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Lynn Ruane: 'We need to change society radically from the ground up'

I am a product of the community development projects that have been systematically eroded writes, Senator Lynn Ruane.

Lynn Ruane Independent Senator

WHEN I WAS 21, I went to a job interview in the community of Bluebell in Dublin.

The role of Community Development Drug Worker was up for grabs and although I knew I was good at my job as a drug worker, I had no idea what community development meant.

Community development is the process by which community members come together to take collective action. Community development workers aim to build stronger and more resilient local communities.

I got the job and my understanding of society from that day on was built on the principles of community development.

The more I worked within the community development framework, the more I realised that community development is a radical approach to inequality based on changing society from the ground up. 

But little did I know at the time that I was stepping into the eye of the storm – as community development programmes soon came under attack.

Citizens as agenda shapers

Ahead of a debate this week in the Seanad, I spoke to lots of community development workers to find out what is the state of play in the sector today.

Community development is about profound transformative change and is a sign of a robust, strong democracy.

It aims to create a deep participative democracy rather than the highly centralised one we have today. It asks questions as to what it means to live a good life, to be happy or to flourish.

To be the decision makers and agenda shapers in your own community and your own environment underpins any real inclusive equal society and the framework of community development is central to that objective.

Communities and society as a whole lose out if we don’t have active citizens. 

We must understand that not everyone has the same opportunities to follow their dreams. The deck is stacked and this is due to the endemic nature of inequality in Irish society.

Landscape of Inequality

In one important book that examines inequality - Equality: From Theory to Action, by John Baker – the authors introduce the landscape metaphor. This is a good way of looking at the issue because inequality is literally built into the fabric of our towns and cities.

The poor live together and the rich live together and seldom shall the twain meet. The difference is that the poor have little choice.

Powerful groups monopolise privilege and power in various ways. They have control over resources and to a large extent our political and educational institutions, I know this now because I too benefit from the capital that I speak about.

Community development is one part of a broader egalitarian movement that seeks to change those structures, and tip the balance of the scales back a bit in the direction of equality. 

I myself am a product of the community development approaches that seek to upskill citizens from disadvantaged communities. 

Like me, many of those community development workers and project managers are the products themselves of the once championed approach – but now community development has been systematically dismantled and society is losing its best resource for change. 

Systematically dismantled

The community development sector has been the subject of a relentless onslaught in recent years which continues to the present day. 

The social researcher Brian Harvey has documented this shift in detail. He estimated that over a third of all funding to the community sector was removed during the austerity period.

The dismantling of the National Community Development Programme and replacing it with the much more narrowly focused Social Inclusion and Community Activation Programme was hugely significant and has had profoundly negative consequences.

Eight consecutive austerity budgets gutted the community sector at every level and in every part. Neither the structures nor the money has ever been restored nor is there any indication that they will be. 

A strong argument can be made that austerity suited those in political power, offering an excuse to cut projects which could have created sources of dissent or even competition.

The project closures and the programme cuts have become the new normal. 

Despite appearances, austerity didn’t end and it continues in the community sector right up to the present. It has just donned a different garb now.

State agencies like the HSE and the City Council are redrawing the landscape in colours that suit them. If we fund you we will tell you what you can do is the unwritten command.

We can see this in the review of Drugs Task Forces currently being carried out by the HSE. The HSE is disregarding the new National Drug and Alcohol Strategy and writing its own set of rules.

These new regimes are being brought in under the seemingly irrefutable logic of ‘good governance’. This manifests itself in ever-increasing demands for quantitative evidence of inputs, outputs and throughputs, performance indicators and logic models.

The focus of these is usually on the isolated individual who appears as if they have emerged from nowhere and can cure all of their own ills through acts of sheer individual will.

This refusal to acknowledge the existence of the economic and social contexts within which lives are lived and how these need to change has become a de facto policy of state agencies.

The focus gets ever narrower and instrumental, therefore it becomes depoliticised.

Community development projects give way to by employment and training projects, it’s as if we are going backwards. The commissioning process ensures that those organisations who bid the lowest win the contract. 

If we are ever to change the landscape of deep inequality in Ireland, we must restore the community development organisations that aimed to build strength and resilience in disadvantaged communities. 

Only by tackling inequality head-on can we move towards an Ireland where each child has an opportunity to pursue their dreams. 

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About the author:

Lynn Ruane  / Independent Senator

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