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CDP into CPP won’t go

End of Community Development Programme killing independent politician-free, activist, outward-looking, non-hierarchical community groups, but not ours.

The Ballyphehane Togher Community Development Project (BTCDP) was accepted into the Community Development Programme in 1993. This was after two years of lobbying, letter writing and submissions. BTCDP recruited a Co-Ordinator and opened its first office, a two-room space over the doctor’s surgery in Pearse Square, in 1994. This year we are celebrating its twentieth anniversary.

Two of the first actions of the project, in particular, created a legacy that has endured throughout the twenty years. The first group of management volunteers undertook a UCC night class in Social Studies. They campaigned for it to be delivered in their local college of Further education Scoil Stiofáin Naofa. That early group positioned the project ideologically, framing it in terms of development rather than service provision.

They visited another Community Development Project in Galway, assisted by the Combat Poverty Agency, the support agency for the Community Development Programme at the time. This was an early declaration of intent. The project would work with local people to address local needs, but recognised that disadvantage was neither individual nor local and must also look outward to wider concerns and models. The Combat Poverty Agency was key to this perspective as an independent and reputable agency which commissioned research, drafted policy proposals and supported practise to combat disadvantage and exclusion.

Those early volunteers had many reasons for giving their time to establish the project. There was a lack of early-years provision in the area and they held a knowledge from their own lives of generational educational disadvantage and wanted to change this as well as to provide opportunities for early school leavers. They had a desire to see children with disabilities integrated into local settings instead of steered toward special schooling or charities organised around a specific disability.

Importantly, they wanted a different type of community organisation, that would be less hierarchical and more women-friendly in its structures and membership and that would draw its membership from beyond the ‘usual suspects’ locally. In our twenty years, all the Chairs of BTCDP have been women and there have been no statutory representatives nor elected representatives from any political party on the Board. The essence of community development, that local people alongside paid staff, whom they employed and directed, could make a positive intervention in their community, was attractive to those early volunteers. Their local knowledge could and would influence how and where the project operated, how it targeted resources and addressed needs.

Over two decades the BTCDP has resourced children and families, youth initiatives, older people’s groups, people with a disability, refugees and asylum seekers, LGBT communities, and users of mental health services. A huge diversity of people has been supported to engage with the project and with public service allies. We have provided inclusive community childcare, community education, community arts initiatives and community health activities. These activites have harnessed local community energy and made links with statutory agencies.

We have engaged with policy formation that affected people and communities experiencing exclusion, and have supported community participation in every major policy consultation impacting on disadvantaged communities. This has included the National Anti-Poverty Strategy and the Green and White papers on Adult and Community Education, and Community and Voluntary Activity.

It is striking that while BTCDP celebrates our “Fiche Bliain ag Fás”, in the recent decade community development in Ireland has experienced anything but “fiche bliain faoi bhláth”. In fact, it can be argued that community development has withered under the onslaught of austerity. Perhaps the starkest outcome of this is that the Community Development Programme, which we were so proud to belong within, doesn’t exist anymore. That programme, which was acclaimed for engaging local people in devising local action to challenge and change circumstance in their own community, whether a geographical one or a community of interest, was an early casualty of austerity politics.

The then Fianna Fáil/Green Government announced its intention in 2009 to incorporate all 180 Community Development Projects into the local City and County Partnership companies. This, effectively, stood down local communities as agents for their own development. The Fine Gael/ Labour Government has simply carried on that process. Pobal, the state agency now managing the Community Development Programme, has acknowledged that much local community involvement and capacity has been lost to the Programme. Despite this learning, Partnership companies are faced with amalgamation under local authority structures. They are now rehearsing the same arguments made about the Community Development Programme projects over four years ago.

The Combat Poverty Agency has been subsumed into the Department of Social Protection. It lost its autonomy and its authority as an independent voice for community sector and civil society organising. The Equality Authority had its budget cut by 40% and is now being merged with the Irish Human Rights Commission. Finally, the Community Workers Co-op, which had supported so many community organisations, and contributed to policy formation around the concerns of these organisations, found itself out of government favour. This was due to its consistently strong challenges to Government policy. Its funding as a specialist support agency was withdrawn. Dismantling and diminishing these organisations has deprived the community sector of an essential architecture with which to interact and through which to impact on national policy.

Brian Harvey’s 2011 research, ‘Downsizing the Community Sector’, focuses on this There has been a contraction within the community sector. “Downsizing the Community Sector”, research by Brian Harvey, details the reduction in funding and staffing since the economic crisis in 2008. It reports that the sector will have been diminished by 35% by the end of 2013. But this downsizing is not just of resources and people, although those are significant. There has also been a scaling back of community sector organisations’ vision and capacity to act. Reduced resources and the absence of the enabling scaffold has meant a significant contraction in focus and ambition.

BTCDP worked hard, with others, to resist the amalgamation process with the That early group positioned the project ideologically, framing it BTCDP worked hard, with others, to resist the amalgamation process with the partnership companies. This was chiefly to maintain the principle that we should be a resource managed by local people. It was also to defend the principle that sought to link our work into a broader community for change. We were successful in this and, as a result we were not incorporated into the larger partnership company. Core funding from HSE South through Section 39 funding, although not without its challenges, has allowed us to maintain the integrity and ability of BTCDP to act autonomously.

Adopting the strategy of a “community anchor project” we have sought ways to function creatively and sustainably in a disadvantaged community that is experiencing depleted public services. It is harder now to link to that, somewhat depleted, community for change. However, in the last two years, we have facilitated conversations about the kind of society we want to emerge from the crisis, through participation in civil society networks such as Claiming our Future. Locally we supported the development of two nonfunded networks in Community Work and Community Health. Our first event of 2014 was a seminar to explore whether and how social media could contribute to social change and to see if we can link to a virtual community sector advocating for justice and equality.

As we mark our 20th Anniversary in BTCDP, the state has already in terms of development rather than service provision initiated a decade of commemoration. Of course, as we know, the vision of those early twentiethcentury revolutionaries for the rights an emerging state would confer on all of its citizens were quickly corralled by a conservative, confessional, nationalist orthodoxy. One hundred years on, neoliberal economics and managerialism have become the new orthodoxy, equally antithetical to any discussion of rights, justice, and equality. My hope is that the community sector in Ireland will sustain its hard-won focus on these rights, and on social justice, rather than turning to service provision.

Working in solidarity, we can endeavour to ‘speak truth to power’ and, when the powerful are deaf to our claims, I hope that we will continue to work to realise these claims in our own communities, to keep hope alive.

Siobhan O’Dowd