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How can we tell when and whether a community is sufficiently 'developed'?

By Mark Randell - posted Tuesday, 30 September 2003

In international affairs, we divide the world into developed and developing nations. The yardstick we use to do so is, typically, economic - GDP per capita or some such measure.

What do we do in communities? If "community development" is an activity we can successfully undertake, how do we know when we have crossed the line between a "developing" and a "developed" community? What yardsticks are available to us?

An economic measure is undoubtedly not the answer at this level - even if we could measure total economic output of the community, it would be a meaningless measure of community development. What is needed, I would guess, is some measure of the "social capital" of a community.


Now, attempts are being made to measure social capital across the length and breadth of the land. It has become a necessary (if not sufficient) category in grant applications and academic theses; typically, these measures provide some multi-factored index of "community wellbeing", including, for example, measures of political participation, diversity of friendships and informal ties, faith-based engagement, number of books borrowed from the local library, and so on.

So, when is the community sufficiently "developed"?

There is a tendency here to say that a community can always be "developed" more. This, I think, springs from the "community management" perspective taken by many community agencies and authorities, where "continual improvement" is the order of the day, and "business re-engineering" is the stuff of management lift-outs in financial newspapers. I have railed against this "management" perspective in previous articles (and I will probably do so again!).

Somehow, this seems to me a "static" view of the community - the community as an object or set of processes that can be optimised to some static environment.

I suspect that the answer to our question has more to do with taking a different perspective on "community development" and certainly the community's environment: One that sees the community as an ever-changing, adaptive "organism", responding to constant change, staying buoyant and flexible through a myriad of social changes and processes.

Perhaps the answer is to say that the community is sufficiently "developed" when it has the necessary (internal) mechanisms to be autonomous (self-sufficient) and adaptive? That is, the community is not "developed" when it has Programme X or Service Y, but when it is capable of meeting its own needs, in an ever-changing environment, through its internal (social) processes.


This view of communities as "complex, adaptive systems" could open our eyes to entirely new ways of viewing communities.

For instance, complex systems, in the natural sciences, demonstrate internal structure that can be characterised through the use of so-called PoLo graphs: Graphs of the exponential distribution of group (element) size, and so-called log-normal distributions of group frequency. (Huh?) Details aside, this means that we could potentially apply existing statistical measures to an understanding of when a community has reached "critical mass" and is behaving in a "complex" manner, being adaptive in its environment.

This is a view of a community that aggregates across the people that make up the community to view the whole community as a "system". Where does this leave the people?

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About the Author

Mark Randell is the Principal of Human Sciences, a community development consultancy based in Fremantle, WA. He has worked in the commercial, government and academic sectors.

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