What is community development?

Picture: community by Brendan Murphy. Sourced from Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) licence

What is community development? The idea of community development grew, in large part, out of the activities of colonial administrators. We examine this legacy and the theory and practice that emerged. We also look to the body of overlapping ideas, including community participation, community organization and community work.

In this piece we suggest that community development is perhaps best used to describe those approaches which use a mix of informal education, collective action and organizational development and focus on cultivating social justice, mutual aid, local networks and communal coherence.

Contents: introduction · the colonial legacy · the move away from education · capacity building · community participation and social capital · reappraising community development · conclusion · further reading and references · how to cite this article

Like many of the terms around the community work and community education field, the notion of ‘community development’ is beset with difficulties. In this piece we suggest that it is helpful to describe those approaches that look to cultivate social justice, mutual aid, local networks and communal coherence. In many respects as a body of thinking and practice it links strongly to more recent concerns around the cultivation of social capital.

The colonial legacy

The notion of community development owes a great deal to the efforts of colonial administrators. After the Second World War the British Colonial Office became concerned with ‘community development’. Mayo (1975: 130) suggests that administrators ‘concocted’ the term out of their attempts to develop ‘basic education’ and social welfare in the UK colonies. For example, a 1944 report, Mass education in the colonies, placed an emphasis on literacy training and advocated the promotion of agriculture, health and other social services through local self help (Midgley et al 1986: 17). This was a set of concerns similar to those surrounding the interest in rural development and educational ‘extension’ in North America in the first two decades of the century. Community development was defined in one UK government publication as:

active participation, and if possible on the initiative of the community, but if this initiative is not forthcoming spontaneously, by the use of techniques for arousing and stimulating it in order to achieve its active and enthusiastic response to the movement. (Colonial Office 1958: 2)

The concern with community development was, in part, a response to the growth of nationalism, and, in part an outcome of a desire to increase the rate of industrial and economic development. The notion began to feature strongly in United Nations documents during the 1950s – and these drew extensively on the British literature and experiences in Africa and India (Midgley et al 1986: 18). Three important elements were identified:

  • a concern with social and economic development.
  • the fostering and capacity of local co-operation and self-help.
  • the use of expertise and methods drawn from outside the local community.

Within this there does appear to be a certain contradiction. Community development emphasizes participation, initiative and self help by local communities but is usually sponsored by national governments as part of a national plan. While from one side it can be seen as the encouragement of local initiative and decision making, from the other it is a means of implementing and expediting national policies at the local level and is a substitute for, or the beginning of, local government (Jones 1977; see also, informal and non-formal education, colonialism and development).

The focus on the social and economic, local and global, also helps to situate debates about community development – and the disillusionment with its achievements that was widespread in many Southern countries by the 1970s. Many governments, particularly in Africa, failed to provide adequate financial support but nevertheless extolled the virtues of self-help. Community development was soon recognized by the people to amount to little more than a slogan which brought few tangible benefits. (Midgley et al 1986: 18)

However, we should not forget in this process is that community development had also spawned a growing literature. Workers were not only able to draw on the extensive American literature of community organization (see below) – there were now various guides and discussions arising specifically out of the experience of ‘developing’ countries, for example, Batten’s (1957) classic textbook Communities and their Development.

It is not without significance that while the community organization literature became broadly located in social work, the community development literature had far more an ‘educational’ hue. Yet, we do need to take some care here – just because a discourse found expression in North American social work does not mean that it was not informed by educational thinkers. However, the institutional location of the work, combined with the orientation of its proponents is important. Batten, for example, who wrote a string of influential books (e.g. 1957; 1965; 1967) was based at the University of London Institute of Education. As we will see when we come to look at the experience of community work in the United Kingdom this educational orientation was to wane there also in the late 1960s.

The move away from education

To make sense of the notion of community development it is helpful to situate it alongside other strands of community work practice. Here it is useful to consider Thomas’ (1993) discussion of the five main strands or approaches that characterized community work in the early 1980s. He talked about:

Community Action. Community action was seen as focusing on the organisation of those adversely affected by the decisions, or non-decisions, of public and private bodies and by more general structural characteristics of society. The strategy aims to promote collective action to challenge existing socio-political and economic structures and processes, to explore and explain the power realities of people’s situations and, through this twin pronged approach, develop both critical perspectives of the status quo and alternative bases of power and action.

Community Organisation. Community organization, according to Thomas, involves the collaboration of separate community or welfare agencies with or without the additional participation of statutory authorities, in the promotion of joint initiatives.

Community Development. Community development was seen as emphasizing self-help, mutual support, the building up of neighbourhood integration, the development of neighbourhood capacities for problem-solving and self-representation, and the promotion of collective action to bring a community’s preferences to the attention of political decision-makers.

Social Planning. This orientation/approach was presented as being concerned with the assessment of community needs and problems and the systematic planning of strategies for meeting them. Social planning comprises the analysis of social conditions, social policies and agency services; the setting of goals and priorities; the design of service programmes and the mobilisation of appropriate resources; and the implementation and evaluation of services and programmes.

Service Extension. This is a strategy that seeks to extend agency operations and services by making them more relevant and accessible. This includes extending services into the community, giving these services and the staff who are responsible for them a physical presence in a neighbourhood. (Thomas 1983: 106-139)

In Britain the notion of community development became associated for some with shifts within community work towards more radical approaches (following the experiences of workers within the Community Development Projects of the early 1970s). In particular this involved a movement away from what could be described as an informal education perspective, into what would be better labelled social action (see above). However, the radicalism of many of the workers attracted into the work in the late 1960s and early 1970s in many northern countries was not to last. The waning of key social movements, the increased influence of managerialism, and more general economic and political shifts around marketization and globalization (see globalization and globalization and incorporation of education) meant that there was in many countries, a gradual drift into a policy orientation and a focus on the implementation of social care and regeneration initiatives (see the discussion in the article on community work). In other words, there was a significant movement into approaches to what people described as ‘community development’ that looked to what Thomas described as social planning and service extension.

In some places there were countervailing forces to this movement away from education and from mutual aid and community. In Scotland, for example, the developing professional and political interest in community education kept a stronger focus on more locally-based and associational work. In a similar way the experience of non-formal education programmes in some countries retained an interest in the ways in which local people understood their situation and reflected more of a ‘bottom-up’ approach to policy formation.

Capacity building

Some of the classic concerns of community development found expression in the early 1990s in the notion of ‘capacity building’. There was an interest in developing the ability of local groups and networks to function and to contribute to social and economic development. On the whole, though, the idea of capacity building often remained associated with a technicist and economistic viewpoint – a concern with competencies, ‘investing’ and so on. There were those that looked to the ‘bottom-up’ and more convivial aspects of traditional community development. A few contributions also emerged that had a more thorough theoretical basis. Eade’s (1997) approach, for example, and that of development agencies such as Oxfam, was linked into certain fundamental beliefs, for example: ‘that all people have the right to an equitable share in the world’s resources, and to be the authors of their own development; and that the denial of such rights is at the heart of poverty and suffering’ (1997: 2). Strengthening people’s capacity to determine their values and priorities, and to act on these, is the basis of development.

(C)apacity building is an approach to development rather than a set of discrete or pre-packaged interventions. So while there are certain basic capacities (social, economic, political and practical) on which development depends, Oxfam seeks to support organisations working for sustainable social justice. (Eade 1997: 3)

From this flow a number of implications. That:

  • capacity building must not be seen in isolation.
  • all have capacities that may not be obvious to outsiders and it may take time to discover these.
  • if it is to be inclusive, interventions must take into account different and sometimes negative, ways in which the impacts will be experienced.
  • flexibility is important but this must not be at the expense of a loss of direction with regard to wider processes of social and economic transformation.
  • capacity building is not ‘doing development’ on the cheap or against the clock. Nor is it risk-free. (Eade 1997: 3).

The problem was that many of those interested in capacity building located it within a particular paradigm. It was capacity-building within a particular set of policy parameters. There was not often a disposition to build capacity that might oppose or fail to the ‘importance’ of state interests and priorities.

Community participation and debates around social capital

In the late 1960s there was some exploration of different models of participation and their relationship to community development. Since then concern around popular and community participation in key agencies such as the United Nations (see community participation) has been part of the discourse of community development. As Midgley et al (1986: 23) have noted, the notion of popular participation and that of community participation were interlinked. The former was concerned with broad issues of social development and the creation of opportunities for the involvement of people in the political, economic and social life of a nation, ‘the latter connotes the direct involvement of ordinary people in local affairs’. As such community participation can be seen as linking with older concerns with associational democracy and the like. In some countries the notion of community participation has reappeared in discussions around the need to bring some local services and facilities more directly into the control of local people. For example the 2005 election manifesto for the British Labour Party argued for ‘new opportunities for communities to assume greater responsibility or even ownership of community assets like village halls, community centres, libraries or recreational facilities’ (2005: 105).

This concern with local control and networks had some roots in the debates that emerged around social capital in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Significant press attention was given in the United States and the UK to Robert Putnam’s arguments around the diminution of social capital in the USA (and the impact this had upon people’s health, education and happiness). It also encouraged some important debates within academic and policy circles (see lifelong learning and social capital). While there has been some exploration of what a concern with deepening social capital might mean in terms of work in communities (see, for example, Putnam and Feldstein with Cohen 2003) it has been, on the whole, rather disappointing. Part of the problem is that it entails policymakers and practitioners entertaining and making sense of issues within a markedly different frame of reference than that which dominates discussion and policy today. The work involved is long-term, dependent upon process and concerned more broadly with flourishing and happiness. State intervention is largely short-term, looking to outcomes and interested in economic growth and efficiency.

Reappraising community development

With moves in Scotland, for example, from community education to community learning and development, and continuing debates around the notion of community development, there have been some interesting changes in the way the notion is being approached in some key quarters. One of the significant aspects of this has been the resurfacing of education – in particular informal education – as a central feature of the work. Here one of the most helpful contributions has been that of Alison Gilchrist and Marilyn Taylor (2011). They place achieving greater levels of social justice at the core of activity and go on to argue that the ‘focus is on individuals, groups and networks that want or need to cooperate in order to achieve change at a local or community level’ (op. cit: 9). They continue, ‘Adopting a community development approach means ensuring that the issues and priorities are identified and agreed by the communities themselves, and that people are encouraged to work together towards a collective solution to a shared concern’.

Gilchrist and Taylor suggest there are three vital aspects of community development:

  • informal education – learning that takes place predominantly through direct involvement in community activities
  • collective action – finding the power of combined voices and determination; the strength of many people acting for their mutual benefit or to champion the interests of those who cannot stand up for themselves
  • organization development – helping groups and bodies to evolve a form that enables the members to achieve their goals, to act legally and to be accountable to the membership and wider community. (extracted from Gilchrist and Taylor 2011: 10-12).

This reworking of community development is helpful in that it reconnects three areas of practice in the service of development – and makes sense of a lot of the activity of local practitioners. One of the questions that remains is the relative strength of each strand – and for example, an over-emphasis in some NGOs and in state sponsored work on organization development.  The focus on focus on cultivating social justice in Gilchrist and Taylor’s work – and here also on mutual aid, local networks and communal coherence – is an important counterbalance to this.


Along with Thomas and others we argue here that there is some merit in restricting the notion of community development to those approaches that focus on the cultivation of local democracy, mutual aid, local networks and communal coherence. Economic development and the quality and appropriateness of state and other services may well form a part of this attention – but are not the foci around which activity revolves.

Over the next few years it will be interesting to see how more convivial notions of community development fare. There are strong forces for continuing centralization and marketization in many states (see globalization and education). At the same time, it appears that many of the older policy imperatives such as the focus on economic growth are not cutting it in terms of people’s feeling of well-being. There appears still to be some yearning after community and a feeling that something has been lost in many countries. Whether this can be turned into significant activity is an open question.

Further reading and references

Batten, T. R. (1957) Communities and their Development. An introductory study with special reference to the Tropics, London: Oxford University Press. Chapters on: Trends in community development; Agencies and communities; Some principles of agency work; Directing change; Aiding community projects; Projects in disorganized communities; Building community; The school and the community; Making people literate; Introducing new ideas; Working with groups; Selecting and training the worker; Making communities better.

Dominelli, L. (1990; 2006) Women and Community Action, Bristol: Policy Press. Overview of developments and contemporary practice. See, also, Dominelli, L. and McLeod (1989) Feminist Social Work, London: Macmillan.

Gilchrist, A. and Taylor, M. (2011). The Short Guide to Community Development. Bristol: Policy Press. Gilchrist and Taylor provide a helpful overview of the area and a much need clarity about the central forms community development takes.

Henderson, P. and Thomas, D. N. (2012) Skills in Neighbourhood Work 4e, London: Routledge. 240 pages. This remains the standard treatment of neighbourhood work in the UK. Although somewhat dry and ‘technicist’ in places, the book’s strength lies in its comprehensiveness and focus on process. Chapters examine some of the ideas around which the book is organized; entering the neighbourhood; getting to know the neighbourhood; needs, goals and roles;making contacts and bringing people together; forming and building organizations; helping to clarify goals and priorities; keeping the organization going; dealing with friends and enemies; leavings and endings; and a little more about process.

Hickey, S. and Mohan, G. (eds.) (2004) Participation: From Tyranny to Transformation? – Exploring New Approaches to Participation in Development, London: Zed Books. 304 pages.Helpful debunking of simplistic critiques of community participation as largely rhetorical or tyrannical. Explores different examples of practice and examines recent convergence between participatory development and participatory governance.

Hope, A. and Timmel, S. (1995) Training for Transformation. A handbook for community workers Revised edition, Gwereu, Zimbabwe: Mambo Press. (Available in UK through IT Books). 205 pages. A rightly popular handbook that first appeared in 1984 and this revised edition comes in three volumes.Book 1 examines the roots of the method, surveying for generative themes, problem-posing materials, and adult learning and literacy training. There is also a substantial section on resources. The approach draws heavily on Freire. Book 2 explores the skills necessary for participatory education: trust and dialogue in groups, leadership and participation, simple decision-making and action planning and evaluation. Book 3 deals with the social analysis necessary to develop critical awareness and long-term planning in people’s movements. There are chapters on global-local analysis, building a movement, new forms of management and supervision and planning workshops.

Pierson, John (2007). Going Local: Working in Communities and Neighbourhoods. London: Routledge. 216 pages. Aimed at social worker, this book is a useful exploration of how they might develop neighbourhood work. The focus is on engaging people to work together (and with service providers) to build the capacity of neighbourhoods to tackle social problems on their own.

Popple, K. (1995) Analysing Community Work. Its theory and practice, Buckingham: Open University Press. 131 + x pages. Provides an introductory overview with chapters on: the development of British community work; community work theory; models of community work; community work in practice; conclusion and future directions. The models are basically those of Thomas (1983) with the addition of community care; feminist community work; and Black and anti-racist community work.

Putnam, R. D. (2000) Bowling Alone. The collapse and revival of American community, New York: Simon and Schuster. 540 pages. Groundbreaking book that marshals evidence from an array of empirical and theoretical sources. Putnam argues there has been a decline in ‘social capital’ in the USA. He charts a drop in associational activity and a growing distance from neighbours, friends and family. Crucially he explores some of the possibilities that exist for rebuilding social capital. A modern classic. Chapter One of the book is extracted on-line at the Simon and Shuster website (Bowling Alone).

Tett, L. (2010). Community Education: Antecedents and Meanings. Edinburgh: Dunedin Academic Press. Explores the contribution in Scotland of community education to social inclusion and lifelong learning. Lyn Tett draws from a range of contexts including detached youth work, family literacy, health education and community regeneration programmes.

Other references

Barr, A. (1991) Practising Community Development. Experience in Strathclyde, London: Community development Foundation.

Barr, A., Hamilton, R. and Purcell, R. (1996) Learning for Change. Community education and Community Development, London: Community Development Foundation.Beetham, D. (1992) ‘Liberal democracy and the limits of democratization’ in D. Held (ed.) Prospects for Democracy. North, South, East, West, Cambridge: Polity.

Batten, T. R. with Batten, M. (1965) The Human Factor in Community Work, London: Oxford University Press.

Batten, T. R. (1967) The Non-Directive Approach in Group and Community Work, London: Oxford University Press.

Berrigan, F. (1974) ‘Animation’ Projects in the UK. Aspects of socio-cultural community development, Leicester: National Youth Bureau.

Cannan, C. and Warren, C. (eds.) (1997) Social Action with Children and Families. A community development approach to child and family welfare, London: Routledge.

Colonial Office (1958) Community Development. A Handbook, London: HMSO.

Cooke, B. and Kothari, U. (eds.) (2001) Participation: The new tyranny?, London: Zed Books.

Cooke, I. and Shaw, M. (1997) Radical Community Work. Perspectives from practice, Edinburgh: Moray House.

Eade, D. (1997) Capacity Building. An approach to people-centred development, Oxford: Oxfam.

Francis, D. and Henderson, P. (1994) Community Development and Rural Issues, London: Community Development Foundation.

Gilchrist, A. (1995) Community Development and Networking, London: Community Development Foundation.

Heaton, K. and Sayer, J. (1992) Community Development and Child Welfare, London: Community Development Foundation.

Jones, D. (1977) ‘Community Work in the UK’ in H. Specht and A. Vickery (eds.) Integrating Social Work Methods, London: George Allen and Unwin.

McConnell, C. (ed.) (1996) Community Education. The making of an empowering profession, Edinburgh: Scottish Community Education Council.

Mayo, M. (1975) ‘Community development: a radical alternative?’ in R. Bailey and M. Brake (eds.) Radical Social Work, London: Edward Arnold.

Mayo, M. (1994) Communities and Caring. The mixed economy of welfare, London: Macmillan.

Midgley, J. (1995) Social Development. The developmental perspective in social welfare, London: Sage.

Midgley, J. with Hall, A., Hardiman, M. and Narine, D. (1986) Community Participation, Social Development and the State, London: Methuen.

Pateman, C. (1970) Participation and Democratic Theory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rogers, A. (1992) Adults Learning for Development, London: Cassell.

Skinner, S. (1997) Building Community Strengths. A resource book on capacity building , London: Community Development Foundation.

Taylor, M. (1991) Signposts to Community Development, London: Community Development Foundation.

United Nations (1955) Social Progress through Community Development, New York: United Nations.

United Nations (1981) Popular Participation as a Strategy for Planning Community Level Action and National Development, New York: United Nations.

van Rees, W. et al (1991) A Survey of Contemporary Community Development in Europe, The Hague: 7 Opbouwteksten.

Acknowledgement: Picture: community by Brendan Murphy. Sourced from Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) licence. http://www.flickr.com/photos/murphyeppoon/5166862608/

How to cite this article: Smith, M. K. (1996, 2006, 2013). ‘What is community development?’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education.  [https://infed.org/mobi/what-is-community-development/ . Retrieved: insert date].

© Mark K. Smith 1996, 2006, 2013