Thinking Small: The United States and the Lure of Community Development
Daniel Immerwahr
Harvard University Press, $35 (cloth)

When I was a public health student, my peers and I regularly debated the merits of programs aimed at improving collective well-being and eliminating immiseration. We typically adhered to beliefs like these: it is bad for insular eggheads to impose interventions from the top down. Instead, programs should ascertain the true organic desires of “the community,” tailor projects to that community’s particular circumstances, and of course, ensure that its members participate in planning and implementation. This usually means doing things on as local a scale as possible. Large, centralized projects, after all, rarely possess the granular lens necessary for cultivating sensitivity to local needs and ways of life.

Daniel Immerwahr’s Thinking Small: The United States and the Lure of Community Development pours a bucket of cold water on this type of thinking, now experiencing a resurgence among development agencies, policy entrepreneurs, and influential foundations. It uses three case studies (in India, the Philippines, and the United States) to upend the stock portrait of mid-twentieth century development, which focuses on the evils of top-down intervention. In the conventional story, development is a field dominated by “modernizers,” whose hubristic efforts result in catastrophic consequences for those they were designed to benefit: think everything from hydraulic dams that displace thousands of residents to agricultural rationing that leads to famine.

But community development—“development without modernization,” in the words of one of its advocates—was just as central as modernization to mid-century development strategies. The automatic moral outrage inherent in what Immerwahr calls the “Modernization Comes to Town” story has overshadowed the problems of grassroots, decentralized approaches, which have received less critical scrutiny and an implicitly favorable assessment from scholars.

Unfortunately, far from eliminating deprivation and attacking the social status quo, bottom-up community development projects often reinforced them. And today, Immerwahr argues, “the new wave of communitarianism has been carried out in near-total ignorance of the global community development campaign that preceded it by only a few decades.” This is a history with real stakes. If that prior campaign’s record is as checkered as Thinking Small argues, then its intellectual descendants must do some serious rethinking.

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After World War II, the geopolitical loyalties of post-colonial nations remained uncertain and were up for grabs, fueling the United States’s interest in foreign aid. It was in this moment that community development was translated into practice around the world by a network of communitarian intellectuals, planners, and diplomats.

In India, the postwar community development experiment began with a pilot project in the Etawah district, conceived by the American planner Albert Mayer, who a few years earlier had met and cultivated a relationship with Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India’s future first Prime Minister. Etawah’s planners devised a clear template: A “Rural Life Analyst” reported on “the People’s habitual way of doing things,” while “village-level workers” oversaw “communal deliberation” that ostensibly gauged “felt needs” and identified “natural leaders.” By the early 1950s, Etawah saw major infrastructural improvements, including schools, reliable water supply, community centers, and roads connecting villages. It catalyzed an attempt to replicate it nationally with an ambitious community development program, aided by the United States. Within a decade it covered 446,000 villages and 253.2 million people. Panchayati raj, a radical addition to the program conceived in the late 1950s, institutionalized mechanisms for transmitting “felt needs” from villages up through three tiers of councils to the national Planning Commission.

Appealing as this model sounded at first, in fact, it rested on delusions about the degree of genuine communal unity that really existed within villages, which were starkly divided by caste and class. Actually existing local politics in India were hardly inclusive. One formal assessment found that “55.4 percent of those identified as ‘leaders’ by the new community development agencies were Brahmins, and fewer than one percent were actual agricultural laborers.” Evaluations of the programs revealed consistent hijacking of its administrative mechanisms by local elites in villages. And their supposed self-sufficiency—in the form of heavy reliance on voluntary work and donations of resources by the masses they were supposed to benefit—increasingly looked more like a guise for labor exploitation. Participation correspondingly declined. And, with the death of Prime Minister Nehru in 1964, community development in India petered out, in favor of programs geared toward accelerating agricultural production.

Bottom-up community development projects often reinforce deprivation and the status quo.

For the post-colonial Philippines, too, community development wound up entrenching the powerful—in this case, an elite landowner class that controlled much of the rural population’s labor through exploitative sharecropping arrangements. After World War II, an incipient land redistribution movement, which had been propelled largely by the Hukbalahap insurgency, gave way to community development schemes backed by the United States and CIA, who saw them as a soft means for combating the threat of communism. Under CIA-backed President Ramon Magsaysay, the Presidential Assistant on Community Development (PACD) was established in 1956. The new agency’s activities took on a familiar form, with structures for ascertaining “natural leaders” and felt needs through “barrio councils.” Over the next decade, the Lay Leadership Institute and other PACD programs trained more than 5 million residents of barrios in how to cultivate group bonds and create community. As PACD chief Ramon Binamaria remarked: “Through this process, they themselves realized that most of the problems in their villages could be met by them. They go home firmly determined to act on these problems themselves.” But whatever grassroots collective empowerment occurred, it did not do much to better the farmers’ lives. In 1959, one researcher noted that most Filipinos felt apathetic towards the initiatives and instead asked for actual material resources or useful technical instruction about agriculture. Without them, mastering micro-level cooperative governance processes seemed beside the point.

The Philippines episode ended tragically with the ascent of President-turned-dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the late 1960s. In the run-up to his second election in 1969, Marcos revived the floundering community development program by using a “Barrio Development Fund” to dole out money to village “leaders”—porkbarrelism that tightened political loyalty to Marcos before he declared martial law in 1972. The paradox, Immerwahr writes, was that “in grounding government in the decisions of small groups, community development opened up channels between the small scale and the large. Those channels might decentralize the government, but latent in them was the opposite possibility: that they might allow the tentacles of central power to reach further down in the localities.” Today in the Philippines, structures of bribery and graft remain intact, resources unevenly distributed, and economic growth stagnant.

Community development made its biggest impact abroad until the 1960s, when it returned to the United States during the 1960s and War on Poverty, an era of considerable public policy experimentation. Here, Immerwahr transcends a parochialism in much writing on the War on Poverty, which has detailed its origins as if they emerged from within the Unites States alone. He shows the influence of trans-border communitarian influences and projects.

Even more important than widening the canvas, though, the United States account underscores again the limits of communitarian strategies. Thinking Small focuses on the so-called Community Action Program, which infamously required experimental social service grantees funded by federal War on Poverty dollars to demonstrate “maximum feasible participation” of beneficiaries in the programs’ administration, usually through bottom-up governance structures like community boards comprised of poor lay people. Though the words were different, the underlying thinking was fundamentally similar to precursors abroad.

From the start, the Community Action Program and maximum feasible participation were rife with ambiguity. What kind of participation qualified as maximum? What limits did feasible entail? For most officials, “participation meant bringing the weak and the powerful together into a single, well-connected social whole” by thrusting the poor into mostly symbolic advisory roles with little muscle. But others pushed for far greater administrative powers and resources to the poor and saw the Community Action Program as a seed for fomenting collective challenges against the powerful. When it became public that some War on Poverty funds had made their way to more openly confrontational, even politically radical, activists and groups of the era, political support for the program predictably faded, hastened too by the election of Richard Nixon and a conservative shift in national politics. In contrast to India and the Philippines, community development in the 1960s United States, then, is one less of elite capture and paradoxical aid to the powerful than one of political potential short-circuited and never fully tapped.

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In policy circles, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard a knee-jerk, “Hey, where’s the community in this?” interjected into debates over proposed initiatives, particularly when experts from rarefied institutions are at the steering wheel. There is plenty to justify that instinctive suspicion, of course, but when it comes to the dreary world of day-to-day practice, many questions arise after the fuzzy feelings from communitarian blueprints disappear.

How do you determine what is or is not a community, for example? How do you differentiate a community’s natural leader from an inauthentic, unnatural one? And if you succeed in doing so, what happens when different people express divergent views about felt needs? What do you do when, as in the Philippines case, the targets of your interventions don’t display the same amount of enthusiasm in voluntary grassroots participation as you do? What happens when resources earmarked for the community end up in the hands of the already powerful? Thinking Small shows how key figures in developmental politics of the past often ignored these dilemmas in favor of fantasy. They “foundered when,” Immerwahr writes, “their hearts overruling their heads, they squinted hard until the communities they wished to see blurrily appeared.”

Communitarians also frequently downplayed the importance of technical expertise and the need for large-scale infrastructure, centralization, and accountability mechanisms. Today, this is especially true with problems like climate change, disaster response, and food insecurity. Scattered single-home retrofits, food co-ops, and community gardens just don’t cut it yet have seduced many municipalities and foundations. And the communitarian imagination was and remains naive about decentralized administration’s ripeness for elite capture at the local level. All this is worrisome when one considers the anti-statist and localist impulses in the economic justice protest movements that have burgeoned from the 1999 protest in Seattle over the World Trade Organization to the Occupy theater of 2012.

Yet Immerwahr is emphatic that his sobering account of communitarian pathologies not be read as an implicit defense of modernization. But if not brute top-down modernization or bottom-up, Janus-faced communitarianism, what are the alternatives? Is there something salvageable from the latter? Knowledge about the history and customs of a particular region and interaction with some of those who supposedly benefit from development schemes undoubtedly would have avoided many of the catastrophies that have arisen from undemocratic modernization schemes of the past.

And, as Immerwahr occasionally suggests, even if the wonky architects of community development programs did not intend to attack the root causes of poverty, participants themselves sometimes seized the machinery anyhow and used it to further their own, more expansive goals. The idea of a lost promise comes through forcefully in Thinking Small‘s analysis of the United States War on Poverty. And it surfaces, too, in a section on the Indian state of Kerala, where weaker traditional village structures—and the entrenched local political elites that came with them—allowed rural insurgent movements to repurpose resources of the village program, culminating with the 1957 election of a Communist government that Nehru promptly quashed. With the right context and with the right people, though no end to itself, thinking small might stimulate the energies of a more mobilized and combative rank and file with bigger political visions in mind.

The biggest prescription that arises from Thinking Small, though, is fundamental change in development work’s collective ethos. Whether they take their cues from modernizers or communitarians, too many of those working in development prize questions of form—what should the administration of the program look like?—but avoid questions of power and resource distribution. American do-gooders abroad, too, have obscured the advanced industrialized nations’ role in perpetuating inequality abroad, something that continues into the present and is made all the more troubling when one considers which of the world’s people will pay the biggest price because of climate change. Immerwahr writes: “But there is another question that members of rich societies might ask, a question that springs neither from the urge to modernize nor the quest for community: ‘What have we been doing to them?'”

Questions like this, centered on the powerful and powerless, make many in policy circles uncomfortable. It is no surprise, then, that communitarianism, with its conflict-averse, consensus-favoring approach, displayed extraordinary staying power during the Cold War by appealing to a swath of the political spectrum, including some on the right.   But how far can we go with it alone? “It is only a sentimental and uncritical view of ‘community’ that would lead one to believe that democracy and local control are the same thing,” Immerwahr concludes powerfully. In other words, a participatory say in a local community doesn’t do much good when it lacks resources and remains lodged in durable, inegalitarian structures. How might those in twenty-first-century development and anti-poverty work forge a better path? They can start by reading Thinking Small.