Western Ideas of Development: Communitarianism

By Etien Jasonson - HSPS Student @ Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge

It can be tempting to look back on the trajectory that international development practices have traced through history and conclude that they have been dominated by trends towards bureaucratisation, centralisation, and industrialisation. After all, many contemporary development actors are indeed fixated on such ideas. This, however, misses an important and influential countertrend that took place during the early years of international development: communitarianism. What exactly it means to ‘develop’ is a contentious and sprawling debate in itself; thus, for the purposes of this piece, to ‘develop’ simply means to ‘make better’ in accordance with the Western ideas of progress and modernity that held sway at the time.

Communitarian development refers to the practice of ‘developing’ a country, region, or group of people through existing community structures. Broadly speaking, if we imagine contemporary ‘modernist’ strategy as ‘top-down development,’ then communitarianism was the ‘bottom-up’ alternative. It was first employed by the US around the mid-20th Century in India in an attempt to bolster important ‘Third World’ battleground states against communism. The Indian case serves as a good example of the logic of communitarian development and how it differed to the modernist thought that was competing for influence at the time.

The US poured significant resources into decentralising power from the Indian state and encouraging power dissemination to village units – a form of political organisation which already existed in the country. It was hoped that by encouraging people within villages to communicate, they would be better able to resolve conflicts, communicate to leaders, and increase cooperation between villagers. This sociological change, it was thought, would translate into significant and meaningful material improvements to quality of life, without the prerequisite of new industrial technologies or centralised bureaucracy. In the case of Etawah, where this style of development was first employed by Americans in India, it initially appeared to succeed.

However, where communitarian development saw success, such victories were often complex and short-lived (as is so common with development projects of both past and present). Communitarians within the institutions of American-sponsored international development were also often those ‘in the field,’ meaning they faced an uphill struggle against political higher-ups in the US who favoured modernist theory and techniques. Slowly, the modernist approach towards development became the norm as communitarian approaches were displaced by changing political contexts both in the US and in the countries they were ‘developing’. Within development literature three principal hypotheses have been established to explain the decline of communitarian development.

The first argues that community-based development projects were simply an extension of modernist principles to begin with, acting to centralise state power, and encourage industrialisation. The second explanation suggests that modernists took charge of projects and derailed them on opposed ideological grounds, not allowing communitarianism to ever truly be tested and succeed. This approach tends to treat communitarianism as a somewhat utopian ideal, never allowed to flourish untouched and, thus, never allowed to be shown to fail. The third and final explanation - which I find the most compelling - argues that communitarianism was very much distinct from the modernist approach and was employed in many cases around the world with a wealth of support. The fact that these communitarian projects failed was not the result of modernist meddling, but rather the result of their own inefficacy. Communitarian development – albeit within the oppositional context of the rise of modernist ideology – was tried and tested, and it ultimately failed.

Further reading:

  1. Immerwahr, Daniel, 2018. Thinking Small: The United States and the Lure of Community Development. (An excellent and accessible book from a leading academic in the field, much of this article is based on the evidence in this book. I would recommend chapters 2 and 3 in particular.)

  2. Rhodes, E.M., 2018. ‘The Allure of Small Things,’ Tropics of Meta, 10 December. Available at: https://tropicsofmeta.com/2018/12/10/the-allure-of-small-things-daniel-immerwahr-on-americas-love-affair-with-community-development/ (A fair and more in-depth look at the above for those who don’t want to buy or read the whole book.)

  3. Prokopy, J. and P. Castelloe, 1999. ‘Participatory Development: Approaches from the Global South and the United States,’ Journal of the Community Development Society 30(2): 213-231. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/15575339909489722 (Participatory development emerged as an idea in the 1990s and was an attempt by development NGOs to incorporate ‘local knowledges’ and ‘empower’ people through policy involvement. It has some similarities to the communitarian approach of the 1950s and 60s discussed above and can be seen as a modern legacy. Though more challenging, this article is a good (and free) introduction to the concept.)