Reflections on Community Development Cymru’s AGM

23rd June saw Community Development Cymru (CDC) hold its Annual General Meeting at the Culture and Media Centre @Loudon in Butetown, Cardiff/Caerdydd. It also marked the culmination of my first year as a board member of CDC and the first time in a while that the AGM has not been in Newtown/Y Drenewydd where CDC has its main administrative base.

The decision to hold the AGM in Cardiff/Caerdydd was largely a pragmatic one as it would hopefully make it more accessible to a greater number of members. The attendance of membership at an AGM is obviously important for the transparent, effective, healthy and participative governance that should be the aim of all voluntary and charitable organisations. But it was even moreso at this AGM because it provided for an opportune occasion for CDC to provide members with feedback on the membership survey that it has recently undertaken as part of a wider review of membership services and membership involvement in the organisation. I have volunteered from a board perspective to lead on this review and had the pleasure of feeding back to the AGM attendees the survey results, emerging conclusions and begin to broaden the debate about membership.

CDC was keen to ensure that the survey was open to member and non-member community development workers (CDWs) in Wales alike; indeed, and interestingly, more non-members completed the survey than members. This mix was reflected in the AGM attendees too, with non-members and a range of disciplines and sectors in attendance: housing, higher education, Welsh Government, environment, social enterprise, heritage. Given CDC is keen to stress that the Communities First workforce is not the de facto community development workforce in Wales, it was in one respect encouraging to see so few people who work in that programme in that attendance. It is heart-warming to see that community development values and practice are existent beyond the confines of a government-funded programme.

This cocktail of backgrounds and disciplines provided for a stimulating discussion about some of the survey findings, one of which was an apparent lack of desire to be involved in campaigning. CDC Chair, Steve Bennett, had opened the event by drawing on 1970s community development writing that warned of CDWs becoming unwitting apparatus of a state that might seek to entrench and deepen inequality or foster new forms of it. It went unsaid, but the writing’s prescience of what followed in the 1980s was very powerful, creating an almost tangible recognition among the AGM audience that as CDWs we are still grappling with the fall out of that period and its politics and policies. There are parallels between then and now.

There was also a fascinating presentation about Community Philosophy from fellow board member Jan Huyton of Cardiff Metropolitan University which managed to include reference to two of my favourite cultural ‘artefacts’ of working class Wales:

In essence, Community Philosophy is an approach to tackling and discussing life’s ‘big issues’; one which The Dark Philosophers’ Valleys protagonists indulge in with verve and passion. With Steve’s sober reflections, it provided for an interesting juxtaposition: the anti-establishment, dissonant, community development culture of yesteryear that philosophised, collectivised and protested; and a contemporary community development workforce with little apparent appetite to involve itself in campaigning.

Is this a product of the outcome and target culture of a lot of contemporary community development work, whether funded by government or other arms-length forms of funding? Does this funding regime inculcate an obedience and lack of criticality among contemporary CDWs? Should funders me more receptive to activities and discussion – philosophising? – that are not burdened with targets and deliverables? Poverty is after all the result of a massively complex mix of abundant factors that are uniquely distilled by place; is our understanding of it not better understood if we can explore and debate its causes? Communities First is a programme for tackling poverty; should not CDWs be aspiring and working towards its eradication?

On the other hand, perhaps contemporary CDWs are more pragmatic, prepared to comply with government programme requirements in order that ‘something’ can be done with and in communities. How does debate and philosophising assist a family on the cusp of crisis due to unmanageable debt, or support a young person make better life choices? Increased inequality in the UK is pushing families and individuals towards Victorian forms of pauperism with the concomitant hollowing-out of the welfare state providing for increasingly solely charitable forms of support. Communities First, for all the criticisms of it being government-funded and compliant, and target-focused, is at least a commitment from the ‘Welsh bit’ of the state to support for the poor.

There was a feeling on the part of some that the ‘old school’ CDWs resented the changes that Communities First has brought in focus, flexibility to work towards community-identified priorities, and even job title. In contrast a ‘new school’ of CDW is more comfortable with the culture of targets and outcomes and with performance frameworks and methodologies such as Results Based Accountability or Social Return On Investment. Talk of such ‘schools’ leaves me cold, as it runs the risk of polarising CDWs into opposing camps and is divisive. But certainly, someone like myself, who is by no means a fresh-faced, novice CDW, but has nonetheless only ever worked in community development in post-devolution Wales can only try to empathise with the sort of situations that critiques of 1970s community-based action were describing.

It was a fascinating discussion which, sadly but inevitably, had to be curtailed in order to attend to AGM business. But it brought into sharp focus the fact that there is, and needs to be, a plurality of views within community development. That there is a need for campaigning and lobbying within the sector, not just of others by the sector. CDC can be the means of collating these views and I look forward to contributing further to the review of CDC’s membership ‘offer’.

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