Booked #1: What’s Wrong With Community Development?

Booked #1: What’s Wrong With Community Development?

To kick off our new Q&A series, Booked, Tim Shenk talks to historian Daniel Immerwahr about “a left that can operate on all scales.”

Beneficiaries of a Grameen Bank microloan, Bangladesh (ILO in Asia and the Pacific / Flickr)

We are proud to launch Booked, a new series of Q&As with writers by Dissent contributor Timothy Shenk. For the first interview, Tim emailed with Daniel Immerwahr about his new book Thinking Small: The United States and the Lure of Community Development (Harvard University Press, 2015). The following is a condensed version of their conversation.—The Editors

Tributes to community are so ubiquitous that it can seem like an ideal without a politics. Barack Obama credits his time as a community organizer in Chicago with spurring his entry into public life; David Petraeus made community outreach a pillar of his strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan; and economists at the World Bank depict community development as perhaps the essential weapon in their battle against global poverty. Presented in opposition to the weighty forces that structure a world made out of bureaucracies and corporate behemoths, community is often seen as a refuge.

But community’s advocates have structured that world too, not always for the better. Daniel Immerwahr examines this history in his remarkable new book Thinking Small. Beginning in the United States at the dawn of the twentieth century, Immerwahr follows the career of community development from Nehru’s India and Marcos’s Philippines back to the United States during the War on Poverty and into the present.

—Timothy Shenk


Timothy Shenk: When most Americans think of community development, the first name that comes into their minds is probably Barack Obama, then maybe Saul Alinsky, and then lots of blank space. As your book demonstrates, community development has a much larger history. So what is community development?

Daniel Immerwahr: It’s a way of dealing with poverty by drawing on the participation of poor people. The idea is that the poor could improve their own conditions if only they could be brought together.

Shenk: Somehow this way of fighting poverty is tied up with what you describe as a discovery of “the group” in American social thought during the middle of the twentieth century. What’s the connection?

Immerwahr: The worldview behind community development is one that sees society not just as a collection of individuals pursuing their own ends, but of people organized into groups: villages, towns, neighborhoods, workplaces, whatever. What surprised me, once I started looking at that, is how many major thinkers in the middle of the twentieth century had that vision. They were obsessed with small groups.

Shenk: The range of figures who were swept up in this burst of enthusiasm for community is extraordinary: Walt Disney and Frank Capra are here, but so are Granville Hicks (who traded his post as the Communist Party’s premier literary critic for a life in upstate New York) and the sociologist Jacob Levy Moreno (who pioneered the development of social network analysis). What spurred this embrace of the group?

Immerwahr: The Depression had a lot to do with it. After that, the nineteenth-century ideal of a social order based on individual profit-maximizers seemed wildly inappropriate. But, at the same time, there was also a growing sense that one couldn’t just solve the problems of laissez-faire capitalism by constructing huge, top-down institutions—that road led to fascism. For many, the small group seemed like a promising middle ground. So, you suddenly saw socialists scrambling to come up with some decentralized version of socialism, management theorists fretting about team-building within the corporation, writers droning on about the virtues of small towns, and, yes, the birth of social network analysis, which is all about studying the nature of small-scale social interactions.

Shenk: The ideological flexibility of the turn toward the small group is fascinating. At first glance, it might seem like a perspective with a naturally conservative bent—think of Edmund Burke and his insistence that we need “to love the little platoon we belong to in society.” But, as you note, enthusiasm for small groups scrambled conventional ideological boundaries. How did this influence policymaking in the New Deal, which is being formulated at the same time?

Immerwahr: Right, one of the reasons it’s been so easy to forget how preoccupied intellectuals were with small groups is that “groupism” (as David Riesman called it) didn’t have an ideological valence. It was politically ambidextrous—capable of being used by the left or the right. The New Deal, of course, was largely a matter of large-scale state interventions. But there was a lot of talk of the need to prop up rural communities and some intriguing efforts to do so by the Department of Agriculture, which tried to encourage participatory planning. By 1942, nearly two-thirds of the agricultural counties in the country had citizen planning committees, with almost 200,000 people serving on them.

Shenk: But during the Second World War those citizen planning committees weren’t the only expressions of groupism. How does the internment of Japanese Americans fit into your history?

Immerwahr: That’s for me one of the most fascinating aspects of the topic. “Participation” sounds great, and many of its advocates have had the best of intentions. But I was surprised to see how often it just functioned as a polite form of social control. So, at the same time those citizen planning committees were going strong, the government was also establishing similar committees within the Japanese internment camps, to get the internees to participate in their own imprisonment. And the men and women in charge of that were just as starry-eyed about the promise of communal participation as their colleagues running the USDA planning committees were. There was even a little overlap.

Shenk: This takes us up to the end of the Second World War. The standard history is that there was a brief moment when community development flourished in the Depression, then it retreated for decades until Lyndon Johnson revived it for the Great Society. What does Thinking Small add to that story?

Immerwahr: It adds the international dimension. Participatory strategies didn’t vanish, they moved abroad, into the Cold War. And the people moved with them—the USDA communitarians, the overseers of community life in the internment camps. If community development was a minor aspect of the New Deal, it became a major feature of foreign aid in the 1950s and 1960s. And that helps to explain its reappearance in the Johnson years, when community action became the centerpiece of the War on Poverty. Community participation wasn’t “revived” but, rather, was brought back home. Many of the architects of the War on Poverty had worked directly on community schemes in Asia before they established similar programs in the United States.

Shenk: So community development went global, a process you illustrate with a detailed examination of its career in the Philippines and India. Why focus on these two?

Immerwahr: The two countries give you a sense of the range. India, the world’s largest democracy, was also the global center of community development. Its community program eventually came to cover every village in the country, which was ten percent of the global population, right there. In India, community development was intended mainly as a way of coping with poverty. The men and women who oversaw the program tended to be Gandhians, sympathetic to village life but eager to improve it. I think it’s hard to argue that they did improve it, though. For all of the talk about community development, it doesn’t seem that it accomplished much.

The Philippines is different, and this relates to what I said above about community working as both a means of dealing with poverty and as a form of social control. During the 1950s, the Philippines stood on the precipice of a Communist-led peasant rebellion. The U.S. support for Philippine community development thus wasn’t about poverty as much as it was about counterinsurgency. The CIA got excited about community participation because it hoped that communal programs would bind peasants to their landlords. The U.S. interest in “strategic hamlets” in Vietnam a decade later had a lot to do with the perceived success of community development in quashing the Philippine peasantry.

Shenk: All of this was taking place during a time when development—including but not limited to community development—was a pillar of American foreign policy. The notion that domestic security requires improving the quality of life for people around the world has a surprisingly short history, and explaining its origins has become a major subject of historical debate in recent years. You argue that the figures examined in Thinking Small had a distinctive vision that has so far gone unrecognized, a program you call “development without modernization.” What do you mean by that?

Immerwahr: When we write about development, we tend to stick to a standard story. Development policy has been too top-down, too insensitive to the conditions of the people being helped, too eager to make poor countries “modern.” And so, the story continues, what we need today is bottom-up development, where plans come not from experts but from the people themselves.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? But the problem with that story is that it’s not right. Development policy hasn’t always been about imposing plans from on high. There was quite a lot of interest in the middle of the twentieth century in bottom-up development, in community development. And the point of that developmental activity was not to replace the traditional aspects of poor countries with modern institutions. Often, it was to support local traditions. That was a form of development, but it was a far cry from modernization.

Shenk: By the end of the book, it seems like you’ve written a history of failure in at least three respects. First, community development, like midcentury development more generally, failed to reduce global economic inequality; in fact, gaps between rich and poor nations actually widened in midcentury. Second, among contemporary practitioners of development, as you write, “community development has been simply forgotten”—even by those who are calling for the strategies that have a remarkable resemblance to the programs you discuss here. And third, you argue that even under the most favorable conditions community development was never going to work because it never found a satisfactory way to deal with power. Given all that, why does the history of community development deserve our attention today?

Immerwahr: Because it has come back with a vengeance. It’s not just Barack Obama, who was a community organizer on the south side of Chicago before he went to law school. It’s also Muhammad Yunus, the pioneer of microfinance and founder of the Grameen Bank, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. The World Bank estimates that it has given out roughly $85 billion for community-directed development and decentralization of government in poor countries since 2000. But what’s bizarre is what you’ve mentioned: the new wave of community development has been undertaken in near-complete ignorance of the history of the 1950s and 1960s. So community development still seems like some radical, untried idea. But it’s not. It was extensively tried. It just didn’t work.

Shenk: Was that doomed to happen from the start—is there any scenario under which community development could have succeeded?

Immerwahr: I’m not against local action. Sometimes, it achieves wonderful things—one only has to think of the civil rights movement in the United States. And there can even be ways for governments to support that. When the Johnson administration inadvertently bankrolled civil rights activists, those activists put the money to some pretty interesting uses. It’s perfectly sensible to think that we might benefit from more of that, from a more decentralized political order in which some decisions are made locally rather than nationally. The trend has been toward centralization, but trend isn’t destiny.

That said, I cringe at this Peace Corps idea that outsiders can walk into town and somehow bring the community together. And the reason I find it so galling—well, one reason—is that it assumes that the community in question was just lazing about, waiting for some recent graduate of Dartmouth to nudge it into action. I don’t buy that. There are a lot of things that rich people can offer to poor people in the struggle against poverty and inequality, but instruction in how to be a community is not one of them.

Shenk: Let’s go back to the politics of your argument. Tons of historians close their books with some hand waving about how the problems they’ve discussed endure in some form today. You make that argument, but you do it with a rigor and precision that is very rare. There are three specific policy proposals that you believe your history supports: dismantling trade barriers that protect markets in rich countries from competition with poor ones; abolishing immigration restrictions, or at least radically liberalizing borders; and a global campaign to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels. “If rich countries truly wanted to help poor people,” you argue, “[t]hey could simply reverse their own self-interested policies.” But fully implementing that agenda would require global political movements and international regulation. Taken together, the conclusion makes tackling poverty seem both easier and more difficult than a lot of the contemporary discussion suggests—easier because it’s about changing policies in the rich countries, not somehow remaking poor countries, but more difficult because this has to be done at an international scale. Given all this, what do you think the prospects for change really are?

Immerwahr: There are some straightforward things that could be done to ameliorate the conditions of those in poverty. “Straightforward” in the sense that they would require policy shifts in rich countries rather than thoroughgoing social change in poor ones. Though not necessarily easy, since the policies I recommend would challenge entrenched interests and, as you note, getting them all would require things like a global carbon tax. But the lesson I take from Piketty’s book is that such things are not inconceivable: governments in rich countries significantly reduced inequality in the middle of the twentieth century, even if it is now rising again. At any rate, it will be a lot easier to confront global inequality if we have it in view, if we recognize that what we’re looking at is not just poverty but inequality. And if we stopped distracting ourselves by wondering how we might help the poor help themselves.

Shenk: Of course, neither community development nor the more familiar varieties of economic development endorsed by figures like Walt Rostow were the only options for those seeking to bring about social change in the twentieth century. You touched on socialism briefly earlier, and it come up throughout your book, starting with the introduction (titled “Actually Existing Localism”). In fact, the most successful example of grassroots mobilization covered in Thinking Small took place in the Indian state of Kerala, the first large government in history to make a democratic transition to communism. As you note, Kerala was poor in the 1970s, but “it had transformed itself into the state with the highest life expectancy, lowest infant mortality, lowest birth rate, highest literacy rate, and most female-heavy sex ratio in all of India.” So where does socialism belong in the history of development?

Immerwahr: Right, “bottom up” and “top down” are not the only two options when it comes to development policy. There are other axes to pay attention to. One of the great abandoned projects of the early development decades was land reform, which is different from both modernization in its classic form and from community development (in fact, in the Philippines, community development was intended as a way to avoid redistributing land). To me, that was the central contribution of socialism to the development debates: to see development as a matter not just of technology but of equality. But, of course, neither China nor the Soviet Union was a great model of that. So groups like the communist leadership of Kerala had to blaze their own trails, often with great difficulty.

Shenk: But you argue that Kerala’s experience was relevant for urban areas too—I’m thinking in particular of your discussion of what happened to community development when it returned to the United States under LBJ. How do these two fit together?

Immerwahr: If you imagine a typical Asian village circa the 1950s, you’ve got a few powerful men (nearly always men) and then a large number of people who depend on them. There’s a hierarchy, but it occurs on the intimate, interpersonal scale: tenants know their landlords, untouchables know who the Brahmins are, and so forth, because everyone lives cheek by jowl. When community developers devolved decision-making power to these “communities,” inevitably the local elite would step forward to speak for the village, sharply elbowing aside anyone who wanted to talk about redistributing land or challenging patriarchy. That’s why community development accomplished so little in India: it couldn’t challenge the rural social hierarchy.

Kerala was a weird exception. For various reasons, the intricate and tradition-sanctioned hierarchies of the Indian village just didn’t hold in Kerala. There was still inequality, but it was starker, because it was impersonal. Thus, when community development came to Kerala, there was no on-the-ground local elite in place to grab hold of the process. Community-building there meant peasants, women’s groups, and students coming together, and it all fed into the communists’ attempts to remake the state.

That’s pretty similar to what happened when antipoverty experts tried to transpose community development from Asian villages to the urban neighborhoods of the United States. The oppression that city-dwellers faced was harsh, but, thanks to white flight and segregation, it wasn’t always local. The landlords who collected their rent, the banks they owed money to, and the employers offering dead-end jobs weren’t prominent in the life of the neighborhood; those people and institutions were often geographically and socially distant. So when the government offered money to community organizations, the actual powerholders were nowhere to be seen. To the shock of the Johnson administration, the men and women who stepped forward as community leaders were activists with little interest in maintaining the social order. And so, as in Kerala, community development turned radical, before it was quickly shut down.

Shenk: Even though you’re concerned with the local, from another perspective this is a book about American empire. Of course, that’s not how development’s advocates portrayed themselves. And their successors today are just as reluctant to describe the US as an empire. The question of America’s role in the world is very much on your mind in Thinking Small—what are you trying to bring to the discussion?

Immerwahr: It’s fashionable to regard foreign aid as the new face of colonialism. It used to be that powerful countries ruled weaker ones outright. Now, the story goes, they remake them with aid programs or threaten to withdraw aid as a way to push poor countries around. I don’t think it’s that simple. Truman and his advisers were eager to buy influence in the Third World. But they were agnostic about how that would happen and happy enough to leave the details to lower-level officials. There was no master plan. And so the development programs that emerged were collaborations, the results of compromises between what the United States was willing to fund and what third-world leaders wanted. You can call that “empire” if you want—I won’t object. But if it’s empire, it’s not Darth-Vader-on-the-Imperial-Star-Destroyer empire. It’s empire with a lot of the important decisions subcontracted out.

I think we need to be up front about that. Yes, sometimes Washington acted purposively and violently—it meddled in elections, staged coups, and dropped napalm. But at other times it exhibited a sort of cack-handed indifference to global affairs. It doesn’t take anything away from the critics of U.S. foreign relations to acknowledge that the United States has not always been an omnipotent, ubiquitous hegemon.

Shenk: I want to stick with this question about the relationship between the national and the global for a little bit. We saw this issue come up a lot in discussions of Piketty, where critics were eager to dismiss the policy proposals as utopian because they called for a global approach.  There’s an important historical point here too, namely that for better or worse the nation-state has been the most effective promoter of the goals you endorse. Not the only one, and certainly not the ideal, but historically the best we have—a position that Thinking Small’s critical appraisal of community-centered projects makes even stronger. Now the United States is in a distinctive position because of its unmatched (for now) global influence, so it can take actions on tariff reductions or border restriction that have major consequences for the rest of the world. But climate change is a different matter. (I should note here that another reason to buy this book is that you are donating all of your royalties to, an organization dedicated to fighting climate change.) Why end your book about local activism with a discussion of a problem that’s unavoidably global?

Immerwahr: Well, first because I think climate change is the most serious problem we face by a mile. But also to highlight the inadequacies of the localism that has become a major form of left politics. We used to have a left that was, above all, internationalist. Now we’ve retreated to the small, the local, and the particular. I was thrilled to see how much excitement the Occupy Wall Street protestors kicked up, but aggravated that they couldn’t seem to move beyond the democracy of the drum circle. I want a left that doesn’t recoil when presented with overarching systems of control and coordination, but that seeks to use them strategically. I want a left that can operate on all scales. And part of that involves giving up this uncritical deference to “communities.”

Enjoyed reading this interview? Next month, look out for Timothy Shenk’s Q&A with Jill Lepore, author of The Secret History of Wonder Woman.

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