This blog is part of an online learning platform which includes the Pathways to New Community Paradigms Wiki and a number of other Internet based resources to explore what is termed here 'new community paradigms' which are a transformational change brought about by members of a community.

It is intended to offer resources and explore ideas with the potential of purposefully directing the momentum needed for communities to create their own new community paradigms.

It seeks to help those interested in becoming active participants in the governance of their local communities rather than merely passive consumers of government service output. This blog seeks to assist individuals wanting to redefine their role in producing a more direct democratic form of governance by participating both in defining the political body and establishing the policies that will have an impact their community so that new paradigms for their community can be chosen rather than imposed.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

ABCD Conflict Consensus Debate

That Asset Based Community Development or ABCD is not neoliberalism has been both questioned and argued not to be true. The difference this makes and clarifying differences between asset based approaches and ABCD has been explored. Even so, there is still a basis for a debate between proponents of ABCD, with MacLeod of the University of Glasgow and Emejulu the University of Edinburgh, authors of the study authors of the study 'Neoliberalism with a Community Face’ who argue that, "The application of ABCD generates tensions within an existing Scottish social democratic framework for community development.” This post will focus primarily on the positions taken by the authors followed by ABCD oriented reflections.

In considering the theme of democracy, these two contrasting positions emerging from the study reflect the contrasting approaches of conflict and consensus based models of community development which the authors assert inform contrasting approaches to democracy. 

It is doubtful though that there is any disagreement that the state of institutional welfare systems in both the US and the UK tend be hierarchical, bureaucratic and inimical to meaningful democratic participation by marginalized groups. The debate is over how effectively both approaches interact with such systems. Each in their own particular way, see institutional government as a troublesome necessity. 

The concept that identifying and seeking to develop the strengths, skills and knowledge of individuals and community groups, helping people to become more confident to critically analyze and dissent from the prevailing views and representations of themselves and the problems they experience could be seen fitting both approaches.

One community development worker, Gill, identified an asset based approach as resonating very strongly with her own understanding of her professional role: 

"What our job is, is to support these “live” assets [sic] to become aware of what their rights are as a community and as a group and what power they have...It’s about us supporting them to become a voice, a big voice, one big voice out of the whole community.

There is a potential, recognized by more strategic-level professionals, that an asset based approach, which we will assume includes ABCD despite already having cited the differences in previous posts, might offer a sense of ownership and control in changing the power relationships over social welfare services. 

Karen, a study participant, thought that asset-based approaches could, “Allow people to engage round the table in a more equal basis”.  This, however, would be negotiations not community collaboration.

For some community development practitioners, ABCD, from a more positive perspective by the authors, is seen as a way to roll back the state, challenging what is seen as welfare dependency and promoting community empowerment in social welfare service planning and provision. In other words, it can be made a confrontational tool which is not an explicit purpose of ABCD.

In this view of asset based approaches, many participants spoke of building networks and connections both within communities and across different sections of society, including the public, private and third sectors. This again takes the focus to outside of the community but are there times when the focus of the community needs to be outside of the community?

Some practitioners, according to the authors, may be able to use an assets agenda as part of a discussion of community activism, to provide a constructive contribution to on-going debates about the nature and purpose of democracy in Scotland. The problem for proponents of ABCD, as stated before, this still tends to take the locus of control off of the community itself.

So while the authors do consider the possibility that ABCD could perhaps be used as a means to spark discussions about making the welfare state more open and democratic, for them though ABCD asks some of the right questions it still provides the wrong answer. ABCD proponents are likely to respond that the wrong questions are being asked of the wrong people who are giving the wrong answers.

What the authors doubt is that an ABCD approach provides an adequate  ability for practitioners and community groups to articulate their views about structural problems and build solidarity at the grassroots, again arguably to serve as part of a conflict model of community development.

An ABCD approach emphasizes the need to release a community’s own internal ‘untapped’ assets.  The authors argue that this could end up increasing inequalities between different communities by potentially advantaging communities already influential and cohesive, with one study participant, Sue, commenting, "You can end up making the gaps wider if the investment goes to the people who are able to ask with more clarity for what they want and need."

Sarah, another study participant, raised the idea of unintended consequences resulting from using ABCD.

For an asset based approach to work the community you’re working in must already be quite a strong community...That there are structures in place, that there’s already cohesion within a community and people know what their issues are and what their priorities are and that they are engaging with that. But there is the negative side that lots of people don’t want to engage and lots of people are facing particular challenges in their lives that going along to a community meeting is the last thing that they need to deal with. So there is the potential that some form of inequality could be increased. There needs to be a lot more work done to look at whether that is going to be the case.

The ABCD focus on the “positive”; relentless in the eyes of the authors, could actually marginalize any needed critical analyses of structural inequalities, undermining collective oppositional action to address these problems.

Although asset based approaches may offer the potential of working with community groups as equal partners, achieving such a shift in power, and the involved challenges of sharing power and changing established ways of working, is seen as a far more complex, long-term process.

The extent then to which taking an asset approach, and even extending that to an Asset Based Community Development approach, can help tackle deep-rooted inequalities is seen as questionable, or as the authors cite:

“community assets can only have a mitigating effect on the structural and social determinants of ill-health and inequality - poor housing, low wages, lack of jobs”  Foot and Hopkins 2010

The issues of structural inequalities that are seen as being absent in ABCD theory and practice were also of concern to study participant Kate, a senior policy manager in the third sector:

“When I hear people talking about asset based development I don’t hear them referring to, “Of course poverty has dragged these people down for the last twenty years” or, “the real problem here is unemployment”. I hear a completely different discourse from them.”

How the concept of ABCD should be redefined and applied in practice to address Kate’s concerns, for the authors then, would involve expanding the discussion of assets to include greater concern for deeper and more pervasive structural and material inequalities. The extent then to which motivations behind a desire for change in power are due to current interest in asset based approaches, whether authentic or politically manipulative is, as the authors say, open for debate.

Study participant Judi’s statement, "We know that people are motivated by problems, that’s what galvanizes them and I think for a long time people from an asset based approach perspective would see that as a deficit approach, you’d then be stigmatising people with needs and problems”, illustrates both sides of the debate, identifying and articulating that shared ‘problems’ or ‘needs’ can help shock communities into building solidarity and motivate people to take action but also raising issues of concern to proponents of ABCD of adopting a deficit model by beginning with what is wrong with people rather than strong

ABCD proponents have to win this debate with Judi and other practitioners in mind, recognizing both sides of her concerns, and clarifying for her where there is confusion about what is ABCD. Still, this does not preclude following the author's call to draw on, "...philosophical and activist traditions that help us to think and learn collectively about the nature of social problems and which also give us the practical tools to take collective action for social justice.

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