Why do we pretend there is 'community'?

by Terry Cannon | Institute of Development Studies (IDS)
Monday, 12 May 2014 11:17 GMT

Women wash clothes along a flooded street on the outskirts of Trinidad, some 400 km (249 miles) northeast of La Paz, Bolivia, Feb. 5, 2014. REUTERS/David Mercado

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Much “community-based” climate adaptation and other development activity ignores the power relations that are often the cause of the problem

The idea that a “community” is a valid category for beneficial climate adaptation processes (or any other type of development intervention) is deeply flawed.

It must not be taken for granted - as it often is currently in much community-based adaptation (CBA) discussion - as a positive basis for any type of intervention unless it is also grounded in the conflicts and contradictions that are involved. These include especially gender and class (e.g. land tenure systems, differential access to other assets), ethnicity and age groups.

“Community-based” has simply become a badge of honour to assert that we are working with poor and vulnerable people and doing the right thing. Is there any problem that being “community-based” cannot cure?

The literature on the problem of “community” dates back at least to the 1950s in sociology (see Cannon 2008 for an introductory review) and has been paralleled more recently by debates about the validity of “participation” (e.g. “the new tyranny” critique), which is linked because participatory approaches are almost always inherent in the idea of working at community scale, including CBA (for a basic review of the two main books, see Christens and Speer 2006).

The related literature on “elite capture” (e.g. the capturing of development benefits at the local level by powerful groups or individuals) is also well-known in development circles but seems to be ignored in CBA (for a literature review on elite capture, see Dutta 2009).

Therefore much of an enormous literature and practice in development studies - on the problem of community, on rural class and other power systems, on participatory work and on elite capture - is largely being ignored in the rush by climate change practitioners to be involved in CBA.

This absence of a huge area of knowledge from development studies is a serious barrier to success in adaptation, and also reinforces the uncritical use of the concept of “community”, which is difficult to sustain when all this knowledge is accepted.

The desire for outside agencies to work at community scale is driven by an admirable commitment to supporting change for people (i.e. people-centred) who are usually defined as the most vulnerable/poorest.


This shift to a bottom-up approach in the past 40 years or so (along with participatory rapid/rural appraisal (PRA) methods and participatory assessments) is a well-meaning effort to deliver real change to the most needy. But it normally operates on the basis of trying to achieve this change without dealing with the fundamental root causes (the transformation required) as to why people are poor or vulnerable in the first place.

In other words, a great deal of “community-based” activity (by NGOs, supported by donors and international development banks) fails to take into account the power relations that lead to division and conflict within communities, which are often precisely the cause of the problems the outside organisation is trying to address.

The problem of using an undifferentiated notion of community shows up when NGOs and others want “communities” to engage in CBA, without taking full account of power relations including gender, especially those between economic groups – which we used to call classes.

For instance, in most of rural Asia, parts of Africa and much of Latin America there are very significant unequal land tenure systems. Usually this involves a tiny minority owning most of the land, with some farmers in the middle. Then come hundreds of millions of rural poor who are (even officially) regarded as landless (owning no land or only tiny plots). This affects 30 to 60 percent of rural people in India or Bangladesh. This single key fact means these huge numbers of people have almost no control at all over their prospects to adapt to climate change, and very little ability to relate to community-based disaster risk reduction (CBDRR).

The ability to cope or adapt is significantly constrained by land tenure, and yet there seems to be almost no research that looks at what adaptation means for landless people who have little or no control over the primary assets - land and water - that are currently essential for adaptation.

I have never heard anyone discuss land tenure issues in all the conferences and meetings I have attended on CBA and CBDRR, and there is hardly any mention of it in the literature. If we are supporters of CBA, we can no longer ignore these key facts of power: these problems are of primary importance in making adaptation in “communities” exceedingly difficult, if not impossible.


In effect, the definition of community that has now de facto emerged is that a community is “where we work”. It has become an externally-assigned location-based (i.e. geographically defined) justification for where the outside agency has decided it wants to make its development/climate adaptation /DRR effort.

Unless the inherent and integral power relations involved in the so-called “community” are actively understood and incorporated into the required process of transformation, then it is highly unlikely there will be any significant impact. And it is not enough simply to say “we only work with the poor and vulnerable - we target them so that they benefit”.

What happens when we leave? And in any case, can we be sure that the benefits are not being captured right under our noses?

If we accept the notion of community uncritically, problems will be built in to any CBA and CBDRR activity from the start. Is it possible to assume there is some active agency possible for the “communities” that means “they” are unified, and understand and want to be involved in “adaptation”? Can we assume there are prospects for “community” leadership and organisation, or are these hoped-for possibilities dependent on a “warm and fluffy” community that is absent in most cases, being instead bound up in unequal power relations that pervade the grassroots.

The ability of people to adapt rather than merely cope (and suffer) is determined largely by access to, control of or ownership of assets that are almost always affected by power relations.

Poor people cope and deplete assets – for example, by selling land or livestock, and taking loans at high interest. Better-off people may have resources that enable them to engage in adaptation to current climate change or prepare to adapt for future climate change.

There is a very significant literature on coping and its different types, and it is usually situated in the problems of power relations, access to assets, and notions of asset-depleting coping (which may, for example, lead to distress migration). What is crucial is to make clear distinctions between different economic and social groups, and not pretend they do not exist or are not significant factors in what we are trying to achieve.

Terry Cannon is a research fellow for the vulnerability and poverty reduction team at the Institute of Development Studies. This article was first published on the team's Povertics blog.