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Community-led development

ARTICLE POSTED: 14 July 2016

A comment on the ‘Bright Spots’ report - see it at right.

Wamwinolruk, M. (2016) Child rich communities: Aotearoa New Zealand’s ‘Bright Spots’. Wellington: Inspiring Communities, Plunket, Every Child Counts, UNICEF.

Ill-treatment of children, domestic violence, inequality, social isolation, racism. These problems will not be resolved by any government no matter how benevolent. Their resolution requires a marshalling and sharing of the generosity of spirit, ingenuity and resolve of individuals and communities. When this process is organized within a community it is called, community-led development, community development or community building. It is active in quite a few communities around Aotearoa New Zealand. How some of these initiatives work and what can be learned from them is the subject of this report.  

The essence of these initiatives is that they are by and for the communities in which they arise. The paradox is that, though they are necessary in every community if progress is to be made they cannot be replicated by an outside agency. On the contrary, outside agencies must tread warily in approaching any community saying they wish to do something that is going to be good for them. What is their motive? Nobody wants to be told that they are poor and by implication their lives are limited or inferior and need to change, particularly by a person who is not one of them.

It is for this reason I must explain myself and my interest. I am not materially poor nor did I grow up in a  family or community (Tokoroa in the 1940s and 50s, my father a forester, my mother a teacher) I thought of as deprived.  My lifelong interest in children’s wellbeing comes from who knows where but it has driven my life as a paediatrician, children’s commissioner and children’s advocate and been supported by my life as a father and grandfather. It could be said I have gained materially as well as spiritually from making this my career and that would be true. But as this report shows I am not so unusual in caring about families and children. I would say it is the norm and has to be in any society that is to survive and thrive. So am I in a position to offer a commentary on this report? I believe so, if only because I care very much about the success of community-led development.

There is an emphasis in the report on effective community led development’s reliance on seeing strengths rather than deficits in families and communities. I agree wholeheartedly with this view but as a person whose interest and job it has been to see the bigger picture I know from the statistics and research that the children who become ill, whose potential is not realized and whose survival is threatened are more likely to come from those families and communities where there is a struggle to make ends meet. Only people who have had that struggle can know what it is like and be authentic in the way the report says (p24). But my life as someone looking from outside and seeing the processes beyond family and community that make life a struggle has its authenticity too.  

I have been for a long time an advocate for the community development approach the report takes to Aotearoa New Zealand’s serious problems of ill-treatment of children, inadequate housing and other material deprivation. I agree with the report in not seeing welfare or service provision as the answer (p18), although as the report says (p24) these can play a part and we should not be hidebound in rejecting out of hand what might help. The organization and motivation of a community and its families from within is clearly the way into a better chance in life for its children.

I worry that this approach can be misunderstood and misused unless certain points are well understood:

  1. A ‘leave it to the communities’ mantra can encourage neglect by government of its responsibilities for policies on employment, housing, income, education and family support. The report says (p16) under the sub-heading ‘Learning Two: If families are well, then children are well.’

‘Bright Spots tend to take a broader view. Bright Spots can see that children live in families. And families live in neighbourhoods.’

This is not a broad enough view. I would add ‘neighbourhoods live in a society’. That society has certain responsibilities in providing broad policy settings in which families and neighbourhoods can flourish. 

  1. There is a risk that the expectation of complete community self-sufficiency will create a permanent underclass. In many countries such underclasses have existed for centuries. They have their own way of life and means of survival which is a good thing but their members are in a permanently vulnerable state and have very limited opportunities to develop and express their abilities and contribute to the larger society. Those who are not members of this underclass may comfort their consciences with a ‘poor but happy’ mythology but in reality they live in a divided society that does not share its resources justly, is not at peace with itself and is unstable.


  1. An assumption can be made that everyone belongs to or can be brought into a community but the reality is that some children who come to grief are in families detached from or only loosely attached to a community and/or whose disposition or way of life make them unattractive as community members. Provision must be made for these isolated families and children pending their integration into a community if they are willing or other arrangements if they are not.
  1. There is a criticism of the idea of ‘child-centredness’ with which I might either agree or disagree depending on how the term is defined. If it means a good measure of the wellbeing of a family, community and society is the wellbeing of its children, I agree. If it means that a family, community and society must do its utmost to ensure the wellbeing of its children, I agree. If it means that acting upon the child in isolation is in his/her interests, I disagree, except in extreme cases of parental and family neglect or inadequacy. If it means we do not believe family and community wellbeing is essential to the child’s wellbeing, I disagree.

These worries have no bearing on my admiration and respect for the people cited in the report and for its author. I have long wished for wider recognition and application of the models of community development springing up in this country. It is because I believe in them that I don’t want to see them misunderstood and misused.

Community-led development

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