The purpose of this panel is to examine critically the term “community” as it is deployed in contemporary development discourse and practice. The ambition is to deepen our understanding of how communities are imagined, identified, territorialized, and ruled in relation to development agendas. This knowledge is important because, over the past two decades, community has become an indispensable component of efforts to channel development assistance. Most development agencies maintain an explicit commitment to community-based (CBD) and -driven (CDD) development, and community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) now attracts widespread international attention.
Development scholars and practitioners have thus far confronted the many shortcomings of the community-based approach in two ways. First, they have sought to alter the cultural conditions of the target communities, by attempting to change the prevailing mentalities, value structures, institutions, and practices. Second, they have emphasized the need to adapt development policies to the local context, acknowledging the unlikely fit between externally derived institutions and the deeply held norms and values of recipient cultures. They have done little to interrogate the meaning of community, however. The term is used favorably to suggest a culturally and politically homogenous collectivity or administrative area. Such unqualified usage is problematic in that it obscures local structures of power and, more importantly, fails to direct attention towards those who deploy the term and with what objective. The broad aim of the proposed panel is thus to move development studies beyond the uncritical use of the term community.