Community Capacity Building and Social Policy -- What Can Be Achieved?

Article excerpt


Considerable resource is currently being directed towards community initiatives in New Zealand in order to build capacity to contribute to improved social and health goals. These community initiatives differ in the extent to which they focus on processes of community development, such as alliance building and developing new organisations and leadership, and the extent to which such community development processes are part of a community action approach which is directed towards achievement of specific social goals. These different initiatives share the need for additional resource aimed at building community capacity and the collaboration of a number of different sectors from within the community. The evaluation literature suggests both approaches have positive impacts in enhancing community processes and that, in the case of community action, where there are specific objectives measured, there is also some evidence of a positive impact.


There is considerable enthusiasm for the funding of community initiatives intended to meet social policy outcomes, both internationally and in New Zealand. The Capacity Building for Maori programme, the Healthy Cities projects, Safer Community Councils and Stronger Communities Action Fund projects are all current examples in New Zealand. There have also been community initiatives funded on a number of particular topics (e.g. alcohol, injury prevention, nutrition and housing programmes).

This current emphasis on funding community capacity building can be explained by a number of interwoven strands in current thought. The postmodern scepticism about the role of experts in central planning and a focus on process rather than goals encourages funding of community development projects rather than a reliance on centralised social planning (Rosenau 1994). Interest in the role of social capital and its relationship with social policy (Robinson 1997) encourages funding and evaluation of community initiatives seen as likely to enhance social capital (Robinson 1999). Another influence has been the neo-liberal legacy of suspicion over the role of central government in people's lives, opening up a gap into which communitarianism (Etzioni 1996) and related community initiatives have moved.

The emphasis on community as a site of action has not been without its critics, however. Community initiatives have been seen as a convenient panacea with a reputation for exercising a stabilising effect in society, concentrating attention on local-level planning at the expense of a recognition of broader social issues, in particular, power and control (Petersen 1994, Robertson and Minkler 1994). At its worst, the notion of community participation and empowerment can be used to argue for greater reliance on voluntary organisations in order to allow a withdrawal of needed health and social services (Binney and Estes 1988).

Despite these cautions there is widespread acknowledgement that, unless there is capacity to identify and address social and health issues at the community level, central government's social policy initiatives will be ineffective. Many examples could be given. For instance, in the United States the response to evidence that educational achievement prevented long-term welfare dependency in unmarried teenage mothers was the 1996 legislation requiring unmarried teenage mothers to attend school and live with an adult in order to receive federal assistance. It was accompanied by additional funding for childcare facilities. However, this partial response ignored the community-level changes that would make educational gains more likely -- changes in school management styles and school policies, provision of alternative educational approaches, changed social norms and improved transport, for example (Poole 1997).

Another example closer to home was the change in the New Zealand Sale of Liquor Act in 1999. This reduced the minimum purchase age for alcohol and had the aim of better preventing access to those below the legal minimum purchase age by simplifying the legislation and specifying proof-of-age documents. …