"COMMUNITY ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT"
Is It Time To Revisit This Old-Fashioned Idea?
- Sue Bradford
The reality of the climate crisis hit Aotearoa New Zealand in a new way in the 2019/20 summer. We watched our skies turn alarming shades of pink from the Australian bushfires while the northern part of the country endured a record-breaking drought. In Watchdog 152 (December 2019), Dennis Small wrote passionately about the challenges facing human and planetary survival this century ("Tackling The Capitalist Technological Imperative, Climate Crisis And Class Warfare").
Summaries like these are excellent but I also think we need to spend at least as much time exploring what Dennis calls in his last paragraph "the power of grassroots movements for really transformative action" as we do on describing the daily more terrifying contradictions and fearful futures inscribed by neoliberal capitalism. I've often thought of this power of movements internationally as the "global peoples’ counterforce", but as with anything global, our actions need to start at home. Kia ora to every one of you here in Aotearoa NZ who is taking action for climate justice as we head into the third decade of the 21st Century.
All the mahi we do and the actions we take are vitally important right now, as we work for a different kind of future than that offered by markets, militarisation and the dedicated pursuit of perpetual growth. In this article I examine just one of the achievable actions we might consider as a response to the dual ecological and economic crises we face: the possibilities offered by the old fashioned notion of "community economic development" (CED).
I don't know how many of you have heard this term before. If you have, you're likely to have been around and active in the community sector in the 1980s and 1990s, before the concept of "community economic development" went out of fashion under a tidal wave of notions like "social enterprise", and "social entrepreneurship".
Before going any further it may be useful to define CED. This is the definition I used when I was writing on the topic back in 2005:
Community Economic Development: The establishment, maintenance and promotion of enterprises which are:
CED initiatives can play a key role in strengthening local economies, especially in districts which have been hit hard by factors such as isolation, withdrawal of services, poverty, poor housing and unemployment. However, they can also make a significant contribution to the social, economic and environmental life of all districts.
CED often meets needs which are not otherwise met, for example, in job creation for people who have been out of work for a long time or who have never had a job; providing goods or services to people who would otherwise go without them, and/or carrying out work which protects or enhances the physical environment.
Its core values include: cooperation, decentralisation, participation, socially useful work, good working conditions, environmental sustainability and "people before profit". Deliberately excluded from this definition are profit-taking businesses which carry out some social and/or environmentally useful programmes but whose key purpose is profit-taking for owners and shareholders.
My Early Background In The Sector
My own interest in CED gradually developed during my early years of involvement in unemployed workers' groups in Auckland and nationally. A number of us set up the Auckland Unemployed Workers Rights Centre (AUWRC) in 1983 with a two-fold kaupapa of providing advocacy support for individuals at their interface with the Government departments dealing with welfare and employment, while at the same time organising very actively around a core demand of "Jobs and a living wage for all".
In 1983 we organised Auckland's first mass demonstration against unemployment since the Great Depression of the 1930s, and we took active leadership on many other pickets, occupations, campaigns and marches over the subsequent 16 years of AUWRC's existence. As the 1980s went by and the Rogernomics revolution brought with it mass unemployment, deepening poverty and the devastation of much of rural and provincial New Zealand, we began to consider whether there was more we could be doing with and for the people with whom we worked.
Street action and individual benefit advocacy weren't enough when more and more people couldn't afford to feed their children or go to the doctor. We spent a lot of time considering what else we could do and became increasingly involved in the creation of new organisations developed out of our unemployed workers' and beneficiaries' base. The first group we established beyond AUWRC itself was the Auckland Region Employment Resource Centre in 1989, making use of Government funding available at that time for groups which provided training and support for people going into self or group employment or setting up cooperatives.
This was an era when grassroots worker coops (as opposed to Fonterra-type producer cooperatives) were far more common than they are now. The work schemes which lasted through most of the 1980s until Labour wiped them out provided unemployed people with six months' paid employment on at least the full-time minimum wage.This enabled many community and tangata whenua organisations to develop new projects, including worker coops and other forms of community-based initiative.
There was a national organisation of worker coops which held annual hui and the Community Enterprise Loans Trust (CELT) provided some finance into the community sector. There were a number of work-focused Government schemes including GELS (Group Employment Liaison Scheme), which specialised in providing support for gang-focused job creation programmes. The Department of Internal Affairs had schemes which offered full-time wages funding for developmental work in community.
Soon after AUWRC established the Employment Resource Centre, the two groups came together and began to implement a project which eventually became the three Auckland Peoples Centres operating from buildings in central Auckland, Mangere and Manurewa. From late 1989 onwards the Peoples Centre provided a wide range of medical, dental, welfare advocacy, educational, hairdressing, green dollar exchange and chaplaincy services to members, who joined for $10 per month per family. Medical care was free; dental care was as cheap as we could make it. At their peak the three Centres were providing services for up to 14,000 individuals across Auckland.
Members could vote for the Board which ran the Peoples Centres at each year's AGM. They also received regular free copies of the AUWRC magazine Mean Times, which provided educational and political material, and which encouraged people to join us in whatever political activity we were fomenting at the time. The AUWRC and the Peoples Centres retained an intrinsic link through cross-Board membership.
The political wing supported the services wing, and vice versa. The Peoples Centre membership system provided AUWRC with some of the autonomous income essential for the group's survival at a time when funding was increasingly politicised. After National's election in 1990, some key funding sources were very deliberately cut to any groups Government saw as "political", marking the beginning of a long saga of colonisation and control by Government over the community sector.
The Labour government had completely sold out workers and unemployed workers through its reforms in the 1980s.The National government which came to power in 1990 took this a step further, immediately announcing plans to slash benefits and to weaken unions through the Employment Contracts Act. Our direct action response was stronger than ever before (this was the era of the Jenny Shipley-effigy burning marches up Queen Street), but we also believed that building our own economic and political bases inside a rotten system was a key part of making change, alongside other forms of political advocacy.
Through our work in creating new organisations a number of us at the heart of the AUWRC and Peoples Centre projects started engaging with others locally and nationally to learn and support each other in carrying out projects which we came to see as aspects of "community economic development". While other groups tended not to be as overtly political as we were, we felt we shared a common kaupapa in many fundamental ways.
CED Groups In The 80s & Early 90s: Some Other Examples
At the same time as AUWRC was setting up groups like the Employment Resource Centre and the Peoples Centres in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a number of other rōpu were actively engaged in similar developments. Some of these initiatives and projects included:
The examples mentioned here are only a small number of the myriad of initiatives and projects which emerged over the late 1980s and early 1990s. Some still exist. Others are long gone, including the Auckland and Wellington Peoples Centres. Many initiatives were much smaller than the ones mentioned above, but were or are just as valuable for the people and kaupapa served.
Government & Community: CED Evolution 1990s - Early 2000s
Some of the Government schemes which supported this flourishing of CED initiatives have been mentioned already but of particular significance was the establishment in 1990 of a new agency within the Department of Labour called the Community Employment Development Unit (CEDU) which was set up with the core purpose of stimulating and nurturing CED in Aotearoa NZ.
In 1991 CEDU became CEG - the Community Employment Group. The role of CEG was to facilitate community-based job creation and training for the unemployed, both through advice and support and through providing funding which could inject some badly-needed capital into the hard-pressed community groups doing this work on the ground.
From the community side, AUWRC was involved alongside a number of other CED practitioners in the formation of COMMACT Aotearoa. COMMACT was the NZ branch of a Commonwealth-wide NGO which worked through the 1990s to learn from CED practice and thinking internationally and to support CED initiatives here.
It carried out its own local projects including a big push for community-owned banking and a pilot social audit project implemented in conjunction with the New Economics Foundation in the UK. The connection with similar groups overseas offered a great opportunity for we isolated New Zealanders to learn from CED practitioners in other parts of the world, and also highlighted some of the barriers we faced compared to our friends internationally. Key among them were:
For example, we began to understand the scale of community-owned and cooperative housing projects in places like the UK, something badly needed here, even back then - but in NZ, there was virtually zero financial or other backing available at the time, from any source. From another angle, on a site visit as part of a CED conference in Northern Ireland in the mid-1990s, several of us from AUWRC were startled to discover that an unemployed workers' organisation in Belfast had just been granted £400,000 from EU funding to buy their own pub, as a means of supporting the work of their group. Such opportunities were beyond our imagining.
The Kea Takes Over
In November 1999 a new Labour-Alliance coalition government came to power. The Green Party entered Parliament for the first time under its own name with a caucus of seven MPs, of whom I was one. Among other portfolios, I took on the role of Green spokesperson for Community Economic Development. I was delighted to be from a Party which believed the sector significant enough to have its own representative. Even though the Greens were not part of the governing coalition, I was full of hope that the time may have come when a NZ government would recognise and support CED initiatives in a truly enabling and supportive way, allowing the sector to flourish.
The first thing we got was the kea. By 1999, new words were sweeping into NZ from overseas to replace our old language of "CED". Concepts like "social enterprise", "social entrepreneurship" and "social innovation" were all the rage as the sector rebranded itself to appeal to business and Government sensibilities. After all, that's where the money was, and the more "business-like" that groups could make themselves, the more user-friendly they became in the brave new world of corporate responsibility.
The Labour government loved this, and called a Social Entrepreneurship Conference in Wellington. The kea was used as the conference symbol for the new world of social entrepreneurship, and some leaders from what had been the CED sector were given Kea awards. I understood this was on the basis that the kea represented the kind of cocky intelligence and curiosity expected of the new wave of social entrepreneurs, never mind the metaphor inherent in the fact that it is also one of our most endangered species.
I attended the conference, alarmed by the difference just a couple of years and an election can make. Suddenly the place our groups had come from had turned into this bright shiny new world, appealing to both Government and corporates with prizes and awards and hero entrepreneurs. All this was underpinned by a new language appealing to corporate folk and to a public service increasingly in thrall to Big Business practices and values.
The Rise And Fall Of CEG
For the first few years under Labour, some good work was undoubtedly done. The Community Employment Group (CEG) continued to exist. In 2002 CEG had 70 staff around NZ and an operating budget of $22.2 million. $19 million of this was available for funding to support "community enterprise". As part of this a new "Social Enterprises" initiative was launched, with an $8.5 million fund on tap for the right kind of project.
A three-year Community Employment Organisations (CEO) programme was introduced. A $750,000 Social Entrepreneurship Fund (SEF) was set up to improve leadership capacity in the sector. Geoff Chapple was the first to receive a grant from the SEF for his work in developing Te Araroa, a brilliant project which has come to play an ever-more important role in NZ's eco-tourism economy.
Yet despite this early flurry of Labour enthusiasm, championed in the main by Minister for Social Services and Employment Steve Maharey, by 2004 the Social Entrepreneurs' Fund had been abolished and in 2005 CEG itself was disestablished. This came on the back of a National Party attack on one particular Social Entrepreneur grant, $26,100 in funding given to two women from Christchurch to travel overseas to learn more about hip-hop. Whatever the pros and cons of this particular initiative, those concerned and their Christchurch project became a political lightning rod, and the whole house of cards came tumbling down.
There were a number of flaws with CEG over the 15 years of its existence, not necessarily of its own making, as naturally they were always subject to the ebb and flow of successive Government policies. From the perspective of the groups with whom I worked, some of our main concerns with CEG were that:
With the demise of CEG, any concept of substantial Government support for CED was firmly put to rest. In the 15 years from 2005-20, no community economic development function like it has ever been returned to Government.
Want To Know More About The History Of CED & Social Enterprise?
In this consideration of the relevance of the concept of community economic development in 2020, I am now going to jump forward to the present day. For those of you with an interest in the detailed history of CED and social enterprise since 1989, I highly recommend "Part Of A Larger Whole: 30 Years Of Social Enterprise Development In Aotearoa NZ", November 2018, published by the Impact Initiative and produced by Billy Matheson for the Social Enterprise Sector Development Programme. Some information in the first paragraphs of the previous section is taken from this source, with thanks.
CED & Climate Justice
I doubt that anyone reading this article will believe that the climate crisis is a myth. We are way past that point. And I hope that readers may also understand the concept of "Climate Justice" - that the impacts of the climate crisis are not and will not be felt equally in NZ and across the planet; that the poor will continue to pay a far higher price for the impacts of climate change than the rich if the capitalist elites and the political parties who support them continue to have their way; and that the struggles for economic, ecological and Tiriti justice must go hand to hand here in Aotearoa.
At this point I would like to acknowledge the student climate strikers of NZ who appear to have incorporated a climate justice perspective into their kaupapa. As I marched with school students and around 150 others through the main street of Kaitaia in September 2019 (an unusually large march for this small town), the chants for climate justice rang out loud and clear.
It gave me hope. If, across age groups and communities, and between Māori and Pākehā and other tauiwi, we can spread the concept of climate justice and demand its realisation, we may have reached a political moment where a number of alternatives and solutions which seem like old hat to some of us older activists may begin to resurface and spread in ways we haven't imagined up till now. I believe the call for a new look at CED and what it can offer for the future is one of these solution-focused pathways.
The climate and all living things on this Earth cannot take ever-increasing growth. Climate destabilisation and species extinction are visibly increasing at rates our minds find hard to comprehend. Capitalism continues its economic and ideological drive to maximise profit at almost any cost. So-called solutions like the Emissions Trading Scheme simply turn the climate crisis into another money-maker for the hyper-wealthy elites, and can produce worse outcomes for people and planet than if such schemes had never existed in the first place.
There are many different strands of a peoples' response to the climate crisis, but taking the economic one in brief, a few of the ways forward include working towards:
There is an imperative to work at all levels when confronting the climate crisis and developing solutions from our own tangata whenua, community and union bases. Creating our own economic organisations within the current system is one way we can make change now, alongside the equally critical responses of direct action, advocacy and mobilisation. This is why I think CED is an old fashioned concept whose time has come again. For more information about climate justice, the Climate Justice Aotearoa website is a useful resource.
What's Happening Now
People haven't just been sitting around over the last 15 years while what I used to call the "CED sector" melded itself into the world of social enterprise and social entrepreneurship. A number of the groups set up in the first era of CED still exist, including the organisation I work for - Kotare Research and Education for Social Change in Aotearoa. Many new groups have sprung up, too, and there are all sorts of activities going on which meet the definition of CED given at the start of this article.
The Climate Justice Aotearoa (CJA) Website lists a number of organisations which CJA considers to be part of the response to the climate crisis under the heading Beautiful Solutions Aotearoa. As far as I'm aware there is no comprehensive list anywhere of initiatives which would meet my criteria for "CED", but I know there are hundreds of such groups, small and large, quietly going about a huge variety of activities in all parts of the country.
The people and groups who make up the Zero Waste Network and the Community Enterprise Network Trust (CENT) deserve a special mention. Nearly a hundred organisations around the country constitute this web of organisations working in their local communities towards Zero Waste, with Kaitaia's CBEC playing a leading role, alongside others.
Survival has been difficult for a number of groups, with councils in recent decades all too often switching to offshore corporate provision of waste management at the expense of local jobs and high quality services. It is a testament to the vision and durability of this network that so many of its member groups continue to survive and thrive (see here for more information).
Over the decades a vast diversity of rōpu Māori, urban and rural, have developed and expanded activities which are collective, not-for-personal-profit and which meet social, job creation and ecological purposes. Māori have always led the way in this world long before Pākehā settlers arrived, and they will continue to do so into whatever future awaits us all.
In the last year a group of CED practitioners in Northland has started to rebuild old networks into a new rōpu called Community Economic Development Network Te Tai Tokerau (CEDNTT). Groups involved include the Kaitaia CBEC, Moerewa's He Iwi Kotahi Tatou Trust, Kotare, Healthy Homes Te Tai Tokerau, the Climate Change Taitokerau Network, Channel North Television, Northland Urban Rural Mission and others. During the 2019 local body elections we wrote an article for local papers in which we challenged candidates to think about ways in which local government could do more to support CED and hapū development in the North, including in relation to the far reaching homelessness crisis here.
We meet regularly in Moerewa, bringing together people who share an active and practical interest in creating and keeping jobs local, and in supporting projects which are both socially and environmentally useful in helping to meet the ecological and economic challenges facing our district. We debate things a lot. We have a variety of perspectives, including on things like the extent to which we can live with or even relish the language of social enterprise and social entrepreneurship.
Grappling with issues at the intersection of te ao Māori and Pākehā-driven projects is another area of exploration. But one thing we are all aware of is that at a time when Governments are failing to deal seriously with the scope and urgency of the crises of climate and poverty, every small effort we make at community level is at least a seed of a different future, one where principles of collectivity, justice and care for Papatūānuku are paramount.
With the best will in the world, CED is only one small strand of the many possibilities and tasks in front of those of us who seek to move beyond neoliberal capitalism, a system which so often feels - and is - impenetrable and all-encompassing in its power. In facing that power and challenging it head on, we need to use all the tools at our disposal, not just some of them. I continue to believe that CED can be one of those tools, as long as we understand that the large scale structures of power must be understood, confronted and transformed as well, and that we don't just sink complacently into off-the-grid localism as the only response.
However, I admit that for younger generations, a term like "CED" may be really offputting, a relic of an earlier generation's struggles and hopes for the future. Wrestling with language and terminology is at the heart of so many of our political discussions these days, as we try to create words that fit with the mood, understanding, realities and urgencies of the third decade of the 21st Century. There are also questions around the extent to which we should expect or hope for Government support for CED initiatives on the ground.
The role of the State is another area of Left debate, or should be. I have always come down on the side of saying that we the people should reclaim the State as ours, and that in a small country like NZ, it would be crazy not to encourage a State role in the essentials of infrastructure like health, education, transport, housing, welfare, energy, conservation (and more) - and that this should include a role in supporting and enabling CED. For those of us who support CED (or whatever we end up calling it) as one of the constructive pathways forward in dangerous times, some of the questions we may like to keep working on include:
A Different Kind Of Possible Future
CED at its best creates and demonstrates a different kind of possible future. Its practice and potential offers hope at a time when many are in despair. It is also about the old notion that ordinary people take power through our practice in our daily lives, not through expecting others to grant us a right to take power.
Where we have the determination and the capacity to build our own economic and ecological bases, from within the smallest rural community to the largest of our cities, we are each of us beginning to take a scrap of that power. It will only be useful if it's also part of working with others to take down and transform the fundamental structures of colonialism, capitalism and patriarchy, but each tiny step on the way, each seed of hope, is worth it.
Sue Bradford can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org