Reclaiming the radical agenda: a critical approach to community development

Anti-austerity march by bjpcorp. Sourced from Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons CCby2 licence.

In this piece Margaret Ledwith argues we need to be be vigilant about changes in the political context and to get better at weaving theory into our practice. We need to be able to explain why we are doing what we are doing at any stage of the community development process, and so creating knowledge-in-action based on practical experience.

contents: introduction · the policy context · a radical agenda · globalised times · critical praxis · action for change · references · about the writer · how to reference this piece

Heavily influenced by state policy, the skills-driven approach to education in which our work is now embedded is tailored to feed the needs of the economy, and therefore founded on the worldview of western capitalism. Critical education, designed to encourage questioning and action for change, is founded on a different worldview that of participatory democracy forged out of principles of cooperation and equality. Our work is the ‘practice of freedom’ (Freire, 1976) not maintenance of the status quo, so therefore I suggest that in failing to be vigilant about changes in the political context we run the risk of developing practice that reinforces discrimination whilst still waving the banner of social justice. This is a dangerous path to tread!

It is my opinion that the full collective potential of community development is threatened by a resistance to praxis, a theory-practice divide which results in ‘actionless thought’ on one hand, and ‘thoughtless action’ on the other (Johnston cited in Shaw, 2004 p.26). If we fail to generate theory in action, and move towards a unity of praxis where theory and practice are synthesised, we give way to anti-intellectual times which emphasise ‘doing’ at the expense of ‘thinking’; we react to the symptoms rather than root causes of injustice – and leave the structures of discrimination intact – dividing people through poverty, creating massively different life chances by blaming the victims of an unjust system. This is what I refer to as ‘a politics of tokenism’.

The policy context

The policy context is fascinating. In the process of devolution, community development has come into public prominence, yet the bewildering array of policy initiatives emerging from government, frustrated by short-term funding, work counter to the concept of development. This presents a fundamental threat to the overriding purpose of community development, still poorly understood, with its long-term, social justice intentions. Principles of participatory democracy call for an understanding of power and discrimination at every stage of our practice. Critical education, the process which runs through community development, is expressed through the myriad of practical projects that are relevant to everyday issues in local communities. This is where people learn to question their everyday reality, and to act together to bring about change for a fair and just future. But, by concentrating on the practical projects, rather than the education for which they are the vehicles, we allow ourselves to operate on principles of amelioration rather than transformation. We are distracted by the symptoms of injustice and fail to reach the root causes, and in doing so give free reign to the status quo. These are the ways in which an emphasis on training can mask the purpose of community development, and give us the illusion that we are making a difference.

The Blair Government signalled its commitment to devolution and local governance, as expressed in the Local Government White Paper Strong and Prosperous Communities which emerged from the newly-formed Department for Communities and Local Government in October 2006. It is an unsurpassed opportunity for community development to assume a prominence in the public eye and take the lead in creating communities for a fair and just future. Yet, the evidence suggests that we are allowing ourselves to be redefined as a tool of government policy at the expense of our transformative purpose. Here, I attempt to identify the weaknesses in our armour.

A radical agenda

Community development has always had a radical agenda (Ledwith, 2005). By this, I mean that our practice is inspired by a vision of social and environmental justice. It is fundamentally committed to bring about social change which contributes to this end. So, our practice starts in people’s everyday lives, ‘extraordinarily re-experiencing the ordinary’ (Shor, 1992 p.122). This calls for a critical approach – situating local practice within the wider political picture. In other words, unless we have an analysis of power, of the structures of oppression in the world that reach into our local communities and impact on personal lives, our practice is likely to be tokenistic at best.

Critical approaches to community development locate grassroots practice within that driving vision of a just and sustainable future. The well-defined ideological base that connects with our vision provides us with a framework through which to evaluate every stage of the community development process. It is what I loosely term an ideology of equality informed by such values as mutual respect, reciprocity, dignity, mutuality, trust and cooperation. This offers a system of checks and balances to examine the validity of our practice, testing that what we are doing is what we say we are doing, echoing a jarring dissonance if we have slipped off track. For example, if I say my practice is committed to social justice, what evidence is there that it is making a difference to the oppression that people experience in their lives? If I say that my practice is based on values of mutual respect, is there evidence that there is an increase in the health, confidence and autonomy of the people with whom I work? These questions needs to be set in collaboration with everyone involved in any aspect of the process, from policy to project, but most particularly the local people with whom we work together in partnership. In these ways, the practical projects that we develop with people in community provide the context for critical consciousness, the ‘teaching to question’ that is at the heart of Paulo Freire’s (1972) critical pedagogy and which makes the connections with structures of discrimination. In turn, critical consciousness becomes the basis for collective action, generating the confidence and the analysis to bring about change for social and environmental justice on a bigger scale than the community group. Personal issues become local projects, projects become causes, and causes become movements for change (Sivanandan cited in Cooke, 1996) as we network and form alliances that reach out beyond the perimeter of our communities.

Globalised times

Discrimination needs to be understood in relation to how personal lives are shaped by changing political forces (Ledwith, 2005). The process of globalisation has accelerated over the past two decades, creating a human crisis as well as a threat to the entire planet. Cannan (2000) cites Rees’ (1999) evidence of a five-fold increase in economic growth since the Second World War at the same time as poverty gaps between nations and within nations has doubled. In relation to our children, one example of this outrageous contradiction is the way that a rich nation like the UK is divided within, with 1:3 of its own children still growing up in poverty (a rise from 1:10 in 1979), whilst at the same time it is more divided than ever from the developing world, with immunity and distance from other realities, say, Ethiopian children starving to death or the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. This argument is central to sustainability and to social justice. We cannot operate on a naÔve interpretation of social justice which aims to lift the standards of living of the poorest in line with the artificially created greed of the rich, when the world is not able to support such excesses.

This becomes a human rights issue when set alongside the well-rehearsed understanding we have of poverty-related morbidity and mortality. We know that poverty creates ill-health and premature death. For example, in the UK children of those in the bottom social class are five times more likely to die from an accident and 15 times more likely to die in a house fire than those in upper social classes (Flaherty, et al, 2004). Yet evidence points to the fact that escalating child poverty during Thatcherism was a political choice rather than inevitability. Bradshaw (1999), investigating international trends, provides evidence that out of 25 countries only Russia and the USA had higher rates of child poverty than the UK.

Critical connections like this provide us with a complex picture of the interlinking dimensions of poverty which target some social groups much more than others. The correlation between unemployment, poor mental health, homelessness, school exclusions, children in care/leaving care and the escalation in youth suicide are important critical connections for community development (Howarth, et al, 1999). So too is the connection between increasing concentrations of poverty on council housing estates (Page, 2000) as well as the gendered and racialised dimensions of child poverty which link to growing up in lone-parent families and in families of non-white ethnicity, compounded by ill-health and low income (Gordon, et al, 2000). We must be concerned, both in terms of its profound injustice and its cost to society as a whole.

Our consciousness remains partial if we focus our analysis on a personal/local level and fail to notice the ways in which these are social trends that are linked to structural injustices. Our practice will address the symptoms and overlook the causes. In this sense, it is vital that these trends are set within wider issues of world poverty and its gendered and racialised dimensions. Peter Townsend, as a critical commentator on world poverty and on behalf of UNICEF, talked about the UK escalation in child poverty as a ‘neglect-filled Anglo-American model which unless there is massive investment in children we will head for economic catastrophe’ (Townsend 1995, p.10-12).

Relative poverty within a country has a massive impact on issues related to social exclusion. Setting this within an understanding of world poverty and environmental justice gives insight into the ways in which the problems lie with disproportionate levels of consumption in Western societies which the earth cannot sustain. Therefore, a critical approach to practice has to be based on the notion of a redistribution of wealth. This is the only way that divisions cleaved by poverty, which affect the life chances of people within nations and between nations, can be reduced. Globalisation’s acceleration has resulted in what Reason (2002) calls the twin global crises of our times – social justice, with the most vulnerable of the world exploited for the greed of western markets, and sustainability, with ecosystems that sustain our world being destroyed by exploitation and pollution. In these ways social justice and environmental justice become inextricably linked, and naÔve notions of increasing the levels of consumption of the poorest in our society will simply accelerate these crises for the world as a whole.

Critical praxis

At the same time, a parallel but related process of anti-intellectualism is encouraging uncritical practice. So, while we are failing in ‘being critical’, social injustices are escalating as globalisation creates more complex oppressions within and between nations. In these ways, the issues of the world at large become issues for our communities. In other words, in the name of a free market economy not only is labour exploited in the interests of class, but the same structures of oppression which subordinate groups of people according to ‘race’, gender, age, sexuality, ethnicity, ‘dis’ability … are being reproduced on a global level. In the words of Fisher and Ponniah (2003, p.11) ‘capitalism, imperialism, monoculturalism, patriarchy, white supremacism and the domination of biodiversity have coalesced under the current form of globalisation’ to form a major threat to a just, equal and sustainable future. This is precisely why the practice of community development, rooted as it is in anti-discriminatory analysis, cannot justify an approach to practice which focuses on the local and overlooks global dimensions of oppression.

We need to be vigilant and stay critical if we are to prevent our practice getting distracted and slipping into some feel-good, ameliorative, sticking plaster on the wounds of injustice. We need to reclaim our radical agenda from attempts to hijack and dilute it into a rhetoric of self help – neatly placing the blame for social divisions at the feet of the victims. For example, concepts like participation, empowerment, social justice and equality are not just pleasant and friendly ideas but come from a participatory worldview – one which is founded on co-operation and true democracy rather than competition and free market politics.

If we fail to be vigilant, we become distracted and our truth becomes distorted. Gary Craig captures some of the consequences of this when he says:

Community work is too often drawn into the latest fashions of government policy agendas because that is where the funding is, rather than developing and maintaining a clear analysis to inform action. Increasingly, the emphasis on training seems to be on skills to the exclusion of thinking about the theory and politics of community work: Government now provides a community development employment base which is fragmented, short-term and insecure with the result that practice is dominated by the policy and political context rather than creating it. (Craig in Shaw 2004, p.42)

The result is that, despite the plethora of policy initiatives and increased funding targeting community-based interventions, there is little evidence in the UK that any sustainable difference is being made to the lives of people in poverty. This led to a renewed government drive for devolution, as expressed in the Home Office-led Together We Can initiative to get departments working together across boundaries to achieve greater community participation. The White Paper, Strong and Prosperous Communities, from the newly-formed Department for Communities and Local Government, together with consultation papers Removing the Barriers to Community Participation and The Community Development Challenge, in which I have been involved, indicates an ongoing commitment to community participation, but also alerts us to the fact that the term ‘community empowerment’ is being used as synonymous with improved service delivery – which is just a small part of the community development agenda. Nevertheless, we can still seize it as a real opportunity to make a difference to the lives of marginalised communities. My point is that without vigilance community development will be diverted into a different role, one which focuses primarily on service delivery and fails to analyse and act on the structures of power which continue unabated to create and recreate oppression and marginalisation.

Action for change

So, my challenge is for us to get better at weaving theory into our practice, enabling us to explain why we are doing what we are doing at any stage of the community development process, and so creating knowledge-in-action based on practical experience. Without theory, practice is in danger of being reduced, at best, to a self-help, local activity.

Taking a critical approach gets us to the heart of what is creating social and environmental injustice by developing practice which:

    • Contributes to change for a peaceful, just and sustainable future.

    • Develops anti-discriminatory analyses that reach from local to global, identifying the ways in which personal stories are political



    • Builds practical local projects with people in community

    • Teaches people to question their reality


  • Forms strategic alliances for collective action, local to global

  • Remains true to its radical agenda, with social and environmental justice at its heart

  • Generates theory in action, practical theory based on experience which contributes to a unity of praxis.


Bradshaw, J (1999) ‘Comparing Child Poverty’, Poverty, Journal of the Child Poverty Action Group, No 104, Autumn

Cannan, C (2000) ‘The environmental crisis, Greens and community development’, Community Development, Journal, vol 35, no 4, October, pp 365-76

Cooke, I (1996) ‘Whatever happened to the class of ’68? The Changing Context of Radical Community Work Practice’ in Cook, I & Shaw, M (eds) Radical Community Work: Perspectives from Practice in Scotland, Edinburgh: Moray House

Fisher, W F & Ponniah, T (2003) Another World is Possible: Popular alternatives to globalization at the World Social Forum, London: Zed Books

Flaherty, J, Veit-Wilson, J & Dornan, P (2004) Poverty; The Facts, London: Child Poverty Action Group

Freire, P (1972) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Harmondsworth: Penguin

Freire, P (1976) Education: The Practice of Freedom, London: Writers & Readers

Gordon, D, Adelman, L, Ashworth, K, Bradshaw, J, Levitas, R, Middleton, S, Pantazis, C, Patsios, D, Payne, S, Townsend, P & Williams, J (2000) Poverty and Social Exclusion in Britain, York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Howarth, C, Kenway, P, Palmer, G & Miorelli, R (1999) Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion 1999, York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation/New Policy Institute

Ledwith, M (2005) Community Development: A critical approach, Bristol: Policy Press

Page, D (2000) Communities in the Balance: The Reality of Social Exclusion on Housing Estates, York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Reason, P (2002) ‘Justice, sustainability and participation: inaugural lecture’, available from <>

Shaw, M (2004) Community Work: Policy, Politics and Practice, Hull: Universities of Hull and Edinburgh

Shor, I (1992) Empowering Education: Critical Teaching for Social Change, London/Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press

Townsend, P (1995) ‘Poverty: Home and Away’, Poverty, Journal of the Child Poverty Action Group, No 91, Summer

About the writer: Margaret Ledwith is Professor of Community Development and Social Justice, St Martin’s College, Lancaster.

Acknowledgement: This article first appeared in Concept – The Journal of Contemporary Community Education Practice Theory (see below). Our thanks to the editor for allowing us to reproduce it here.  Picture: Anti-austerity march by bjpcorp. Sourced from Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons CCby2 licence.

How to reference this piece: Ledwith, Margaret (2007) ‘Reclaiming the radical agenda: a critical approach to community development’, Concept Vol.17, No.2, 2007, pp8-12. Reproduced in The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [ Retrieved: insert date].

© Margaret Ledwith 2007

Last Updated on June 20, 2019 by