The destruction of Community Development

Pauline Conlon MA who provided assistance with the research, and was present at the official launch.

Picture courtesy of Patricia Kelleher and Cathleen O’Neill.

By Peter McNamara

Remarkable new research, undertaken by Patricia Kelleher (PhD) and Cathleen O’Neill (MA), traces the rise and dramatic fall of the once-thriving community development sector in Ireland.

Their paper, The Destruction of the Community Development Sector (2002-2015), was launched earlier this year at the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. The focus of the paper is to ascertain how, when, and why so many progressive forces within the state were silenced. 

A vibrant community sector had been developing in Ireland since the mid-1980s, with a state-supported framework that actively encouraged people to have their say in official decisions. By the early 2000s, however, instability, disbelief, and demoralisation was rife.

Although the recession eventually decimated the community development sector, it might surprise some to learn it was being undermined as far back as 2002. During the boom years the state had huge money to spend on community development, but, according to Kelleher and O’Neill, it set about destroying the sector, for reasons of ideology, and not austerity. 

In the absence of a strong community development sector, issues around drugs, housing, healthcare and migrant rights have worsened to an extreme degree in Ireland. Community workers were deliberately put out of touch with the movements in their community.

At its height in the 1990s, the community development sector fostered an inclusive, participatory kind of democracy, with decision-makers and civil servants keeping strong ties to local groups and local needs. As the sector was eroded, the participatory approach came to be replaced by a distant and authoritarian representative democracy, where official decisions were made from atop a rigid hierarchy, behind many layers of bureaucracy. 

Kelleher and O’Neill’s ground-breaking research can help us understand how things have gotten to this point, and how trends might be reversed. 

A century of active Irish Communities 

Social movements and community development in Ireland have long played a significant role in moderating how power is distributed in society. Such movements challenged the status quo and brought about change by assisting marginalised groups, working class communities and poorer rural societies. 

In the late 1800s a period of renewal and upheaval began in Ireland. Many remember the Irish literary revival, led by William Butler Yeats. When it comes to political agitation and grassroots activism, most people might think of the violent revolutionary politics of that time, which culminated in the Easter Rising of 1916.

However, there was during these decades a related but different kind of revolution taking place, in the sphere of civic debate and civic action. Countless ordinary Irish men and women banded together to agitate for political change. They campaigned for sovereignty, women’s suffrage, land reform and working class rights. The Gaelic Athletic Association was one early example, as was the rural co-operative movement.

With the founding of the Irish State, community activism spread even further. Muintir na Tire emerged in the 1930s, as did the United Irishwomen (now the Irish Countrywomen’s Association), and the Irish Housewives Association.

Through the 1960s and 1970s, vibrant social movements continued to emerge in Ireland. One notable example was the “second wave” of the women’s liberation movement – which questioned the role of women in society. Added to this was the student movement; the anti- nuclear campaign which helped to make Ireland a nuclear-free zone; the National Farmers’ Association which demanded that the voice of farmers be heard; Save Wood Quay which opposed the building of civic offices on a Viking settlement site; and the Living City Group which resisted the de-tenanting of Dublin’s inner city and helped to reverse the destruction of the city. 

These groups, among many others, helped lay the foundation for the remarkable growth that was to come in the 1980s and 1990s.   

The Community Development Programme: A golden era

The late 1980s and early 1990s in Ireland was a time of high emigration, income deprivation and social marginalisation. The unemployment rate rose to 17%, with consistent poverty levels at 16%.

Inside Dáil Éireann many members of the Labour Party were committed to eliminating poverty. In addition, sympathetic civil servants (some of whom were directly involved in EU initiatives) were in key positions, enabling them to support anti-poverty and community empowerment initiatives. 

Up until the mid-1980s, community activism and the newer forms of community development mostly originated and grew outside of official state structures. Organisations were generally funded by member subscriptions or voluntary contributions and operated on a purely voluntary basis. 

Gradually funding arrangements were put in place, and the sector accessed significant support from the state, the European Union and philanthropic organisations. Improved funding gave rise to the increased professionalisation as many volunteer activists of the 1970s became paid community workers. It was, ironically, this recognition and empowerment of the Community Development sector that eventually led to its downfall – by becoming tied to state structures, the sector entered into a paradoxical relationship, that gave it strength while eroding its autonomy. 

The Department of Social Welfare (DSW) was the lead government department with a brief for community development in the 1990s. The Community Development Programme (CDP) was formally established in 1990.

Under this emerging model, community development came into its own. It built relationships and empowered people to participate in decision-making structures that affected their communities. It emphasised critical social analysis. It developed local social infrastructure – including local neighbourhood networks and coalition-building between organisations.

Using these principles, community-led, locally-tailored models of service provision were developed in a range of areas across the country. Workers in the sector gave life-changing assistance with employment, training, child care, and adult education and eased problems around drug use and violence against women. 

The publication of the White Paper on the Relationship between the Community and Voluntary Sector and the State (Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs 2000) was a milestone, in that it gave formal recognition to the community and voluntary sector. The paper articulated a vision of Participatory Democracy to govern local community and voluntary activities. It outlined the values of social justice, and a belief that citizens had a right to participate in decisions that affected their lives. It affirmed the value of empowering working class and rural communities, as well as the rights of Travellers and migrants. 

According to Kelleher and O’Neill, the vibrancy of the community, anti-poverty and equality sector during this period led many to describe it as a “golden era”.

Targets and quotas: Neo-liberal managerialism

The sector developed through the 1990s, bringing relief, assistance, and hope, to countless people. Then, on June 6th 2002, Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats entered a coalition government. They established a new Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. Between 2002 and 2010 a major paradigm shift occurred in how the Community Development sector was governed: a top-down approach of target-based “managerialism” began. 

This managerialism was part of the international movement towards Neo-liberal globalisation. Neo-liberalism is an economic model that gives maximum control to private commercial interests, with minimal state interventions, founded on the belief that consumer demand will cause society to regulate itself.

The theory is that, based on their personal needs, people will seek the goods/services that they want, which will lead the private entities to provide such services, and at the most competitive price possible. It promises commercial efficiency, and greater personal freedom. 

The neo-liberal economic model came to prominence in the 1980s, with the privatisation and anti-welfare policies of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, in Britain and America. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, and the effective end of the communist alternative, neo-liberalism gained a supreme position in global politics: indeed, it became an unchallenged fact that the only way to organise a free democracy, was on free-market economics.

Neo-liberalism became the “ideology with no name”, such was its dominance. It is only since the economic crash of 2008 – which was caused by a lack of state intervention and market regulation – that people have come to question this model, and seek out alternatives.

By 2002 neo-liberalism had come to Ireland. Based on its free-market assumptions, Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats went about fragmenting and effectively destroying the Participatory Democracy framework. 

Aside from ideological reasons of cost-cutting, and minimal state intervention, Kelleher and O’Neill also report a feeling among politicians that the sector had gone beyond its brief in its campaigning and public education role. Community organisations became rivals to local government and politicians. The political system was sceptical – they saw such groups and activists as alternative forms of local democracy.

As effective as the sector was in solving community problems, officials became cagey of autonomous forms of community development. And it was a catch-22 situation: the sector could not take on the state and expect to be funded by it at the same time. 

Many inter-related developments were split. This structural change caused much confusion and inefficiency, and gave a core group of civil servants in the Department of Community Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs the opportunity to impose a new model for managing the community and local development sectors.

This model focused on externally-set and often arbitrary targets. “Value for money” became the central theme, and on-the-ground social good receded into the background. Social interventions were calculated in terms of cost and benefit, to give a shallow numerical value.

Recession annihilates the sector 

When workers challenged these policies, they faced great hostility. Official warnings were given to those in community and local development projects that they were not to engage in any activism or campaigning work, and that no employee should undermine or be in conflict with representative democracy. Faced with reduced funding, and mounting disregard, the sector began to wane. It grassroots, bottom-up values had been outlawed. Demoralisation set in. Then, with the economic downturn of 2008, came annihilation. 

Although funding cuts had commenced prior to the financial crisis, as part of the government’s policy of austerity cutbacks were exacerbated. Between 2008 and 2011 the community and voluntary sector was cut by 35%, in contrast to the 7% faced by other sectors. Some estimations put the decrease in funding as high as 41%. 

In 2009, nineteen of the 180 Community Development Projects were closed with two weeks’ notice. Workers were made redundant without full entitlements, something that SIPTU is still pursuing to this day in the Labour Court. Worse still, communication of redundancies came not by personal contact but by way of email or text. Coming two weeks before Christmas, the devastation was total. One worker said “it was as if my life’s work was erased, it was like a bereavement.”

With no redundancy payments and no entitlements to a work pension, the economic realities of the closures hit hard. Many workers ended up unemployed, while some workers ended up on temporary employment and training schemes. Unable to pay the rent in her private sector housing, one woman interviewed by Kelleher and O’Neill ended up homeless. 

Project budgets of the remaining projects were cut and projects were ordered to desist from all campaigning and advocacy. Local project structures, project workers and the language of community development were taken over and a centrally-driven, repressive, and bureaucratic procedure was put in place. The autonomy of the sector was finally done away with. State-funded community development work was an at end. 

Local Development Companies (LDCs) that managed the programme were accountable to central government through Pobal. These companies were responsible for achieving targets set by the centre and adhering to budgetary obligations. Local projects in turn were answerable to the LDCs. The result was a complex relationship between the state and community organisations as control was exercised through devolved structures with stifling levels of bureaucracy. Administrative and reporting responsibilities in the Local and Community Development Programme (LCDP) were excessive and time consuming.

The high-point of the 2000 White Paper on the Relationship between the Community and Voluntary Sector and the State was a distant memory. The state had once official endorsed values of bottom-up development, had recognised the capacity for communities to identify and create innovative solutions, and enshrined the importance of advocacy and campaigning. Today, workers in the sector report being engaged in endless red-tape, being confined to offices and metrics, instead of taking an active role outside their office, amongst community groups. 

Naming neo-liberalism and forging new alliances

According to Kelleher and O’Neill, the shift that took place in the community development, anti-poverty and equality sector between 2002 and 2015 was a shift from participatory democracy to a more controlling representative structure based on neo-liberal values. Ordinary people were no longer encouraged to take a role in the decisions that affected them; and community workers were distanced from individuals and groups in their locality, tasked more often with filling out lengthly reports and satisfying arbitrary targets. 

Under the new model social problems were individualised and de-contextualised from their social and economic context. The principles of social value, social solidarity and the building of social capital were given little attention. Community was commodified. Worse still, according to Kelleher and O’Neill, the trauma, shame, hopelessness, anger and demoralisation experienced, resulted in a silence around the destruction of the community development sector. It’s a story that has largely gone untold. 

Notwithstanding this, much of the community and local activism which was built up under state-funded programmes in the 1980s and 1990s has moved onto street protests. Examples include the anti-austerity marches concerned with water charges, as well as protests about cut-backs in community and social services, the bank bail-out, homelessness and affordable housing.

Aside from this, some key figures in the movement to repeal the eight amendment had been fighting for the cause since the introduction of the amendment, in 1983. 

Kelleher and O’Neill argue that when it comes to fighting for the interests of the community development sector, and for social solidarity, a huge part of the problem still lies in the dominant and invisible position enjoyed by neo-liberalism in modern political discourse. Seldom was it named in the crises to which it gave rise such as: the financial meltdown of 2007/2008; or the offshoring of wealth by the super-rich, documented in the Panama Papers in December 2016.

They stress that neo-liberalism needs to be named, challenged, and market economics needs to be put under greater regulatory restraint, with some sectors taken under state control entirely.

The marketisation of the housing sector in the 1990s, and the gradual withdrawal of the state from direct local authority house building contributed to the current crisis in homelessness, and the unaffordability of houses to buy or to rent. The persistence of the crisis was in part due to the reluctance of the Irish state to undertake the robust interventions that were needed, as the political elite waited for the re-balancing of a self-regulating housing market. 

In the concluding sections of their report, the academics argue for the state to re-engage in a substantial housing building programme, with the retention of public land in public ownership. They also outline the need to fund initiatives based on those principles of social value that were once central to the community development sector, such as co-operative housing.

Furthermore, they advocate for an increased role for credit unions which, unlike exclusively profit-driven banks, are owned and provide mutual benefit and support for members. Likewise, approved housing associations could address mortgage default needs, and avoid the outsourcing of mortgages and loans to so-called “vulture funds”.

Based on their wide-ranging interviews with former participants in the sector, Kelleher and O’Neill argue for building a new bottom-up, autonomous, independent movement. Such a movement would suffer from a lack of official funding – but would by the same token enjoy a much greater level of autonomy.

Funding, they suggest, might be sourced from the trade union movement or philanthropic foundations such as the Carnegie Foundation. By forging closer networks with Irish trade unions, as well as other international entities in the global justice sector, a new community development-type movement could begin to find its feet.