Community development and civil society

The coalition government’s implementation of Cameron’s idea of the ‘big society’ has, to date, been minimal. If the government does develop policies based on the idea they will, at some point, have to ensure that it connects with the principles and practice of community development. Given that the government now has an Office for Civil Society (replacing the Office for the Third Sector) it will also have to make sense of the concept of civil society.

Use of the term ‘civil society’ has increased noticeably in western Europe in recent years. Often this has resulted from observing how ‘civil society’ in central and eastern European countries has been fundamental to political and social change. ‘Civil society’ is a necessary condition for ensuring lively, strong and participatory democracy. This is the territory explored in Community development and civil society.

In the book, Ilona Vercseg and I make the case for community development being an essential component of efforts to build a stronger ‘civil society’. She and I met through a European network of community development organisations and we collaborated on a number of exchanges and conferences in Hungary, other parts of central and eastern Europe and the UK. She and her husband were central to the setting up of the Hungarian Association for Community Development (HACD) at the time of the fall of the Communist regime at the end of the 1980s. It went from strength to strength and remains active. Its work provides many of the examples and principles discussed in the book. The Hungarian material is placed alongside an analysis and critique of community development in the UK context. The latter includes chapters on regeneration, social control and community care.

The process of understanding nuanced meanings of key concepts – and of translating them accurately – has been challenging. If, however, we succeed in clarifying the specific contribution that community development can make to building civil society then the patience and effort will have been worthwhile!

Paul Henderson is co-author of Community development and civil society

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