1963-2018 - 55 years of Research for Social Change

  • 0
  • 0


Gone Fishing or Gone Organizing? Multi-level Community Development as a Pathway to Reduced Inequalities

31 Oct 2018

  • Author(s): Peter Westoby

Gone Fishing or Gone Organizing? Multi-level Community Development as a Pathway to Reduced Inequalities
This contribution is published as part of the UNRISD Think Piece Series, Overcoming Inequalities in a Fractured World: Between Elite Power and Social Mobilization, launched to coincide with a major UNRISD Call for Paper Conference by the same name. In this series, experts from academia, advocacy and policy practice engage with the topic of inequality by critically exploring the various causes of deepening inequalities in the current context, their implications for sustainable development, and strategies and mechanisms being employed to reverse them as part of the global conversation on inequalities leading up to the review of Sustainable Development Goal 10 at the UN High-Level Political Forum in July 2019.

Community development is often thought to be about “sitting under the mango tree” together, but if we want to make it work really effectively for marginalized people, we need to think bigger. This is the premise of this think piece, which argues that a multi-level community development framework is needed which scales grassroots social innovations up and across levels of intervention. Two examples from South Africa and Uganda show how multi-level community work has served to reduce inequalities in access to land and protection of the commons.

Peter Westoby is Associate Professor of Social Science and Community Development at the School of Public Health & Social Work, Queensland University of Technology, Australia; and Visiting Professor at the Centre for Development Support, University of the Free State, South Africa.

Fishing or organizing?

Everyone knows the old adage, "If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime". However, the Bolivian artist and activist Ricardo Levins Morales takes it one step further, saying:
    "If you give me a fish you have fed me for a day. If you teach me to fish then you have fed me until the river is contaminated or the shoreline is seized for development. But if you teach me to organize then whatever the challenge, I can join together with my peers and we will fashion our own solution."

Embedded in Morales’ critique of the common adage is the possibility of a more radical form of community development—supporting marginalized citizens in their efforts to organize.

This think piece explores a framework for supporting communities to organize through what can be called a scaled-across approach that addresses community challenges at various levels of intervention, from small group organizing at one end of the scale to international networking at the other end. It will address access to land as a crucial determinant of inequality, one of six key issues identified by the Mandela Initiative on Inequality as essential to creating a more equal society (Mandela Initiative Report, 2018, p.93). The Mandela Initiative holds that addressing inequality requires not only a strategic policy focus and a capable government, but also, of significance, the need to scale successful social innovations up from the grassroots across different levels of intervention. This think piece turns to two stories of organizing around land rights to examine how this might work in practice.

What is community development?

Stepping back, community development is historically both a citizen practice (carried out by people like activists, local community leaders) and a professional practice (an occupation, a profession, a paid job). As a citizen practice it is an age-old tradition of social solidarity. As a professional project it has evolved since the 1930s as both a government-led and an NGO/civil society-led activity, with professional practitioners accompanying the marginalized and supporting them to come together, conduct learning and work together for common projects—that is, to become organized. During the 1970s, community development was radicalized by Paulo Freire’s inspired methods of popular education, and by the work of those such as Myles Horton, whose Highlander Institute played a critical educating and mobilizing role for the United States civil rights movement. The practice has continued to evolve in diverse ways, but is also nurtured globally through institutions and resources such as the International Association of Community Development (IACD) and the Community Development Journal . This think piece makes the case for community development as one crucial approach to progressive social organizing in an era of growing inequalities.

A community development framework

The practice framework presented, most recently articulated in the book Participatory Development Practice (Kelly and Westoby, 2018), includes several levels of practice including:
  1. Micro-level work: community practitioners build authentic relationships with local people, ‘seeing what they see’, and engaging in dialogue;
  2. Mezzo-level work: the relationships at the micro level are moved into what is called circle work, whereby people come together in small groups to make critical sense of the world (Freire’s big contribution);
  3. Macro-level work: occurs when small groups grow to the size where informal circle work has to be transformed into a more organized form, which is understood as forming people’s organizations;
  4. Meta-level work: which joins people’s organizations through regional, national or international networks, alliances or federations that ensure social organizing can affect broader social and structural change.

Community development in practice: stories from South Africa and Uganda

To illustrate these various levels of work and the ways they operate around the issue of land, I present two accounts from my years of research.

First in South Africa, the Southern Cape Land Council has engaged in extensive community development work which has led to the formation of the Baviaans Land and Agrarian Reform Forum (BLARF). This Forum represents 17 cooperatives (each cooperative is a people’s organization, that is, a macro-level structure) of emerging black farmers. The essential pre-cursor to the creation of the Forum was organizing at numerous levels. Utilizing a community development approach, the community workers of the Southern Cape Land Council first engaged in the micro-level work of relationship building (that is, building trust, listening to people’s stories, engaging in dialogue and forging connections) and mezzo-level circle work (sitting with people in groups, discussing the challenges they face, and deliberating about the resources they have and possible strategies for change), which has led to the macro-level work of local famers forming member-based cooperatives. The next step up the scale was organizing ‘beyond the local’—meta-level work—into the municipal Forum of seventeen cooperatives. This scale of organizing has given the farmers leverage at the municipal level and enabled them to consolidate leadership and other resources into a focused process of lobbying and campaigning for land access (requesting the municipality to hand over land to the emerging black farmers) and proper extension support (gaining agricultural expertise from government departments).

The second story comes from Uganda. Here, many communities are dealing with the challenge of enclosure. For example, many people can no longer access forests that have provided them with a livelihood for many decades (grazing cattle, intercropping) due to companies leasing land from the state and ‘locking up’ forests for carbon capture to then trade on the carbon market. Other forms of enclosure include Lake Victoria being parcelled out to corporations for aqua-fishing, with the result that local villages of fisherfolk can no longer claim a livelihood from the commons of the lake.

For the past 10 years, the National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE), a Ugandan NGO, has responded to calls from these communities for support. They employ a multi-level community development approach, first building relationships (through micro-level work), then supporting mezzo-level circle work—quite literally people coming together “under the mango tree” to make sense of their situation (understanding why the forests are being locked up, or the lake is becoming less accessible). Often these groups of people who have learned together then choose to form people’s organizations, in this case called Sustainability Villages (macro-level work). But, crucially, the NGO then supports these Villages to be networked across the region, nation and globe (meta-level work). So far, the Sustainability Village Network has formed international alliances with Friends of the Earth International and the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Berlin. Through this international work there have been significant gains. In the example of the Ugandan forests being ‘locked up’ for carbon trading, the alliance forged has managed to pressure the Swedish Energy Agency to cancel its payments to the multinational enclosing the forests, putting pressure on the company to deliver better local development projects for affected communities.

In conclusion

These cases demonstrate the importance of community-led, multi-level social organizing to tackle issues of land access, in one case, so that black farmers could gain access to public land of the local municipality, and in a second case, to resist enclosure of the commons. The role of meta-level community development practice is particularly important as it enables local work to scale across levels and ensure people have more collective power than if only working locally. Addressing access to land is a necessary prerequisite for addressing inequality, and is well supported by this kind of multi-level community development work.

Kelly, A. and Westoby, P. 2018. Participatory Development Practice: Using Traditional and Contemporary Frameworks, Rugby, UK: Practical Action Press.
Mandela Initiative. 2018. Grappling with Poverty and Inequality. A Report on the Process and Findings of the Mandela Initiative. Cape Town: Mandela Initiative.

Photo: EU/ECHO/Edward Echwalu (Creative Commons via Flickr)


blog comments powered by Disqus



This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.