What Is A Developing Community?

I am often intrigued by the question of what a developing community is and how people should think about it.  This is mainly because so many individuals believe that development is what occurs in distant countries, far removed from the developed world that “we” live in.  Development is what happens in desolate places where minimal infrastructure exists, where people have little or no health care and where poverty is endemic.  It occurs in areas with high illiteracy rates and high unemployment rates.  Often, the people there feel a sense of abandonment by their government and hopelessness in terms of a long-term, stable future.

And this is where I get intrigued.  Because, as I look at these definitions, I immediately think of many areas right in our own backyards that also fit these profiles.

While there are certainly different challenges faced by areas in Africa or Latin America versus areas in the United States or Europe, I do believe that all of these areas have many issues in common that require similar sets of expertise.  The issues of poverty, homelessness, despair, mental health issues, and literacy are universal and need to be addressed in every location.  We need to prepare students to address these issues throughout the global environment where they may work.

It may not sound as exciting to say we need professionals who can address poverty and homelessness in Detroit or Los Angeles, but the reality is we need professionals who can work in Los Angeles as well as Lagos.  The time has arrived for us all to take as much of an interest in our own backyard as in ones 5,000 miles away – they both deserve our attention.

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2 thoughts on “What Is A Developing Community?

  1. In my two short years researching and exploring the field of community development, I have realized that the word “development” itself is rather loaded in the context of working with different communities. Moreover, there are many individuals who don’t take the time to think about the ramifications that such an easy-to-use word can have.on our mindset and actions as we spend time wrestling with such complex issues.

    Whether individuals think about it or not, using the word “development” to characterize the status of communities evokes an inherently linear frame of thinking. In order to classify a community as “underdeveloped,” “developing,” or “developed,” we are forced to rank a community or country in comparison with another one as a point of reference. It is impossible to call a community “developing” without a reference community that allows us to make this designation. In this moment of comparison, we place both communities on a one-directional line with the “developing” community below/lower/further behind the more “developed” one.

    Now I believe the tendency towards this type of thinking isn’t necessarily bad and seems pretty natural in the context of how we as humans are constantly processing, re-organizing, and analyzing our surroundings. That being said, the tendency to think in these terms can prove to be detrimental not only to an individual’s sense of fulfillment working in a global context, but more so to an individual’s understanding of himself as a human. This argument is grounded in the concept of “the other,” which is the idea that in order to establish ourselves, our community, and our identity, we have to distinguish ourselves from other individuals, other communities, and other identities. Of course this isn’t an inherently poor way of thinking about ourselves and is, I believe, the only way of cultivating and nurturing our own identity and community. The trouble arises when we start to use this relational pseudo-fulfillment of our own identity to belittle the other, look down on the other, and pity the other communities we work with. It may be a comparative truth that our more developed community is wealthier, healthier, and more politically stable than other developing communities, but in acknowledging this, we have a choice: We can move forward selfishly attempting to provide quick-fix solutions to the problems we see, or we can dare to be more courageous and have the patience and humility to listen more intently to try and get a glimpse of the reality underneath.

    This brings me back to why I think using the word “development” and its derivatives can be dangerous if not used with a certain amount of humility. In pursuing the venerable challenge of doing something good on this earth, we often have this superhero-esque idea that we have to rescue those who are not as far along the development line as us. We want to save them from poor health standards, poverty, and political unrest. We want to save them from their current state of misfortune. In short, we tend to focus on the problems we witness instead of the people with whom we interact! That being said, are the problems real? Absolutely, and I am not saying that they should be ignored. In fact it is the very real and human nature of these problems that demands we turn our attention to cultivating authentic relationships with individuals in the communities where we work. The reason why I am okay with the word “development” is that it has the potential to be used in a more powerful way than it currently is. What if the statement, “I work on community development projects,” actually implied that I spend time developing relationships with individuals in communities, rather than implying that I spend time trying to fix different communities’ problems?

    I like to make the comparison to personal problems I have had to deal with in my own life and the people to whom I have turned for help and guidance. In almost every situation I can think of, I lean on those who have the strength to simply be present and listen to me without trying to “fix” me. They have had the strength to work with me rather than solving things for me. And I will ALWAYS turn towards these people because these people and I have spent a significant amount of time building incredibly honest and trusting relationships with one another. That’s it. A community may be substantially more poor, more unhealthy, more unstable, more “underdeveloped” than our own, but does that make the individuals who constitute that community any less human than us? We have the ability to learn more than we could possibly comprehend as we engage in the worlds of other individuals and other communities (even those in our own backyard!). The question is whether or not we are willing to proceed with the humility that is demanded of us. I certainly hope so.

  2. Development means different things to different people. It’s a culturally defined concept that often but not always encapsulates notions of economic growth, long life expectancy, democratic government, and rule of law. As a student interested in working internationally, I have made a point of hearing different perspectives on development from engineers, anthropologists, geographers, writers and medical professionals. As far as I have found there is very little consensus between these groups on what ‘development’ really means other than generalized reduction of ‘poverty’ (another culturally defined word) and the advancement of human rights. An interesting bit of semantics that I learned from a geography professor is that ‘Development’ with a capital D is defined as the intentional process of economic and scientific aid that has occurred between nations in the last century and ‘development’ with a lowercase d is the natural process of gradual change that a region or nation undergoes without a specific plan or sponsor.

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