A Short History of Community-Based Practice

Participatory community-based paradigm for micro-development has a theoretical and practical history dating back to the critiques of modernisation theory and colonialism of the 1950s and 1960s. Gandhian small-scale development and Paulo Freire’s arguments that the losers of modernisation, the “oppressed”, should unite and forge their own destinies influenced a first-wave of participatory development in the 1950s and 1960s. Predominantly focused on rural development, the paradigm involved villages meeting with community development specialists to discuss their ‘felt needs’, uniting at community level and implementing ‘self-help’ programs.

The 1970s and early 1980s were a time of doldrums for community-based development management, accounted in part by the wide influence of the collective action sceptics and property rights theorists who were pessimistic about the ability of community to work together for sustainable development outcomes. The lot of people at the micro-level was not entirely ignored at this time however, with then World Bank president Robert McNamara’s call for Western donors to reorient towards “basic needs”. But reflecting the centralized ideology of the time, the problems of poverty and malnutrition were integrated within large scale rural agricultural development efforts, rather than tackled from the community up.

By the mid 1980s, disillusionment of centralized, ‘big’ development (and common pool resource management), pre-empted by Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, not least notoriously in agriculture, led to a second-wave of interest in community-led development and management. Community-based development management theory has since then mushroomed, influenced by Chambers’ participatory development movement, Ostrom’s empirical critique of the collective action sceptics, and Cernea’s recommendations for the World Bank to systematically work at local level. In parallel, our understanding of poverty has deepened and broadened significantly, led by the work of Amartya Sen on “entitlements” and “capabilities”.

In practice, since the 1980s community-basis of micro development management has proved conveniently complementary to the neo-liberal macro-developmental orthodoxy. At first shifting the locus of agency for local level socio-economic change downward towards the community freed up government to reduce its budget in line with Washington Consensus recommendations and structural adjustment conditionalities. Now, and since the emergence of the post-Washington consensus in the late 1990s, community-based development, and in particular the participatory element of it, has not only been implicitly encouraged by the macro-economic orthodoxy, but explicitly promoted. In 1999, poverty alleviation was explicitly mainstreamed into the multi-lateral debt-related lending conditionalities. The production, IFI (the World Bank and the IMF) approval, and implementation of a Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) were made mandatory parts of the second Highly Indebted Poor Countries Initiative (HIPC II). Community-driven development, for its part, is seen as an effective tool to capture the central participation, local ownership and sustainability focuses of the PRSPs:

“Community-driven development [is] a mechanism for enhancing sustainability, improving efficiency and effectiveness, allowing poverty reduction efforts to be taken to scale, making development more inclusive, empowering poor people, building social capital, strengthening governance, and complementing market and public sector activities” (Mansuri and Rao, 2004, paraphrasing the World Bank’s Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper Sourcebook).

Further reading:
Mansuri and Rao’s critical review of community-driven and community-based development (2004)
Staatz and Eicher’s historical perspective of agricultural development ideas (1998)


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