What is Community Development?

By Ross Himona, 15 March 1999

to a conference of the

Community Development Group, Department of Internal Affairs



I could give you the definition of the USA based Community Development Society, which I belong to, but I won't.

I will instead put to you the case for a profession of Community Development in Aotearoa / New Zealand, for I believe that we do not yet have a Community Development profession in this country.

Being community workers, as we all are, does not mean that we are necessarily community developers.


I remember well the decade from 1984 to 1994 when communities the length and breadth of Aotearoa / New Zealand were devastated by the economic turmoil created by the bloodless coup that saw the ideologues of the market seize power. I sat on the State Services Commission Social Impact Unit set up in 1986 or 1987 to give the impression that politicians and officials cared what happened in communities under threat of their livelihoods. We threw a token amount of money at a flood tide of problems, and in the end achieved nothing.


What struck me at the time was that a few well placed politicians, officials and businessmen - an absolute minority of the population - had seized the high ground and totally dominated the intellectual debate, and in a short space of time, came to totally dominate the economic, social and political life of the country - without any noticeable opposition.

Don't get me wrong. I acknowledge that there was a need for economic reform. But I do not concede that the reforms we had forced upon us were the best for the country. I maintain that they were, and still are, based upon a mindless, cult-like adherence to an almost religious ideology.


But there was no opposition worth speaking of, other than various Maori legal challenges which slowed the reformist programme in a few areas.

Academia, the universities, were strangely silent. I learned that so many of our academics were equally caught up in the cult-like observance of whatever ideology they followed, be it Marxism or Socialism or Democratic Socialism. They did not have a sound intellectual foundation to counter the pseudo-intellectualism of the New or Libertarian Right. They were defeated with barely a whimper.


The Unions too were easily defeated, showing that their politics were based in the pragmatic pursuit of power for power's sake, and money of course. They weren't based in a care for their communities, but in the narrow-minded pursuit of benefits for their members.

The media were easily colonised. The sorry state of journalism in Aotearoa / New Zealand meant that whatever propaganda the dominant political and business elites wanted to distribute, would be uncritically printed or broadcast.


And the communities that were most affected by the reforming zeal of the ideologues were not heard. They cried in their pain, but they did not have an effective voice in the governance of this land.

Throughout the whole painful process, to this very day, the voices of communities have been drowned in the propaganda.

Throughout the whole painful process, to this very day, we community workers have toiled and struggled, and the voices of communities are still not heard in the corridors of power.


Do you remember when James Bolger started talking about the concept of Social Capital? It was obvious to those of us who had read a little about it that he didn't know what he was talking about.

But what was astounding was that a centre right politician should adopt a policy of the centre left, AND that no-one in the Labour Party, or in Academia or the media, took him to task on the issue.

That tells us that no-one else knew anything about this concept of community either. Community is simply not on the agenda.

What does that tell us?

It tells me that communities come last in this country, and perhaps they always have, at least for a very long time.

It tells me that we don't have a strong community lobby, that we don't have any political clout, that we are not organised to properly represent our communities.


So what is Community Development?

It is of course a kaupapa or philosophy that puts communities first, and that fosters the individual within his or her community. It is a kaupapa that says that communities are best placed to identify their own problems, and formulate their own solutions and make their own opportunities. It is a kaupapa that says that political and business elites at the national level do not know what is best for communities.


But to me, it is also the development of a strong intellectual base, a strong academic discipline, to support that kaupapa, by communities in partnership with tertiary institutions.

It requires that Community Development professionals seize at least half of the intellectual and political high ground back from Roger Kerr and the Business Roundtable, and their clones in Parliament and in the Bureaucracy.


It is a political stance by communities, led by Community Development professionals.

We need a profession of Community Development. And we need to be more than community workers.

We are all contributing good works through community service, as community workers, but unless we put community development on the political and economic agenda, that work will be in a vacuum, applying band aids to problems.


Community Development is a partnership between communities, Community Development professionals, academia, elements of the media, and local and central government.

But someone has to start somewhere. Someone, or some group, has first of all to put community development on the agenda.