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.

Monday, October 17, 2016

ABCD and Scottish Questions - Determining the Direction a Community Faces

The last blog post argued against the idea that Asset Based Community Development or ABCD is ‘neoliberalism with a community face’ as argued for by the study’s authors, Mary Anne MacLeod of the University of Glasgow and Akwugo Emejulu of the University of Edinburgh. 

ABCD is not established upon the logic of free market relations nor hostile to state-sponsored social welfare, it is just not wholly dependent upon it. An authentic ABCD model, doesn’t have a built-in distrust of the state but rather a wariness of what the state can do and is open to but does not necessarily support free market ideas, especially those brought from outside of the community. It is not based on theories and practices that seek to individualize and privatize social problems. 

The reason why  ABCD is being successfully implemented in the US and the UK, since the 1980s, is not then the neoliberal consensus dominating economic, political and policy debates in these two countries. Views expressed in ABCD literature by such as Kretzmann and McKnight may look to reduce dependency and increase individual responsibility but neither skepticism nor mistrust of the state are key themes. They don’t concur with either David Cameron’s position on ‘a culture of entitlement’ among the poor or with Wiggan's argument that poverty and unemployment originate in the poor choices and behavior of individuals rendering an  expensive, albeit well-meaning system of state support ineffective, while reinforcing social problems. 

This does not mean, however, that neoliberal politicians cannot use asset based jargon for their own purposes and it is only fair to ask who should be keeping an eye out for this. Further, discussions of dependency and responsibility suggests to the authors that an assets agenda in Scotland, placed within a wider debate regarding the role of the state in austere times, could potentially be used to justify a reduction in the state’s role in tackling social problems such as Glasgow’s persistent health inequalities.

This post will attempt to consider more carefully the other components of the study’s authors’ perspective. An important concern of the authors of the study is whose interests are being ultimately served and whose voices are being marginalized when the power held by different parties is unequal between different individuals and across groups in different sectors, seeking, perhaps only ostensibly, to work collaboratively and build partnerships.

In Scotland, the authors tell us, a tradition of strong social democracy champions a primary role for the state in the lives of its citizens bringing tension to this question. The authors assert that although ABCD has been championed in Scotland, there is some skepticism about it and how it might be used to enhance or transform contemporary community development work.

While policy makers and commentators in Scotland may recognize the opportunities, challenges and tensions that a discourse of assets creates, they are also aware that, as McLean asserts, ‘...a clear political position and direction to the debate remains absent’. The problem is that ABCD, though it may have political impact, is not a political question, especially not one to be asked by political institutions. 

ABCD is seen then as creating both challenges and possibilities in relation to austerity and welfare reform in the UK. The concern that there is a significant potential for the asset based approach to not only sideline the issue of inequalities, but to also increase them cannot be dismissed out of hand. The extent this concern is absent from the key literature in this area is unknown but a lack of literature has already been recognized.

The debate is more directly then between different competing analyses and means concerning causes and especially solutions to social problems in the context of the United Kingdom. If work is needed to avoid asset based approaches perpetuating inequalities and ensuring that resources and support are available to those most in need then arguably ABCD has a primary responsibility and, I believe, capacity for this.

It has to be understood that there is a difference between an asset based approach and Asset Based Community Development.  A determining factor and perhaps a fundamental difference between a general asset based approach and Asset Based Community Development, as I understand it, is the determination of the locus of control for a community.  Anything that takes the locus of control away from the community itself placing it in the hands of an outside agency, no matter how well meaning or benign is not ABCD. It is this sidestepping of this fundamental principle that is behind most attempts to usurp ABCD for political purposes and a common means of doing so is through specialized language.

The authors cite both McLean and IACD in the identification of a range of methodologies involving an asset based approach, including asset mapping, appreciative inquiry, participatory appraisal and co-production. McLean goes on to point out correctly that, “…many examples of asset based work may not use the 'asset' terminology".

The resulting ambiguity of the concept stemming from the "plethora of concepts" as used by government and decision makers comes through then, 'with some degree of abandon without taking on the real and challenging demands which each of them involves if they are to be effective’

A need to clarify the meaning of an asset based approach and an expressed concern that it is ‘all jargon’ was also raised by community development workers and activists attending a ‘Shaking our Assets’ conference. Yet participants also described what they considered the best aspects of an asset based approach in terms of: ‘co-production’, ‘community involvement’, ‘influence’, ‘shifting the power balance’ and ‘participation’.

The authors recognized what they saw as some potential benefits of a general asset based approach. ABCD, seen as a more consensus-based approach to community development work, could increase individual and collective responsibility for social problems and social welfare. Consensus within ABCD, it should be kept in mind, is foremost within the community itself.

An asset based approach offers a potential means for increasing democratization, both in terms of  community projects planning and delivery, as well as the designing and delivery of public services by engaging people in defining both the problem and the solution, using a more co-productive way of working, through what was  called a “we’ll-do-it-with-you mode”. This still though leaves questions as to exactly where the locus of control is situated.

A focus on assets could allow for a more direct involvement in setting the priorities for service planning and delivery, recognizing that asset based approaches might offer the potential for changing attitudes of health and other public sector professionals in terms of listening to and valuing the interests, skills and knowledge of individuals and community groups. This, however, suggests a shifting of the locus of control.

An asset based approach then is asserted to reflect a consensus building model, that is consistent with the views of Kretzmann and McKnight, as suggested by study participant Mary, a community development worker:

“It’s very much about recognising the skills that everybody has when we put them together both individually, both within partnerships or projects which we form, between a group of people working together, or much wider than that the public sector working with the private sector...It’s very much that collective when everybody works together and its greater than the sum of the parts when you pull all of those resources together.”

Another study participant Rachel, also a community development worker, conversely provides a different perspective: "I think our systems and bureaucracy are stifling it [the asset based approach]. We are just so full of systems that are so hierarchical [that] kind of stop people from contributing in the way that they could."

This raised issues of power relating then to the challenges of taking a genuinely democratic approach with certain themes in the literature, as cited by the authors, highlighting the ways in which a supposedly ABCD model frames social welfare services as disempowering. More precisely, several study participants spoke of asset based work in terms of its potential and dilemmas in relation to oppositional community activism for social justice with some participants being confronted with a real dilemma about using what was identified as an ABCD approach because of the contradictions they experience when considering neighborhood-level solidarity work. 

This analysis is still tentative and open to revision based on feedback.  An endeavor to look for resolution will be sought within the next blog post. 

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