Monday, 27 February 2006

The problem of scale: neighbourhoods and participation For some time, thoughts have been churning in my mind about neighbourhood size and the scales at which we try to work. Then last night I was permitted a little insight, because I had the chance to hear Anthony Kelly talking about development practice. Anthony works for Oxfam Australia and was passing through London, so Shared Intelligence grabbed him for a seminar. I think he spoke for over an hour but I was almost resentful when he stopped, because so much of what he shared about the experience of development in the south is pertinent to urban community development in England. Among numerous messages, the key one for me has to do with distinguishing participatory development from service delivery. The lesson from development practice is that “services never get inside the vicious poverty cycle enough to break it… As a mechanism of breaking the poverty cycle it is the participatory methodologies that must take centre stage.” Here’s how Anthony presents some of the differences – According to Kelly, one of the most important insights in participatory development is the realisation that ‘communities’ and even interest groups within communities, are typically too large to deal with the structural and embedded inequalities of gender, race, class, caste and so on. The solution in Asia was to work with small groups and to give them the status of an organisation “but without all the legal and social responsibilities that come with formal organisations.” And the next step was to appreciate that such a ‘people’s organisation’ (PO) was not just a project under the umbrella of a registered organisation, but an organising structure in its own right. So how large are these POs? A maximum of twenty, Anthony says, usually around 12, simply because of the arithmetic. At that scale, because what you do is relationship-based and not role-based, there are 190 relationships going on, so it’s very complex. Among the findings that I imagine most community development workers would recognise in Anthony’s reflections, I was struck to recognise this: “comparatively few people can move from operating successfully in a peoples’ organisation, to take up the wider interests and responsibilities attached to a community organisation.” It was also apparent to me, listening to his account of the relationship between the service orientation and participatory development, that too much of our UK community sector is getting sucked into the delivery service paradigm; and that we get into confusions because we look to establish participation at the same scale as service delivery. We somehow assume that the same values, terms of engagement and democratic style should apply. All this helps to begin to explain, for me, what I believe to be a mismatch between our governance structures and the way people experience their neighbourhoods. Meanwhile, I’ve been trying to understand why my perception of how large a neighbourhood is, should differ sharply from some uses of the term. For myself, my neighbourhood is fourteen units. Paul Hilder, in his paper on Seeing the wood for the...

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