The Underestimated Role of Community Based Agencies

Community-based agencies have gotten short shrift in recent Ontario government reports. Community agencies are almost invisible in  the Roots of Violence and Poverty Reduction Strategy reports.  Yet, they should be central to any policy solution.

Provincial (and national) governments need to make the same adjustment that has been made on international stage over the past decades. Development aid used to be flowed between governments; but from the 1970s onwards, non-government organizations were recognized as being a more capable, effective and responsive means to respond to human need. When given the resources, NGOs are more nimble and able to provide what is needed on the ground. This truism has not been recognized at the local level.

If, as one academic defined it, social disorganization is “the inability of a neighborhood to solve its problems together,” community agencies act as a counterforce to social disorder. In sum, community-based agencies sit at the centre of what creates “good” neighbourhoods and therefore healthier populations. That is they provide

o Common physical space (third place),

o Community services, to meet need, and

o Social networking, and therefore civic engagement, opportunities.

The first element is about the value of community-based organizations in the provision of community space, the evolution of the idea of “third place,” spaces outside private homes and workplaces, where community connections can develop. Community agencies provide this – with no or little fees.  All the Social Determinants of Health debates discuss the importance of social belonging and community connections, fostered through interactions with those around us.

Community agencies are defined, most commonly, through the second element, that is community programs. It also is the source of almost all funding.

However, I want to flag another research vein which has emerged around the third element they contribute.

Some recent research from Harvard Professor Robert Sampson (who co-developed the idea of collective efficacy) is finding:

“that dense social ties, group memberships, and neighborly exchange do not predict a greater propensity for collective action at the community level in the city of Chicago. The density of community nonprofit organizations matters instead [emphasis added], suggesting that declines in many forms of traditional social capital may not be as consequential for civic capacity as commonly thought.”

Community-based organizations are qualitatively different, he argues, in part, because they are tied to the public good more than to private interests (such as those found in resident associations, faith groups or bowling leagues).

See Sampson’s groundbreaking study for more details. Because of the breadth of the analysis and the innovative theory development, this is, if I can be “un-academic” for a minute, such a good study

In 2005, the Strong Neighbourhoods Taskforce grappled with the idea of a “neighbourhood effect” when it identified priority neighbourhoods which had low levels of community infrastructures. This gap analysis made sense at that point, as a counterbalance, because so much of the focus had been on social need. However, Sampson’s research underscores a different understanding of how neighbourhoods work: neighbourhoods with low levels of community infrastructure are the poorer precisely because they lack social service structures. If a lack of community structures results in more isolation and deprivation, any remedy has to involve creating and supporting these same structures.

Support for community-based agencies must be explicit in any policy solution. So, why isn’t it explicit?

Community agencies are being left out because they are seen as a means rather than an end.

That’s a serious underestimation.

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