The cult of community development

In the conventional story, development is a field dominated by “modernizers,” whose hubristic efforts result in catastrophic consequences for those they were designed to benefit: think everything from hydraulic dams that displace thousands of residents to agricultural rationing that leads to famine.

But community development—“development without modernization,” in the words of one of its advocates—was just as central as modernization to mid-century development strategies. The automatic moral outrage inherent in what Immerwahr calls the “Modernization Comes to Town” story has overshadowed the problems of grassroots, decentralized approaches, which have received less critical scrutiny and an implicitly favorable assessment from scholars.

Unfortunately, far from eliminating deprivation and attacking the social status quo, bottom-up community development projects often reinforced them. And today, Immerwahr argues, “the new wave of communitarianism has been carried out in near-total ignorance of the global community development campaign that preceded it by only a few decades.” This is a history with real stakes. If that prior campaign’s record is as checkered as Thinking Small argues, then its intellectual descendants must do some serious rethinking.

That is Merlin Chowkwanyun reviewing historian Daniel Immerwahr’s new book, Thinking Small: The United States and the Lure of Community Development. Sounds like a familiar question answered in an unfamiliar way, which is refreshing.

Also, an interview with Immerwahr and his web page at Northwestern.

Some miscellaneous thoughts, noting that I have not read the book:

  1. The thrust of the argument, I believe, is that grassroots development projects have generally been less coherent, less successful, and more likely to get hijacked by local elites than the enthusiasts would believe. And because this is a book about history (the US, India and Philippines) it’s obligated to say that this has all happened before, and no one is learning from past failure.
  2. I hear echoes of the insurgent critique of localized development with the World Bank.
  3. A lot of the community development promoted by big players, from Mohammed Yunus to the World Bank, feels more like astroturf than grassroots development. I think there’s a difference.
  4. You could read this as anti-Jim Scott and anti-Bill Easterly, but I get the sense they are saying the same thing: large-scale localized development schemes (astroturf) are just another utopian solution to complex problems, and in the end it’s hard to escape the pattern of development as the subjugation of the poor by the powerful and the state.
  5. I also don’t read a lot into project failures. Absent some fairly rapid industrial change in the center of the country, and a huge increase in labor demand over a generation, I find it hard to believe that community development projects can accomplish a lot. Steering isn’t very helpful if you’re not moving.

I am persuaded enough to buy the book, and I look forward to assigning it (or the article) and outraging my Master’s students—partly because of the argument, and especially if I ask them to read a whole book.