22 April 2015

What’s the Matter with Asset-Based Community Development?

Guest blogger, Dr. Akwugo Emejulu, Senior Lecturer at the Moray House School of Education, University of Edinburgh, reflects on the relevance of asset-based community development to What Works Scotland.

Recently, asset-based community development (ABCD) has captured the imagination of some policymakers and practitioners interested in grassroots democracy, participation and anti-poverty work in Scotland. ABCD appears to offer both a theory and practice of empowerment and social change that seems to be a real alternative to the usual approaches to community participation and development. So, what is ABCD and what might its problem be?

The proponents of ABCD on both sides of the Atlantic, John Kreztmann, John McKnight and Cormac Russell, like to position it as a counter-movement within the field of community development that refocuses policy and practice from community needs, deficits and problems to a focus on community skills, strengths and power. A key target of ABCD is the welfare state which is constructed as bureaucratic, hierarchical and anti-democratic because, ABCD supporters argue, it breeds a culture of dependency in poor communities. In contrast, ABCD is presented as an inclusive and democratic process of empowering citizens by ‘ignoring the empty half of the glass’ of poverty and inequality (McKnight 2010: 72). The power of ABCD, it is argued, lies in its ability to see local people as assets—not problems to be fixed by the state. Thus an ABCD process is able to ‘mobilis[e] a person with a heart problem to use carpentry skills to build a community centre’ (ibid 2010: 72). These arguments reveal a deep scepticism and distrust of the social welfare state and its ability to function for the benefit of society. Anti-statist views are not new in community development. However, to understand what ABCD is and the types of ideas and values it promotes, it is vitally important to place it in its particular historical context—namely, the rolling back of the social welfare state in 1980s America.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan comes to power, in part, on a policy platform to shrink the state and dismantle President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society reforms (the Great Society programmes of the 1960s were the largest expansion of the American social welfare state since President Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s). The Reagan Administration not only eliminated, reduced and/or privatised a range of public services but also actively targeted for de-funding and closure community organisations that supported conflict models of social action (Fisher 1994; Emejulu 2015). In this hostile climate of right-wing retrenchment, the Administration only promoted consensus-based economic development partnership initiatives that united the public, private and third sectors. Thus, it is important to understand that ABCD emerges, not as an alternative to deficit approaches to community development, but as a movement to displace and neutralise radical community organising and development (MacLeod and Emejulu 2014). ABCD is not necessarily a bold stand against the disempowering practice of well meaning but ultimately misguided social welfare professionals. Instead, it is an attempt to re-purpose community development to make it more acceptable to the emerging neoliberal order under Reagan.

If we look more closely at ABCD’s anti-statist ideas, we can see that ABCD is not necessarily a call for grassroots democracy but a response and a capitulation to the neoliberalism and its values of individualisation, marketisation and the privatisation of public life. Not everything of value can be measured and understood through the prism of capitalism. However, ABCD seems to actively support the incursion of free market ideas and principles into community life—its peculiar focus on ‘assets’ rather than, say, ‘solidarity’ is not an accident. ABCD, perhaps inadvertently, directly contributes to the process of privatising social problems by shifting the responsibility for tackling inequality and injustice from the state to individuals and communities using the rhetoric of ‘community empowerment’.

So, what might this mean for those interested in ‘What Works’? Firstly, we should critically consider the limitations of using ideas and practices linked to free market capitalism in grassroots-based work for social justice. Capitalism, fundamentally, is about maximising profit for the owners of capital. It is not designed to address issues of fairness, equality and justice. Indeed, as the 2008 economic crisis and subsequent austerity measures have shown us, capitalism is the source of inequality—it is not a remedy to it. Secondly, aspects of ABCD can certainly be harnessed to support community organising and mobilising. Placing ABCD in a context of movements seeking to democratise the economic system and collectivise wealth, such as co-operatives and mutual societies, can perhaps better capture what some practitioners in Scotland are seeking to achieve in terms of building social solidarity and the common wealth.

ABCD is not a panacea for what ails community development and democratic participation more generally. It was developed to accommodate rather than counter neoliberalism. In this moment of unprecedented cuts to public spending, it is not surprising that ABCD is in the ascendency. However, we should be sceptical about its claims, goals and practices. No one approach will help us build a fairer and more democratic Scotland. It remains to be seen whether ABCD can usefully contribute to, rather than erode, struggles for social justice.

You can find a more detailed analysis of asset-based community development in: MacLeod, M. A. and Emejulu, A. (2014) 'Neoliberalism with a Community Face? A Critical Analysis of Asset-Based Community Development in Scotland', Journal of Community Practice, 22(4): 430-450.

  • Emejulu, A. (2015) Community Development as Micropolitics: Comparing Theories, Policies and Politics in America and Britain. Bristol: Policy Press.
  • Fisher, R. (1994). Let the People Decide: Neighbourhood Organizing in America. Boston: Twayne.
  • McKnight, J. (2010) ‘Asset Mapping in Communities’ in Morgan, A., Ziglio, E. and Davies, M. (eds) Health Assets in a Global Context. New York: Springer.

Views expressed by guest bloggers may not reflect the views of What Works Scotland

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