Wealth! Power! Inequality: Challenges for Community Work in a New Era

The Community Workers Co-operative conference ‘Wealth, Power,
Inequality: Challenges for Community Work in a New Era’ held in Kilkenny
in 2001 came at a time of considerable change in the context in which
community work and the community sector operates in Ireland, and indeed
globally. Ireland, while continuing to be the fastest growing economy in the
European Union, was coming to the end of its recent economic boom period.
There was, and continues to be, largely unquestioned domination of a neoliberal
model of economic development both nationally and internationally.
There were major reductions in unemployment and consistent poverty during
the ‘Celtic Tiger’ period. Yet Ireland has remained an increasingly unequal
society with a widening relative poverty gap, a two-tier health system
benefiting the better-off, increased homelessness, and persistent exclusion
and marginalisation of particular communities. Refugee, asylum seeker and
migrant worker issues have emerged as new areas of social exclusion.
The community sector remains the only voice highlighting and challenging
issues of inequality and social exclusion and offering a critique of the
dominant model of development. A sign of a healthy democracy would be
acknowledgement of the value of this voice and support for it. (Indeed the
Taoiseach has acknowledged the value of the ‘creative tension’ generated by
this independent voice). Unfortunately, the experience of the community
sector over recent years is of increased marginalisation of this voice and of
moves to direct community work and community development towards
service delivery and meeting individual needs rather than supporting the
critical voice and independence of communities experiencing poverty,
inequality and social exclusion.
In 1996, writing on the previous Community Workers Co-operative Kilkenny
conference, Philip Watt concluded that ‘…while partnership may be here in
name, the construction of real partnership requires a lot more than words.
Lessons from past experiences need to be learned, one of the most important
of these being the need to build inclusive, participative models of partnership’
(‘Partnership in Action: The role of community development and partnership
in Ireland’ CWC, 1996).
Since then, the community sector in general, and the Community Workers Co-
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operative in particular, has invested a lot of energy and time in engaging in
social partnership processes. At a national level the CWC has been centrally
involved with, and acted as secretariat of, the Community Platform1 in their
participation in the Partnership 2000 and Programme for Prosperity and
Fairness national social partnership agreements, and in the negotiations for
the current national agreement ‘Sustaining Progress’. At a local level the
CWC Local Government subgroup and the staff working on the Local Social
Partnership project worked to ensure that local anti-poverty and equality
groups could participate as meaningfully as possible in emerging local social
partnership structures.
However, over recent years the community sector has increasingly asked
questions about these processes. It seems that lessons from the past have not
been learned about the need to be inclusive and participative. Is social
partnership a process likely to deliver positive outcomes for communities
experiencing social exclusion, or does it merely find the lowest common
denominator between the partners and co-opt the community sector to
manage the status quo and maintain existing structural inequalities?
These were, and continue to be, ongoing concerns of the community sector
and were reiterated at the CWC regional seminars held in late 2001 to give
direction and to identify the themes to be discussed at the Kilkenny
conference. As it happens the publication of this document in 2003 is timely,
as the concerns raised and discussed at the conference are even more pertinent
today. There have been serious cutbacks in resources for the community
sector.
The Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs are currently

reviewing the Community Development Support Programme, the RAPID
Programme and the Local Development Social Inclusion Programme.
Improved coherence, coordination and use of resources are, of course,
desirable. However, these reviews must also recognise and value the crucial
developmental roles played by these programmes.
The questions about social partnership have also become even more relevant
in the context of the recent negotiations on the new national agreement
‘Sustaining Progress’. The experience of the Community Platform in that
process and the lack of any meaningful commitments to addressing poverty
and social exclusion led to them rejecting the agreement. The CWC and the
Community Platform remain committed to social partnership as one avenue
of bringing about social change, and see it as being more than any one
agreement. However, others do not share this interpretation and we face the
possible exclusion of anti-poverty and equality voices from national social
partnership structures. This raises concern about the degree to which healthy
dialogue and the articulation of a critical voice are valued in these structures.
Setting the Scene:
Reports from the CWC Regional Seminars
The themes to be discussed at the conference were identified by CWC during
a number of regional membership meetings held in six locations – Dublin,
Galway, Cork, Limerick, Donegal and Kilkenny in the months and weeks
coming up to the Kilkenny Conference. A common set of concerns and issues
arose regarding the changing context of community work and the challenges
being faced in progressing anti-poverty and equality work on the ground.
Many of these issues resonated with experiences and concerns arising in
various other fora at local, regional and national level.

  • A recurring theme identified was the crucial need to maintain, restate and strengthen the understanding of Community Work as a mechanism for social change, focused on poverty, inequality and social exclusion, being collective, based on participation, solidarity with the marginalised, anti-sexist and anti-racist. There was a lot of concern about a move away from this understanding of community work towards a focus on the individual and on service delivery, particularly at local level. It was argued that community work, which is about challenging power and the structural causes of poverty and inequality, is always unpopular with those interested in maintaining the status quo.
  • It was noted that community work organisations are coming under increased risks of being co-opted to deliver on an agenda of managing poverty and inequality rather than developing and articulating an agenda for social change based on the experiences and objectives of those experiencing poverty, inequality and social exclusion. A symptom of this is the way community work is becoming more technical and formalised and less political and analytical.
  • Related to this is the need for the anti-poverty and equality sector to maintain an independent critical voice and to reclaim its own agenda. Challenges to this autonomy are impacting on the ability of the sector to influence change and to engage in advocacy work.
  • There is a need for more consciousness raising about the structural causes of poverty and inequality and for the development and dissemination of material on social analysis rather than purely technical information.
  • Community workers need to be more self-aware and we need to critique our practice in relation to a social change analysis. We need to revitalise the activist nature of community work.
  • The role of local experience as a basis for national agenda setting needs to be strengthened, as do the linkages between national and local activity.
  • The global dimension of social change needs to be revitalised. Without a global analysis community work at both local and national levels is in danger of becoming disconnected from a structural analysis of poverty and inequality.
  • Concern was expressed about the cost of engagement by the sector in national social partnership versus the results achieved. The gap between commitments made and actual implementation is a growing problem. Social partnership must be seen as just one avenue to achieving social change. The community sector needs to rebalance its focus to include campaigning, engagement in the political process, etc.

View the full Resource Document

Wealth, Power, Inequality Challenges for Community Work in a New Era (.pdf)