Why do we pretend there is a “community”?

Terry Cannon Blog PhotoGuest Blog by Terry Cannon, Research Fellow for the Vulnerability and Poverty Reduction team at the Institute of Development Studies


“Community-based” has become a badge of honour to assert that we are working with poor and vulnerable people and doing the right thing. Is there any problem that being “community-based” cannot cure? However, the idea that a “community” is a valid category for beneficial climate adaptation processes (or any other type of development intervention) is deeply flawed. It must not be taken for granted (as it is in the discussion on Community Based Adaptation, CBA, or community-based disaster risk reduction, CBDRR) unless it is also grounded in the conflicts and contradictions that are involved. These include especially gender and class (e.g. land tenure systems, differential access to other assets), ethnicity and age groups.

The literature on the problem of “community” dates back at least to the 1950s in sociology and has been paralleled more recently by debates about the validity of “participation”, which is linked because participatory approaches are almost always inherent in the idea of working at community scale, including CBA. The related literature on “elite capture” (e.g. the capturing of development benefits at the local level by powerful groups or individuals) is also well-known in development circles. However, much of the literature and practice in development studies (on the problem of community, on rural class and other power systems, on participatory work and on elite capture) is being ignored in the rush by climate change practitioners to be involved in CBA. This absence of a huge area of knowledge from development studies is a serious barrier to success in adaptation, and also reinforces the uncritical use of the concept of “community”, which is difficult to sustain when all this knowledge is accepted.

The desire for outside agencies to work at community scale is driven by an admirable commitment to supporting change for people (i.e. people-centred) who are usually defined as the most vulnerable/ poorest. This shift to a bottom-up approach in the past 40 years or so (along with participatory rapid/ rural appraisal, PRA, methods and participatory assessments etc.) is a well-meaning effort to deliver real change to the most needy. But it normally operates on the basis of trying to achieve this change without dealing with the fundamental root causes (the transformation required) as to why people are poor or vulnerable in the first place. In other words, a great deal of “community-based” activity (by NGOs, supported by donors and international development banks etc.) fails to take into account the power relations that lead to division and conflict within communities, and are often precisely the cause of the problems that the outside organisation is trying to address.

The problem of using an undifferentiated notion of community shows up when NGOs and others want “communities” to engage in CBA, without taking full account of power relations (including gender), especially those between economic groups – which we used to call classes. For instance, in most of rural Asia, parts of Africa and much of Latin America there are very significant unequal land tenure systems. Usually this involves a tiny minority owning most of the land, with some farmers in the middle. Then comes hundreds of millions of rural poor who are (even officially) regarded as landless (owning no land or only tiny plots). This affects 30-60% of rural people in India or Bangladesh. This single key fact means these huge numbers of people have almost no control at all over their prospects to adapt to climate change, and very little ability to relate to CBA or CBDRR.

The ability to cope or adapt is significantly constrained by land tenure, and yet there seems to be almost no research that looks at what adaptation means for landless people – who have little or no control over the primary assets (land and water) that are currently essential for adaptation. I have never heard anyone discuss land tenure issues in all the conferences and meetings I have attended on CBA and CBDRR, and there is hardly any mention of it in the literature. If we are supporters of CBA, we can no longer ignore these key facts of power: these problems are of primary importance in making adaptation in “communities” exceedingly difficult, if not impossible.

In effect, the definition of community that has now de facto emerged is that a community is “where we work”. It has become an externally-assigned location-based (i.e. geographically defined) justification for where the outside agency has decided that it wants to make its development / climate adaptation / DRR effort. Unless the inherent and integral power relations involved in the so-called “community” are actively understood and incorporated into the required process of transformation then it is highly unlikely there will be any significant impact. And it is not enough simply to say “we only work with the poor and vulnerable, we target them so that they benefit”: what happens when we leave? And in any case, can we be sure that the benefits are not being captured right under our noses?

If we accept the notion of community uncritically, problems will be built in to any CBA and CBDRR activity from the start. Is it possible to assume that there is some active agency possible for the “communities” that means “they” are unified, and understand and want to be involved in “adaptation”? Can we assume that there are prospects for “community” leadership and organization, or are these hoped-for possibilities dependent on a “warm and fluffy” community that is absent in most cases, being instead bound up in unequal power relations that pervade the grassroots.

The ability of people to adapt rather than merely cope (and suffer) is determined largely by access to, control of or ownership of assets that are almost always affected by power relations. Poor people cope (and deplete assets, e.g. by selling land / livestock, taking loans at high interest). Better-off people MAY have resources that enable them to engage in adaptation to current climate change or prepare to adapt for future climate change. There is a very significant literature on coping and its different types, and it is usually situated in the problems of power relations, access to assets, and notions of asset-depleting coping (that may for example lead to distress migration). What is crucial is to make clear distinctions between different economic and social groups and not pretend that they do not exist or are not significant factors in what we are trying to achieve.

This blog was originally published at http://vulnerabilityandpoverty.blogspot.co.uk/

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1 Response to Why do we pretend there is a “community”?

  1. Agnes Otzelberger says:

    Excellent points – fully agree on the issues you raise as important, but have you considered that a respectable amount of adaptation work termed ‘community-based’ does have the issues you raise – inequality, access & control, asset depletion et al – at its heart?
    I agree that the term ‘community-based’ is too often used without consideration of its limitations. But let’s not get stuck in semantics. It should be the How and not the label that matters – and whether you label our work community-, ecosystem- or telephone booth-based, let’s focus the conversation on ensuring the issues you list are addressed at all levels and scales.


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