earlier, enablers are required in community to assist the process of development of a vision. Individuals and groups must also get interested in exact figures about themselves: ‘How many of them have similar problems?In how many villages? How many cattle do they possess? What land and what resources? Where to find credit? How much to pay by interest? So on and so forth’ (Pulla, 1987,p. 9).This sense of vision could be developed collaboratively with the various stakeholders, but it is a challenge and opportunity. This can be achieved if practitionersare able to locate passion in their work and are committed to the cause of the people. Examples such asMedhaPatkar in India, (Pawar&Pulla, 2012) demonstrate their passion and commitment for human rights oriented community practice. Another challenge for the practitioner is to hold on to the living principle that ‘change is possible’. This should be the driving force, charged with fire in the belly to fight against the injustices that may come on our way of working with communities. It is a real challenge. Pulla(1987) in the Indian context wrote:
otherwise just as the rainfalls on sloping land, it travels along the same fissures and ends up in the rivulets to form rivers, so also credit finance, seeds and fertilizer will find their way into the hands of the big farmers. The prearranged structure of the Indian village society and power structures determine that. But if the problem of (community) development is one of fundamental social injustices and economic inequalities in agrarian structures and relations, the answer will lie in organisation and education of the poor inmeans to effect changes in their life and ultimately affect these repressive institutions. (Pulla, 1987, p. 9)
Paradoxically while the socio political situation seems to be still feudal and oppressive in many parts of the third world, turning people and communities apathetic, indifferent and less community-centred, there are also modern forms of community connecting that seem to be developing. India alone had in one month an increase of 8.35 million mobile phone users to 929.37 million, according to official data quoted from the TelecomRegulatory Authority in India (Press Trust of India, 2012). Hitherto face-to-face communities have a new way of associating by using mobiles phones and the internet. The name for a virtual community is a social network;such communities have formed principally from discussion groups and chat rooms. In the case of a virtual community, social networking is based on information and digital technologies. Virtual communities are providing superficial support for people wanting to share part of their lives. While a number of people see an alternate opportunity to network and reach people and build communities, there is also a view held by a few that currently virtual communities are eroding the normal way of interacting with members within our communities.For example, the time that people expend on internet use may be affecting the time that they could normally take to talk with their neighbours or even family members. The internet does not necessarily provide a separate reality, it is more likely to supplement existing relationship such as Twitter and Facebook (Kenny, 2011).On the other hand, virtual communities can be linked as a source of knowledge and sharing of information because one can have a better understanding of some cultures around the world or get information about a specific topic or participate in community. The fact is that the world is changing, and so we are in a way compelled to change with it, without isolating ourselves from the world and forgetting the face-to-face relationship which is seen as central to community relations in community practice.
Toomey (2011) argues that, although empowerment is one of the most powerful tools in community development, it is crucial to note that there are many players in this field, international institutions, and grassroots groups, local and federal governments. Each of these players claims to promote community development, but the way they practise certainly emanates from the perspectives they hold and may not actually result in empowerment of the communities.As practitioners we seem to be needing to exercise caution as we play that enabling role in community development. Questions such as: what roles are we playing? Rescuer, provider, moderniser or are we assisting in the liberation of a full realisation of community aspiration?A stance such as one of educator, liberator, and/or facilitator is bound to inform us clearly of the locus of power, making clear demarcations concerning who controls power over situations, resources and the community at large.Our preference to move into the community as the catalyst, facilitator and advocate gives room for the participants to make their own decisions. This in itself shows the challenges that different approaches may provide: desired or undesirable outcomes of empowering or disempowering. Social action and a rights-based approach to practice should be considered as an important tool to be used in these contexts. However, we must remember that Community development, if undertaken in a value vacuum, can be highly dangerous, and a human rights perspective helps protect from such dangers. Community development, of course, about trusting a process, and trusting a community to know what is best for it, but there need to be limits on where that process can go so that human rights are not violated. (Ife, 2005, p.7)
We have found the following elements in our community practice and we decided to write about them as a common-sense approach to community practice. The potting mix as we call it of community practice essentially has these ingredients: an ideological framework; a practice framework that allows us to reflect and assists us to become robust and rests on a well-grounded theory.
Ideology, Practice Frameworks and Reflection
Susan Kenny and Jim Ife are of the view that community practitioners must emerge from a clear socially just practice framework that is built on bottom-up approaches and empower communities to respond to issues that affect them. Community development can play a crucial role in our current contexts of practice (Ife, 2013). This is both a task and a process itself. What is therefore required is an open mind to learn from communities and allowing/facilitating communities to be in charge of their own issues. We must use this opportunity to examine whether my/our approach in any way or form disempowers the communities that I/we are involved with. This true self-examination and critical reflection of our practice will enrich the community practitioners to forge better partnerships and relationships with communities and various stakeholders more easily as the intention itself is so clear for all parties. One such approach would be the developmental approach which is underpinned by principles of social justice, and in whichlocal people are able to have active involvement in a project and exert some influence over it. Cheers and Luloff (2001, p. 135) describe the developmental approach as ‘community development focuses on enhancing the quality of life of the whole community – socially, economically, culturally, spirituality, and ecologically – by increasing community agency, primarily through broadly based local participation’. Community development typifies community social justice principles (Taylor, Wilkinson, & Cheers, 2008)
Community practice requires of us to move from nascent notions to clear ideas about our own values and ideological positions as it may affect the ways of our designing and managing service provisions. We have found it useful to consider the following conceptual approaches:
Community development has often been imposed from outside; however, opportunity exists for all approaches in CD to adopt or incorporate local wisdom while undertaking planning for interventions. Jim Ife states that ‘[e)very community worker will conceptualise practice in a different way, and will build a different practice framework that will develop and change with experience’(2002, p.265).Community practice is about keeping up group communication and continuing to engage in set tasks with community members. This is akin to the theory of ‘thinking group’ suggested by McDermott (2002). In community development, ‘in fact, practice cannot be taken as a given; rather it is a set of developing processes. This means we are constantly working as theorists. …no static theory is adequate to the task of capturing thefluidity and chameleon-like character of human interaction, always synonymous with change and uncertainty. We need a frame to view it through: this is what is meant by “thinking group”’ (McDermott, 2002, p. 41). As practitioners it will be important for us to hold this view as we navigate different stages of working with people. As part of practice it is necessary to document our working with people’s needs so that it is available for us for critical reflection and also for any peer review or critique by external parties. Therefore in the community practice context conscious efforts to set aside time for reflection are important.
A Strengths Framework for CD
We have written elsewhere that strength-based approaches identify and build on the positive strengths that are present within individuals and the community rather than highlighting problems, while emphasising social justice, respect, inclusion, and self-determination (Pulla, 2012; Francis, 2012). Identifying strengths and community capacity is an important element in community practice. These approaches to practice/ strategies equalise power relations and bring about change by promoting strengths.A reminder to the world of community development practitioners comes from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. They warn that ‘If grassroots members of our communities do not have involvement in, or ownership of, the solutions to their local problems, then any proposed remedies are almost certain to fail’ (Quartermaine 2003, as cited in Taylor et al., 2010, p. 44).Despite communities having existing assets, talents and resources, they do,however,need the support of governments and private institutions (Kenny, 2011).Creating an understanding of the processes in community development actually assists the community members to identify collective needs and priorities and to further develop their assets. A focus on talents and resourcesis essential; accessing new resources in any community and believing in the strengths of the communities is a great way to start the work.
No attempt in reviewing community practice can ever be complete without a reference to the way Gandhi in India saw development.Gandhian ways of attaining ‘Sarvodaya’ (etymologically meaning ‘the rise or welfare of all’) was through peace and action. Even his social action form or the protest form, the satyagraha – was through Passive Resistance while continuing toobserve certain rules of behaviour: believing in the power of right action, thinkingrationally, studyingthe situation, dissuadingthe opponent, keeping open the channels of communication, using intermediaries, following rules and principles, beingcourteous, remaining open to compromise, and accepting suffering kindly, were rather extraordinary methods of community organisation to awake slumbering populations in an enslaved nation – India– and to make it free from British rule.‘If the opponent proved to be unyielding, the satyagrahi[one dedicated to these ideals]must engage in economic and political action such as boycott. Take positive action, or be trampled upon like worms, is the way he put it’ (Bhana, n.d.).
Nelson Mandela utilised many ideas of Gandhian community practice in his work with the people in South Africa. None of these ideas are new. However, it is only through a revisit that we will learn the import for the current climate of globalisation on one hand and the hapless plea to remain local and therefore relevant. These principles make sense today in the context of this world order which is faced with never-ending uncertainties and indeed captured by revolutionary technological advancement.These ideas reiterated here compel us to ask ourselves in community practice: have we lost the daring to lead a movement? Why aren’t social workers and community practitioners in front of movements that ask for human rights? Or demand social justice? Or why do we not appear to speak vociferously defending the marginalised? What actions are we takingto reflect the voice of the poor and the marginalised? What informs our ideological andphilosophical bases? How can one become a true community leader and practitioner to share the vision and lead the communities to peace and prosperity?
Desmond Tutu explains to us that none of us comes in to this world fully formed but we need others in our lives to so that we become fully human. According to him,‘The first law of our being is that we are set in a delicate network of interdependence with our fellow human beings’. This is known as ‘Ubuntu’ in Africa and it means that our humanity is inextricably bound to the humanity of others so that when one person is diminished, humiliated or oppressed, then others are too. Ubuntu gives people resilience and the strength and the courage to survive and grow (Tutu, 2004, pp.24-27).
Research conducted in Australia by Blunsdon and Davern(2007, p.235) suggests that residents who lived in a community which had interdisciplinary community development intervention reported higher levels of wellbeing compared to residents who lived in a suburb without the community development activity. This evidence indicates the values of community development activities. ‘Good community workers also have passion, a sense of commitment, a real enthusiasm for their work and something that drives them. Good community workers will not see their work as simply a job but as something that is intrinsically important, worth doing and part of making the world a better place’ (Ife, 2013, p.392). Jim Ife sums it up in three words ‘passion, vision and hope’ (p. 392), which all must have a place in community practice.
Note: In this paper we have used the term community practice and community development interchangeably. The focus here was to share the idea that human service professionals and social workers need to engage with community to work with them rather than for them.
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