Community Development for Sustainable Development: conference thoughts

Placing Community Development values and practices at the heart of the Sustainable Development Goals

A conference held in Glasgow on 8 November, organized by IACD and the European Community Development Network, Community Work Ireland and Community Development Alliance Scotland.

There was a spirited and focused debate on the role of community development in sustainable development, the opportunities and challenges, and the sharing of information across sectors, themes and geography. It became clear that the Sustainable Development Goals (hereafter SDGs) provide an excellent framework for the exchange of ideas and experience between different community development interests, as well as a huge opportunity for community development to demonstrate it has a critical (in both senses of the word) role to play in the successful realization of the SDGs across the globe. The old adage, think global, act local remains as pertinent as ever, but with the SDGs adding social and economic agendas to the former environmental one, and with community development adding participation and inclusion to the mix there is great potential to challenge the direction of global forces and return to a more equal, social and sustainable world.

IACD has an agreed position on the role of community development in sustainable development. The key points are that the SDGs should be viewed in a holistic way

  • Causes of problems do not generally lie locally, but relevant action can be taken locally
  • The most vulnerable can and must be active players
  • Consensus and partnership has to be built, while acknowledging and tackling conflicts of interest
  • Joined up planning is essential at local level, involving agencies alongside the community voice
  • The most vulnerable need free technical assistance, community organising and education support – this being the priority for community development

There are examples from across the globe of communities taking action on every SDG.

The contrast between the fundamental values underpinning the SDGs and the direction of travel being taken by much of the planet. SDGs call for the interconnection & integration of society, economy and environment for an agenda of transformation, as opposed to the mainstream logic of infinite growth despite finite resources, pushing privatisation and financialisation into public service & social relations.

SDGs call for a participatory partnership approach to implementation and monitoring, rather than adopting market values by funders to measure community work and civil society. This is reflected in the call to “ensure responsive inclusive, participatory and representative decision making at all levels” (SDG 16.7), which contrasts with the current further de-politicisation and individualisation of participation.

There is a clear and important role for community work to ensure active and informed participation focusing on all goals – social, environmental and economic, alongside engaging people in a proper process of participation. A holistic human rights approach is required, moving from building capacity towards consciousness raising and ultimately culture change and the creative tension of informed critique.

Achieving the SDGs will entail community development, alongside all others, to recognize power differentials and their roles and both rights holders and duty bearers, whether globally, nationally or locally. Community development can address the need for widespread participation and representation and in particular challenge gendered relations of power, discrimination, racism and human rights abuses. We therefore need plans, facing ourselves with our weaknesses as well as our strengths, identifying the development support we need and can offer others, and building our influence on wider processes.

Good progress in CD on sustainability was made in Scotland stimulated by the UN Decade of Sustainable Development 2005-14, and this can be built on with the SDGs. There was increased community involvement and ownership of the sustainability agenda, balancing this against community-level expectations and issues. A number of passionate individuals emerged, with energy, resilience and commitment, and encouraging a form of open leadership with the know-how to access expertise and facilitate work on a shared vision. There was also evidence of a growing commitment in local authorities to the sustainability agenda and the role of community development, and to sharing the learning from individual initiatives.

Looking ahead, challenges and opportunities include more reaching out to marginalized communities, more building capacity to link the local with the global, and the social to the environmental and the economic, and building more resilient partnerships between the public, private and third sectors. We also need to get better at measuring what matters and highlighting the value of community development and learning exchanges.

A focus on learning for sustainability in the Nordic countries has enhanced knowledge about and competence in the concept of sustainability, linking ecological, social and economic perspectives while building awareness of local and global societal challenges. Participants have acquired methods and skills transferable to their own practice and have recognised the value and strength of working in a Nordic context and the emerging New Nordic approach to sustainability. Some key finding from evaluation of projects are the importance of seeking to make sense of the abstract and complex questions around sustainable development; approaching risks and challenges in the positive spirit of hope and creativity; keeping learning close to the action, and recognizing differences and commonalities between the different Nordic countries, resulting in productive processes and learning pathways

Local government has to make a stronger commitment with the third sector, community councils and within Community Planning Partnerships to lead activities based on the principles of:

Empowerment – increasing the ability of individuals and groups to influence issues that affect them and their communities

  • Participation– supporting people to take part in decision making
  • Inclusion, equality of opportunity and antidiscrimination – recognising that some people may need additional support to overcome barriers they face
  • Self determination – supporting the right of people to make their own choices
  • Partnership – recognising that many agencies can contribute to community development.

This will add value by strengthening local democracy and increasing participation in local government elections which is extremely low.

To ensure effective local governance and adequate implementation of measures to address the Sustainable Development Goals at the local level, it is important to secure support from Scottish Government and communities to establish a proper legal framework for local government. The organization, powers and functions should be clearly prescribed by law. Further legislation by the Scottish Parliament is needed to clearly set out the responsibilities and powers of central and local government authorities in relation to one another in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. The status of local government should be enshrined in a written constitution for the first time.

The use of the newly revised National Standards for Community Engagement by both national government and local government to support community engagement and user involvement in Scotland is crucial. The standards are intended to complement and support community empowerment in Scotland.

Points from participants: what CD needs to do to ensure it is highlighted in local and national strategies

  • There are cuts in community development but others such as Development Trusts are growing
  • Are the SDGs yet a tool to empower? Are they easy for communities to understand? Do they mean anything to ordinary people?
  • We need to be better in showing what difference CD interventions make
  • If citizens are not affected by the issues (or if they don’t recognize that they are affected) will they care?
  • People need to translate SDGs to their own lives
  • We need better understanding of outcomes
  • The need to build community ability to tackle power differentials
  • We should seek to establish a cross-sector European project on community development and the environment
  • Challenge individualized service delivery, and create shared spaces
  • It’s dangerous to focus on the ‘poorest’ in education – the middle classes and wider society who often lead the least sustainable lifestyles must be targeted.

There is a close alignment between the outcomes envisaged in the SDGs, and the outcomes of almost all community development, focusing as it does on issues of poverty, exclusion, inequality, lack of power and discrimination. Addressing these is explicit or implicit in the SDGs. The distinct and essential role of community development is in the process of working with communities and interests around these issues where they are experienced directly, and to work for change. This involves learning, confidence-building, fostering solidarity through establishing and supporting effective community organisations and networks, and negotiating engagement between communities and those described elsewhere as duty-bearers.


Anastasia Crickley, IACD Vice President and European Director

Stuart Hashagen, Chair of the European Community Development Network

Betsy King, Development Manager of Learning for Sustainability Scotland

Charlie McConnell, immediate Past President of IACD

Kirsten Paaby, of the Nordic Education Project

Cllr Martha Wardrop, of Glasgow City Council.