Thinking Small

The United States and the Lure of Community Development

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Daniel Immerwahr, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2015, 272 pp.

Reviewed by Alex Kris

In Thinking Small, Daniel Immerwahr takes up the daunting task of challenging the firmly entrenched valorization of localism within academic and activist circles. Using three case studies from India, the Philippines, and the United States, he targets localist clichés such as what he calls “Modernization comes to town” stories: lamentations for some viable local social or cultural practice which is flattened out or oversimplified to make it easier for a centralized power structure to administer control over the town. By questioning this narrative, Immerwahr endeavors to deconstruct the reductive binary operation that places large-scale modernization at one pole and small-scale, democratic, community-based development at the other. In essence, his political objective in this book is to demonstrate that, in fact, localism is not a novel idea, and community-building projects have in fact been attempted at the local level, with lackluster results. They usually end up replicating the same forms of oppression and resource deprivation operating at national or international scales.

The first of his case studies addresses the post-war community development project undertaken in India as a collaboration between an American planner and Prime Minister Nehru. This project was founded upon the principle of panchatayi raj: the administration of development by village councils of community leaders, who would manage the aid money they received from the U.S. to facilitate local development projects. While admirable in theory, panchatayi raj depended entirely upon a utopian assumption of complete communal unity and equality, whereby these councils would un-problematically represent the interests of the entire village population. Instead, those identified as “community leaders” were overwhelmingly of the Brahmin caste, and concerned themselves primarily with infrastructural developments that primarily benefited the ruling caste. Immerwahr points out that “conspicuously absent from community council deliberations were any measures that might address some of the structural issues most obviously responsible for the depressed conditions of the lower orders: debt, unequal land tenure, caste, and patriarchy” (10). In other words, by failing to take into account power balances operating at the local level, the American planners prescribed a developmental program for homogenous rural communities that did not exist, and thus failed to effect any large-scale social change.

The second case study Immerwahr offers is much more overtly insidious, illustrating the way in which community-development projects can often play an enabling role in imperialistic schemes. Here, he demonstrates how, again, a Philippine oligarchy with deep connections to the United States used the community-development project as a pretext for strengthening their control over the distribution of resources in rural communities. Barrio-councils of community leaders were comprised of wealthy land-owning elites who pursued initiatives that furthered their particular class interests. In the end, the community-building initiatives took the form of counter-insurgency, orchestrated in part by the C.I.A. as a way of undermining the Hukbalahap peasant rebellion. Immerwahr points out that while the community-development project in the Philippines were ostensibly successful in terms of halting the Huk insurgency, “it did little to alleviate the causes of that attempted revolution. By design, Philippine community development both blocked any effort to redistribute rural power and rendered the barrios more easily accessible from the center” (130). Worse yet, these community-development initiatives were hijacked by Presidential dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the 1960s as a way of consolidating his power-base by using them as a pretext for bribing local community leaders.

In his third case study, Immerwahr focuses on the United States, where, in the 1960s, the U.S. government attempted to apply the communitarian strategies implemented previously in the Global South to the War on Poverty in the form of the Community Action Program. The idea was to fund a governance-from-the-bottom initiative which would allow for community boards comprised of the rank-and-file who would then have a forum to express their concerns and voice their interests. However, once it became clear that those interests were in fact steeped in the radicalism of, for example, the Black Power Movement, the Nixon administration pulled the plug on the program.                                                                                                              

In the epilogue, Immerwahr puts forth the crucial observation that community-based development projects are by definition not up to the task of confronting the larger structural problems and systems of inequality that contribute to the impoverishment of these communities. Local power structures, no matter how democratic they may be, are in no way equipped to deal with global climate change, the unequal distribution of vital material resources on account of their circulation through deregulated international trade networks, and many other large-scale problems associated with neoliberal globalization. Furthermore, the local frame is too narrow to account for “the causal relationship between the wealth of some and the poverty of others” (180).

But questions remain. Immerwahr levels his critique specifically at community development projects funded by state governments or by the World Bank, and his criticisms thereof are sound. However, state- and market-sponsored development projects are not the only means by which to redistribute power within local communities and reduce dependency upon state and market forces. It may be worth considering the viability of truly grassroots community-based organizing, of the sort implemented, for example, by the Black Power Movement. He does in fact consider the Black Panthers in his chapter on the War on Poverty, where he laments that whatever level of self-governance poor communities have acquired has come at the expense of economic apartheid, limiting the access of residents to crucial government program, while capital flight limits the tax revenue these cities can accrue and mobilize toward creating the types of education programs the Black Panthers sought. What he neglects to acknowledge, however, is the extent to which such community-based organizing initiatives have served as models for activists in poor communities today. Community infrastructures such as drug rehabilitation centers and citizen clinics, along with tenement councils and other forms of democratic organization, have opened up possible avenues for reducing dependency upon a system of law enforcement predicated upon the oppression and neglect of the citizens of these areas, and these are indebted to the experimental community-development projects Immerwahr is so eager to dismiss.

Thinking Small demands from students a high level of synthetic thinking both to draw connections between the three case studies and to attend to the issues of geographic, political, and economic scale considered here. It would therefore fit best on syllabi for upper-division undergraduate courses in the fields of history, political science, or international studies that focus on national and community development in a global context. In particular, such courses invested in deploying the “global” as a prism through which to discern the limitations of the “local” will likely benefit most from adding Immerwahr’s text to the syllabus.

Syllabus Based on this Book

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