The United Nations defines community development as “a process where community members come together to take collective action and generate solutions to common problems (Sung, 2016).” It is a broad term given to the practices of civic leaders, activists, involved citizens, and professionals to improve various aspects of communities, typically aiming to build stronger and more resilient local communities.
Community development is a way of strengthening civil society by prioritizing the actions of communities, and their perspectives in the development of social, economic, and environmental policy. It seeks the empowerment of local communities, taken to mean both geographical communities, communities of interest or identity, and communities organizing around specific themes or policy initiatives.
It strengthens the capacity of people as active citizens through their community groups, organizations, and networks; and the capacity of institutions and agencies (public, private, and non-governmental) to work in dialogue with citizens to shape and determine the change in their communities.
It plays a crucial role in supporting active democratic life by promoting the autonomous voice of disadvantaged and vulnerable communities. It has a set of core values/social principles covering human rights, social inclusion, equality, and respect for diversity; and a specific skills and knowledge base.
What is Community Development?
Our community is the city, town, or village where we live. When a community is defined through a physical location, it has precise boundaries that are readily understood and accepted by others. Defining communities in terms of geography, however, is only one way of looking at them.
Communities can also be defined by common cultural heritage, language, and beliefs, or shared interests. These are sometimes called communities of interest.
The term “development” often carries an assumption of growth and expansion. During the industrial era, development was strongly connected to increased speed, volume, and size.
However, many people are currently questioning the concept of growth for numerous reasons – a realization that more isn’t always better, or increasing respect for reducing outside dependencies and lowering levels of consumerism. So while the term “development” may not always mean growth, it always implies change.
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Community development was seen as emphasizing self-help, mutual support, the building up of neighborhood integration, the development of neighborhood capacities for problem-solving and self-representation, and the promotion of collective action to bring a community’s preferences to the attention of political decision-makers.
Community development helps to build community capacity to address issues and take advantage of opportunities, find common ground, and balance competing interests. It doesn’t just happen – capacity building requires both a conscious and a conscientious effort to do something (or many things) to improve the community.
Community action was seen as focusing on the organization of those adversely affected by the decisions, or non-decisions, of public and private bodies and by more general structural characteristics of society.
The strategy aims to promote collective action to challenge existing socio-political and economic structures and processes, to explore and explain the power realities of people’s situations, and, through this twin-pronged approach, develop both critical perspectives of the status quo and alternative bases of power and action.
Community organization, according to Thomas, involves the collaboration of separate community or welfare agencies with or without the additional participation of statutory authorities, in the promotion of joint initiatives.
The Need for Community Development
Some of the classic concerns of community development found expression in the early 1990s in the notion of ‘capacity building’. There was an interest in developing the ability of local groups and networks to function and to contribute to social and economic development.
On the whole, though, the idea of capacity building often remained associated with a technicist and economistic viewpoint – a concern with competencies, ‘investing’, and so on. There were those that looked to the ‘bottom-up’ and more convivial aspects of traditional community development.
A few contributions also emerged that had a more thorough theoretical basis. Eade’s (1997) approach, for example, and that of development agencies such as Oxfam, was linked into certain fundamental beliefs, for example: ‘that all people have the right to an equitable share in the world’s resources, and to be the authors of their development; and that the denial of such rights is at the heart of poverty and suffering’ (1997: 2).
Strengthening people’s capacity to determine their values and priorities, and to act on these, is the basis of development.
Community Participation and Social Capital
In the late 1960s, there was some exploration of different models of participation and their relationship to community development. Since then concern around popular and community participation in key agencies such as the United Nations has been part of the discourse of community development.
As Midgley et al (1986: 23) have noted, the notion of popular participation and that of community participation were interlinked. The former was concerned with broad issues of social development and the creation of opportunities for the involvement of people in the political, economic, and social life of a nation, ‘the latter connotes the direct involvement of ordinary people in local affairs’.
As such community participation can be seen as linking with older concerns with associational democracy and the like. In some countries, the notion of community participation has reappeared in discussions around the need to bring some local services and facilities more directly into the control of local people.
For example, the 2005 election manifesto for the British Labour Party argued for ‘new opportunities for communities to assume greater responsibility or even ownership of community assets like village halls, community centers, libraries or recreational facilities’ (2005: 105).
This orientation/approach was presented as being concerned with the assessment of community needs and problems and the systematic planning of strategies for meeting them.
Social planning comprises the analysis of social conditions, social policies, and agency services; the setting of goals and priorities; the design of service programs and the mobilization of appropriate resources; and the implementation and evaluation of services and programs.
This is a strategy that seeks to extend agency operations and services by making them more relevant and accessible. This includes extending services into the community, giving these services and the staff who are responsible for them a physical presence in a neighborhood. (Thomas 1983: 106-139).
Developing a Community
Learn about the community
Whether you want to be an active member of the community, and effective service provider, or a community leader, you will have to be familiar with its issues, resources, needs, power structure, and decision-making processes.
Your initial orientation could include reading your local newspaper regularly, attending community events, reading reports, and familiarizing yourself with available services as well as community projects and activities. Close observation of the community as you interact with it will also provide significant insights into the strengths and weaknesses of the community.
Listen to community members
You won’t be able to learn everything you need to know by reading and observation. You will need to talk to others about their interests and perceptions to put them into context.
You can contact community members through formal channels, such as joining a local organization, or informally by chatting with people that visit the library or that you encounter in other situations, such as shopping at local stores or attending school activities. By listening to the community you may identify an area in which there seems to be a common interest in making a change.
Once you have identified that there are some common interests among community members and you have identified a few individuals who seem willing to work on a community development initiative, the next step is to hold a community gathering.
In some circumstances, it may be appropriate to invite representatives of specific organizations or sectors to attend, but more often it would be a public event for a neighborhood or, for other types of communities, for all the identified members.
The purpose of this gathering would be to develop a shared “community vision”; i.e., through imagining their ideal community and discussing their ideas together they will determine to arrive at a common vision and some broad strategic directions that all are committed to working towards.
You may also use this gathering to ask for support for the initiative, elicit community input or invite members to join a steering committee, or help in other ways.
Assess community assets and resources, needs and issues
To be able to work effectively in a community development context, you will need to gather some information about your community. It is extremely helpful to undertake a comprehensive community assessment that will collect both qualitative and quantitative data on a wide range of community features.
Deciding what and how much information to collect may be aided by a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis of the community, which may point to particular areas being higher priorities for action.
Help community members to recognize and articulate areas of concern and their causes
In any community development process, it is the community that is in the driver’s seat. Community members will define the issues and the process for resolving them, which might be quite different than what would be proposed by an external “expert”.
However, it is the community members that are most familiar with the situation and, in many cases, have knowledge and wisdom that an external “expert” lacks. By providing tools, resources, meeting space, and facilitation, community developers empower the community to start to take ownership of the issues and the development of solutions.
Develop an action Plan
Assuming that the community as a whole has set the strategic directions for the initiative, the steering committee will now develop the action plan. Depending on the size of the group and the complexity of the initiative, there may be other steps between setting the strategic directions and the action plan.
You may want to create a comprehensive strategic plan containing long, mid, and short-term objectives, and mid-level plans for communications, resource development, or human resources. In addition, if there are several activities or events to plan, you will need a separate action plan for each one.
The point you need to arrive at is a well-thought-out plan that is easily comprehended by community members, clearly links activities with objectives, and indicates responsibilities, time frames, and resources required.
People want to live in healthy communities. These are communities in which they: feel able to be who they are, have positive prospects for their future, and experience respect and equal and fair treatment.
To achieve this person want to be in a community that: creates wealth and gives everyone access to its benefits, cares for all its members, when they need it, throughout their life span, provides an environment that is safe and attractive, enables people to express and celebrate their creativity and diverse cultures, and enables everyone to participate in decisions that affect their lives.
Good community development is an action that helps people to recognize and develop their ability and potential and organize themselves to respond to problems and needs which they share.
It supports the establishment of strong communities that control and use assets to promote social justice and help improve the quality of community life. It also enables community and public agencies to work together to improve the quality of government.
To support them to contribute to the creation of such a community, community development promotes: an opportunity for people to learn and develop their skills, reaches out to and involves those who may be excluded or disadvantaged, helps communities to create organizations that can tackle their needs and represent their interests, and works to promote engagement and dialogue between communities and agencies that affect their lives.
Cooke, B. and Kothari, U. (eds.) (2001) Participation: The new tyranny? London: Zed Books.
Eade, D. (1997) Capacity Building. An approach to people-centered development, Oxford: Oxfam.
Gilchrist, A. (1995) Community Development and Networking, London: Community Development Foundation.
Henderson, P. and Thomas, D. N. (2012) Skills in Neighbourhood Work4e, London: Routledge.
Midgley, J. (1995) Social Development. The developmental perspective in social welfare, London: Sage.
Sung, Hyung (2014). “Sustainable development”. General Assembly of the United Nations. General Assembly of the United Nations.
Taylor, M. (1991) Signposts to Community Development, London: Community Development Foundation.
Tett, L. (2010). Community Education: Antecedents and Meanings. Edinburgh: Dunedin Academic Press.
The Scottish Community Development Centre. “What is Community Development?” http://www.scdc.org.uk/who/what-is-community-development/
United Nations (1955) Social Progress through Community Development, New York: United Nations.
United Nations (1981) Popular Participation as a Strategy for Planning Community Level Action and National Development, New York: United Nations.