Wednesday 16 July 2014

Beyond 'glass half full' - the politics of ABCD

For a couple of years now I've been a passionate advocate for asset-based approaches to community development (ABCD). I believe in ABCD partly because I'm a pragmatist - it seems to 'work' (slowly, with fragility, but surely, we're seeing evidence of 'community' springing up around us here in Hodge Hill, and that seems to be making all kinds of positive differences in the lives of those of us who live here, and are finding ourselves part of 'it') - and partly because I'm a theorist - ABCD resonates with some of my deepest principles, with the core of my theology, and seems to make a whole load of sense of some of the biggest challenges of the world that we seem to be living in today.

But I also have to acknowledge - and increasingly so, as I get increasingly passionate in advocating for it - the dangers that an ABCD approach brings to the surface, the tightropes it makes us walk. And a lot of those dangers, those tightropes, are political - with a small 'p', that is, beyond parties and voting and that stuff, to the way power is hoarded, distributed, channelled, at every level from the micropolitics of neighbourhoods to the macropolitics of the global economy.

These reflections have been brewing for a while, much of them in conversation with others. It feels timely to get them down in words, in the hope that the conversation draws in more voices, and the dangers and potential of ABCD can come to greater clarity.

1. The 'glass half full' is a statement of defiance

ABCD goes well beyond a kind of Pollyanna-ish, or Monty Pythnoesque, 'always looking on the bright side of life', but close to its heart is the image of the 'glass half full': approaching neighbourhoods and those who live within them not primarily as 'needs', as 'deficits', as 'problems', but as 'gifts', as 'assets', as holding within themselves huge creative power. For neighbourhoods like mine, this is powerful stuff - because people have, for far too long, both outside and within our neighbourhood, told the 'deficit' story: we're one of Iain Duncan-Smith's 'broken ghettos', apparently, 'workshy', 'scroungers', 'dependency culture', you name it. 'Can anything good come out of Nazareth?' asked Nathanael, brother of Philip, about Jesus. People have similar suspicions about neighbourhoods like mine. The labelling is so often stigmatising, and the stigmatising can - and does - crush and break people's spirits.

So an ABCD approach is, on a very foundational level, a gutsy, defiant, 'f*** off!' to those who would label and stigmatise us, and to that part of each of us that falls for those untruths. We have passion, knowledge, and gifts here, and we have each other, and in sharing our gifts together, we have so much more than we are told we have - and that is power! It was far from coincidental that the very first Firs & Bromford Community Passion Play, last year, reached its ending with a sung version of Maya Angelou's poem, 'Still I Rise':
"You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise."
2. ABCD is about community - and a dangerous vulnerability

It may sound obvious, but asset-based community development is first and foremost about building community. It needs to be said, however, because one of the risks of ABCD-language is it gets muddled up with 'asset-based', or 'strength-based', approaches more generally and, at its most simplistic, is seen as simply an expression of 'positive psychology'. At its worst, this confusion can seem to veer towards the politics of those who advocate 'individual responsibility', 'getting on your bike', and 'pulling yourself up by your bootstraps' - whether in work or financial security, health or education.

This is where the 'glass half full' can be misleading: beyond 'looking on the bright side', beyond looking for individuals' strengths rather than their weaknesses, ABCD affirms that we need community - we need each other, our neighbours, our fellow human beings. We need to share each other's gifts, but we also need to share each other's vulnerabilities, each other's wounds, each other's struggles. The 'half empty' half of the glass can also be, and often is, the thing that enables us to connect with those around us. And it is community, says ABCD, that enables us to do that connecting, that sharing, in a way that systems and institutions - let alone markets - fail miserably.

This invitation to community, to vulnerable sharing, is also somewhat political: money, as theologian Stanley Hauerwas is fond of saying, is what we rely on when we've forgotten what friends are. Those who live in expensive gated 'communities', secure behind their fences, are trying to protect themselves from the vulnerabilities of being human. Those of us who try our best to live a more vulnerable kind of 'community' challenge the rich and powerful to risk discovering their humanity. Who knows where that might lead?!

3. ABCD takes issue with the 'service industry' - public and private
"Perhaps, the major problem with public health’s uncritical adoption of asset-based approaches is that it fails to distinguish between a radical critique of welfare, one that is firmly linked to an analysis of neo-liberal economics and the neo-liberal attack on welfare, which by contrast, supports the further de-regulation of markets and withdrawal of the social rights of citizens. If the strength of the assets movement is that it has generated discussion about re-dressing the balance of power between the public sector, public services and local communities, its fatal weakness has been the failure to question the balance of power between public services, communities and corporate interests. As such, asset-based approaches sound the drum beat for the retreat of statutory, state provision of both public services and public health."[1]
Lynne Friedli, writing from a public health perspective (and addressing 'asset-based approaches' more generally than ABCD), offers a strong challenge to ABCD, highlighting one of its biggest dangers: it can be heard to be supporting, and indeed co-opted to support, the neo-liberal 'rolling back' of the State.

Rooted in the work of social critic Ivan Illich, ABCD does indeed shine a spotlight on the way institutions, once intended to help and empower people, have a habit of growing in size and complexity to the point where the 'service' that they 'offer' is, in fact, counter-productive in people's lives, reinforcing in people the very 'problems' that the institution claims to solve, sustaining people's dependence on the institution to feed the institution's dependence on a steady stream of 'needy' people. It is a dramatic, powerful critique, and, in everyday experience, it seems to hit home at least as often as it misses the mark. There is, in fact, much more that properly sits in the domain of 'what communities can do' for those living in them, than the 'service industry' has allowed us space to imagine.

But it is in the moves onwards from Illich's critique that the real battles are to be fought. It hardly needs stating that 'the private sector' does no better job of humanising the 'service industry' than 'the public sector' - in fact, when you add in the profit-seeking factor to the already toxic mix, the drive towards institutional counter-productivity - benefits for the institution at the expense of its 'clients' - merely accelerates beyond imagining. In fact, after years of neo-liberal, 'competition'-promoting government in Conservative, Labour, and Coalition flavours, it's now barely possible to distinguish 'public sector' from 'private sector' at all. However paternalistic in intent the post-war origins of the welfare state were, that sense of shared responsibility as a society for the welfare of the most vulnerable - and with it the acknowledgment that any of us might, at times, find ourselves living with such vulnerability and need - has been all but obliterated - and ABCD needs to position itself, and articulate itself, clearly as part of the challenge to that obliteration, rather than a colluding partner in it.

4. ABCD is about social justice

With Friedli's challenge ringing in our ears, we cannot possibly say that the State's withdrawal from communities, its withdrawal of its people, places and money, is somehow going to make everything better. To be sure, often what communities need to be able to function better is for the systems and institutions to 'get out of the way' - but the ideal of the 'Big Society', dreamt up in a cosy Oxfordshire village, with volunteers aplenty to 'man the pumps' of everything from the library to the fire station, has been shown to be a blatant cover for the accelerated redistribution of wealth, an 'asset stripping' which has enabled the rich to get even richer and forced the poor to get even poorer, abandoning the poorest communities to 'look after themselves'.

Edgar Cahn, the founding father of timebanking, expresses the point with a necessary sharpness. Lamenting the way the 'brilliant work' of ABCD (in the USA) was being 'circumvented and perverted, used to get money without really altering professional practice or changing who got the dollars, who defined the problem, and who defined the response', Cahn exploded with anger at the 'obscene' way 'in which we were throwing away, destroying, degrading, or denigrating the most precious assets we have: human beings'. The core values of ABCD needed to be intertwined with a fundamental commitment to social justice:
"Assets became: No more throw-away people.  
Redefining work became: No more taking the contribution of women, children, families, immigrants for granted. No more free rides for the market economy extracted by subordination, discrimination, and exploitation.  
Reciprocity became: Stop creating dependencies; stop devaluing those whom you help while you profit from their troubles.  
Social capital became: No more disinvesting in families, neighbourhoods and communities. No more economic and social strip-mining." [2]
An angry No, then, intertwined with a hopeful, creative Yes. Not disinvestment, then, but changing the way we invest. Not abandonment by the State, but the State - at least so far as it embodies society's 'shared responsibility' and power-in-coordination - finding new ways to be present within neighbourhoods, ways that are infinitely more receptive, connective, and creative, than the familiar models of 'delivery' which so easily modulate into 'control'.

The three questions at the core of ABCD approaches, then, remain vital:
i. What can this community do for itself, with local people power? 
ii. What can this community do for itself, with some help and support from external agencies? 
iii. What does this community need external agencies to do for it (or perhaps better, alongside it)?
It's crucial to ask all three questions, of course - something the 'roll back' advocates would rather ignore. But the order of the questions is also crucial, because the 'default position' is to proceed from (iii) to (i), leaving local communities with the left-over scraps of activity once the external agencies have delivered on their own agendas and taken whatever rich pickings are to be had. A third caveat is also necessary: the questions need to be asked in each and every neighbourhood, and repeatedly over time, because the answers will vary greatly from place to place, and from year to year. There can be no nationwide prescription, as 'Big Society' implied - investment needs to be determined by local power and local need, and that, in itself, will require a radical redistribution of resources, people, and energy.

5. ABCD and 'progressive localism'

Having said that, I am increasingly convinced that there is something inescapably 'counter-State' about the evolving ABCD tradition. In the seemingly innocent language of 'progressive localism', some UK geographers are beginning to argue for, and discover already present around them, a 'counter-movement' to the aggressively 'anti-public', neoliberal 'austerity localism'. David Featherstone and colleagues outline four significant dimensions of such a counter-movement:
i. 'place-based organising' can, and does, challenge 'neatly bounded' conceptions of 'community' which spill out beyond the obviously 'local' (they offer the example of Gate Gourment workers in West London who were able to forge links of international solidarity, through the aviation industry, with workers in Norway and Denmark who refused to load meals onto aircraft bound for London) 
ii. rather than seeing globalisation as something 'done to' local communities in a simply 'top-down' way, local communities, workers, citizens can be seen to be 'active agents in shaping and negotiating such [globalizing] processes', 'challeng[ing] rather than entrench[ing] inequalities between and within places and regions' 
iii. these global linkages and connections can serve to highlight 'diverse forms of actually existing multiculturalism' that are present in localities and shape 'everyday practices of localism', challenging the chauvinistic rhetoric of politicians and media around race and migration
iv. progressive localisms 'can feed into broader social and political movements that aim to transform national and international policy frameworks' (the mobilisation of the living wage campaign from particular local communities in London is offered as an example) [3]
More recently, Andy Williams and colleagues from Exeter have argued that 'in amongst the neoliberal infrastructure' of localism, 'new ethical and political spaces' of 'resistance and experimentation' can be discovered, which work 'strategically, and even subversively, with the tools at hand'. Citing Foodbanks as a now notorious example of the neoliberal State apparently co-opting the people power in local communities, Williams et al argue:
i. 'the visible presence of Foodbanks has enabled structural critique of the processes underpinning food poverty in the UK' (by publishing data on usage, narratives detailing the reasons for usage, etc.) 
ii. 'spaces of care such as Foodbanks present a practical device through which citizens from myriad ideological perspectives can potentially experience a more positive identification with, and understanding of, the issues facing people with low-incomes' (the possibility of vulnerability leading to change that I suggested earlier) 
iii. 'these spaces of care can facilitate wider ethical-political alliances across voluntary organisations and protest groups' (similar to Featherstone et al's argument above) as part of an 'emergent public', 'a body able to advocate and represent itself and hold government to account'
Williams also, secondly, highlights research that suggests that 'the rationalities and technologies of neoliberal government at work in public, private and voluntary organisations can be performatively subverted from within'. 'Inside every civil servant is a citizen waiting to get out', as my friend and ABCD colleague Cormac Russell puts it, but perhaps they are not patiently 'waiting' as often as we think!

Thirdly, Williams points to examples of localism policies being embraced by local communities precisely in the cause of resisting the trends of neoliberalism: 'community take-overs of local facilities and amenities as social enterprises', 'strategic use of Local Enterprise Partnerships to direct economic development towards the growth of renewable and sustainable industries', 'harnessing the more open and deliberative nature of policy-making' that accompanies devolution 'to reject neoliberal models of individualised commodified care in favour of a more locally coproduced system of care-provision', and so on.

Finally, Williams highlights the emergence of groups which have created 'autonomous spaces', intentionally distanced from 'regulatory or financial relationships with government in order to pursue prefigurative, oppositional, and confrontational stances towards neoliberal logics'. They cite the example of Zacchaeus 2000 (Z2K), 'a London-based anti-poverty charity which provides free social, economic and legal assistance for low-income households affected by welfare reform and debt' which, alongside such support, has also been at the forefront of organising protests outside magistrate courts and other anti-cuts activism. While not entirely autonomous, as a registered charity, Z2K 'ventures directly into confrontation with state policy through its marriage of provision and protest'. [4]

It may be that I've deviated somewhat from directly discussing 'the politics of ABCD'. But I see in the developing discourse of 'progressive localism' a textured argument that allows us to take on board Lynne Friedli's challenge, but to go beyond a simple 'for or against neoliberal localism' dichotomy. In starting with the messy complexity of the local, with the diverse gifts and contestations of 'community', we are by no means restricted to the local, or to compliantly carrying out the wishes of neoliberal government. When people discover the power of face-to-face relationships with their neighbours, the possibilities of solidarities beyond the local, of challenge and resistance and re-shaping of wider structures, become more graspable. This is what Cormac is arguing, I think, in his excellent piece on an ABCD approach to local democracy, 'power from the people - power to the people'.

6. ABCD as (post)anarchism...?

I'm not sure it's been explicitly acknowledged anywhere, but there is, I would suggest, a distinctly anarchist streak to ABCD. In its emphasis on direct relationships of mutual care; on horizontal, associational life over against the hierarchical relationships of institutions; and on the 'common wealth' of local neighbourhoods, there is more than a resonance or two with anarchist politics - the development of 'autonomous zones' and experimental 'micropolitics' which 'prefigure' (i.e. begin living out in the present) a different kind of social order, beyond the State. Perhaps, following Saul Newman, Todd May and others, we might say the resonances are strongest with what is being described as postanarchism, which 'sees the state as a problem, but not the problem; it rejects the logic that would make any single point of resistance primary or central' and instead 'assumes power to be multiple and fluid, requiring more creative responses', which might well involve 'working more and more outside the state rather than strictly against it'. Interestingly - at least for me - that seems to bring us back to a place where some of the social practices of the Christian community might make a significant contribution. [5] But that, I think, is a reflection for another time...


[1] Lynne Friedli, ‘“What we’ve tried, hasn’t worked”: the politics of assets based public health’, Critical Public Health, 23:2 (2013), pp.131-145

[2] Edgar Cahn, No More Throw-Away People (2000) p.29

[3] David Featherstone et al, ‘Progressive localism and the construction of political alternatives’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 37 (2012), pp.177-182

[4] A Williams, M Goodwin & P Cloke, 'Neoliberalism, Big Society & Progressive Localism', Environment and Planning A (forthcoming 2014)

[5] Ted Troxell, ‘Christian Theory: Postanarchism, Theology, and John Howard Yoder’, Journal for the Study of Radicalism, 7:1 (2013), pp.37-60


  1. Thanks for your thoughtful reflections. I think there is real potential in combining critical approaches with ABCD. There could be real tension but I think your comments suggest ways in which it can be done.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.