"from the altar to the dissection table": unpacking community and modernisation in u.s. development thinking
In my final few days in Geneva, I managed to finish off Daniel Immerwahr's brilliant Thinking Small: The United States and the Lure of Community Development (Harvard, 2015). The book is a well-researched and exhaustively footnoted account of the rise and fall of "community development" thinking in international and US domestic policy. Like Nick Cullather and David Ekbladh before him, Immerwahr interrogates the close ties between modernisation and geopolitics in the early Cold War. There are the usual actors here (philanthropic foundations, the CIA, social scientists, agricultural consultants) and also a set of actors that are less familiar (the Black Panthers and Chinese literacy campaigners). But there are several things about this book that make me think it worth briefly expanding upon.
The basic premise behind the book is that generations of scholars have approached modernisation as a hegemonic and monolithic project that swept away any alternatives and became the uncontested driver of US development interventions. In the era of damns and huge infrastructure projects, it is suggested that the world somehow "got bigger" - both in the size of the projects planned and also in terms of the geographical reach of US ambitions. Immerwahr, however, is unconvinced. He traces a series of communitarian counter-currents that were far from marginal during this period (although they are strangely silenced in accounts); this was the period "when small was big" to borrow from one of the chapter titles. In successive chapters, Immerwahr explores the disenchanted urban elites that fled big US cities in the early twentieth century; the management consultants that downsized factory teams to harness their increased efficiency; the village development models that were so popular with India's modernist-in-chief, Nehru; the strategic use of community organisations as a counter-insurgency platform in the Phillipines; and, ultimately, the return to the US of this community thinking as part of President Johnson's War on (Urban) Poverty.
Modernisation and community development occurred side-by-side in this narrative; importantly, one did not eclipse the other. Post-war Washington was home to the modernisers (including Walt Rostow), but their agents in the field were the community-minded development officials. This, Immerwahr suggests, is one of the reasons why our extant accounts find modernisation everywhere - from the archives at the centre the path of modernisation seems uncontested. Communitarian views did not disqualify development consultants from a seat at the table of post-war development planning; rather, these counter-prevailing views were exactly why they were hired in the first place. Of course, there were failings of the community-focused initiatives, and that is why modernisation is ultimately considered to have "won out." In India, the community initiatives did not directly confront caste and gender systems that allowed even the best-laid plans to be co-opted by existing elites in a form of "backhanded authoritarianism" (94). Likewise in the Philippines, funding to community projects became yet another route for pork barrel money to flow from the political dynasties in the capital into the hands of local landed elites.
I think it was the section on the US War on Poverty, though, that piqued my interest. The "discovery" of poverty in the richest country in the world raised serious questions for successive administrations in the late 50s until the 70s. Overseas community development became a training ground for action at home; indeed, a domestic version of the Peace Corps was considered the best plan for tackling rising urban decay and strife. "Having spent so much time busying itself with the economics of prosperity," Immerwahr writes (137-138), "the US government lacked domestic expertise in the area of persistent poverty [...] So just as the hydraulics of expertise had once pushed rural experts from the New Deal out to the global South to become community development experts, the discovery of domestic poverty reversed the flow and pulled foreign aid experts back to the United States as poverty warriors." This penultimate section of the book is the most interesting for me as it contends with this "reverse flow" of experts and ideas. But just as the limits of community development were reached in the Global South, so too were the US campaigns co-opted by others with differing visions of what community empowerment looked like (albeit from unlikely sources - Saul Alinsky, Jane Jacobs and the Black Panthers). Community didn't look like it did in the Global South and this challenged established orthodoxies, making many of the political backers of the campaign uneasy:
Of course, this "cookie cutter" model of development failed. That was not the end of the story though, for the idea of community has a lasting allure as a catalyst for improvement. Immerwahr ends with some reflections on the future of community development, and these are pertinent for those of us interested in alternative models of development and the reimagining of our present. We are confronted by the necessity of hybrid arrangements as complex emergencies and development pathways demand new forms of collaboration and thinking from outside the box. The co-existence of modernisation and community thinking, exposed in Immerwahr's account, is a precursor of this. We must, unlike the community thinkers of the mid-twentieth century, avoid the implicit blaming of the poor for their situation; they have been "empowered," yes, but this is for nought in the absence of a broader critique of the structures that disempowered them in the first place. Likewise, for all of the talk of wanting to improve the well-being of distant communities, the securitisation of migration (as seen on the shores of the Mediterranean today) exposes the fact that our own prosperity is, to some extent, premised upon the exclusion of those who want access to wealth - the communities, in other words, need to stay put.
I finish with Immerwahr's closing words (184), as I think these are prescient, and a great overview of the book's key argument: "To recognize communitarianism's place in history is to give up on a fantasy, the fantasy that community is the great untried experiment of the industrial age. It is to treat community with less reverence and with more curiosity, to move it from the altar to the dissection table. Perhaps that is where it belongs. The problems of poverty are no less dire now than they were in the middle of the twentieth century. Solving them will require a clear-eyed understanding of what communities can do - and what they cannot."