Community development has been undergoing changes in its practices in response to the neoliberal changes occurring in various welfare contexts (Brenner and Theodore, 2005; Alcock and Craig, 2010; DeFilippis, Fisher and Shragge, 2010). In responding to the heterogeneous characteristics of neoliberalism, researchers have called for empirical studies to unravel the different features of this concept (Leitner et al., 2007; Midgley, 2007; Geddes, 2010), particularly in relation to urban politics (Baines, 2010; Brenner, Peck and Theodore, 2010). This article reports on the findings of a study that documents the changes in community development practices and economic initiatives that have occurred in the Asian productivist welfare regime of Hong Kong (HK). The article also examines the influence of various factors related to the neoliberalization process.
This in-depth analysis of the situation in HK reveals the tensions that have arisen from the effects of the ‘roll back/roll out’ policy measures adopted by the HK government, and from the resistance of some of the community workers and organizations involved. Concomitantly, the study's findings testify to the significance of empirical research for gaining a proper understanding of the diverse forms of neoliberalism. The findings also contribute to the ongoing debates concerning the desirability of state involvement in community economic initiatives in HK and the implications of such practices for the welfare of disadvantaged citizens under the current neoliberalizing regime.
Neoliberalization and its controversies
For the past several decades, neoliberalism has been a dominant force for change in the policies and practices affecting many aspects of society across the world. The study of neoliberalism is a critical area of research, particularly in relation to policy and politics in the urban sector (see Dominelli, 2007; Leitner et al., 2007; Alcock and Craig, 2010; Brenner, Peck and Theodore, 2010). Many studies have investigated the effects of neoliberalism on welfare policies or practices and the implications of these policy changes for disadvantaged groups (e.g. Craig and Taylor, 2002; Jessop, 2002; Engel, 2007; Peck and Tickell, 2007; Blakeley, 2010).
Studies have also emphasized the importance of not ‘casting [neoliberalism] as a monolithic, inevitable and logical response to wider economic conditions’ (Holloway and Pimlott-Wilson 2012: 639) (see also Brenner and Theodore, 2005; Larner and Butler, 2007; Leitner et al., 2007; Peck and Tickell, 2007; Forrest and Hirayama, 2009; Geddes, 2010). These studies have tended to view the multiple forms of neoliberalism as a set of contingent, rapidly developing ideas or policies. Peck and Tickell identified a pathway of evolution in the changing features and crises of neoliberalism in the United Kingdom and the United States. They showed how the ideology has moved away from its origins in the work of ‘a small but highly charged network of maverick political economists operating in exceptionally close physical and political proximity to a centralized and crisis-torn British state’ before the 1970s (Peck and Tickell, 2007: 47). They described how neoliberalism passed through a ‘rolling-back’ phase during the Thatcherite/Reaganist era, and on to its ‘rolling-out’ phase during the Blairite/Clintonist period. The ‘roll-back’ phase refers to the ‘retrenchment of the “normal” (or routine) forms of state intervention associated with the mixed economy and the Keynesian welfare national state’ (Jessop, 2002: 454). This latter phase has focused on the ‘rolling out of new rounds of institutional and discursive practice… which [are] increasingly absorbed by the challenge of managing the contradictions of state-assisted marketisation itself’ (Peck and Tickell, 2007: 34–35). This phase has involved various manoeuvres by states as they seek to support ‘new forms of governance… that are purportedly more suited to a market-driven… globalising economy’ (Jessop, 2002: 454). The variegated forms of neoliberalism reflect the influence of the resultant forces that arise from the specific contexts in question. As the contexts for neoliberalism differ, growing numbers of studies have revealed the significance of path dependency throughout a series of changes (Pierson, 2002; Geddes, 2010). As Peck and Tickell (2007: 35) suggested, ‘there should be no expectation of convergence on a standardised neoliberal “norm”’.
Other studies have taken a governmentality perspective, viewing neoliberalism as a set of strategies for sustaining a neoliberalist subjectivity on the part of individual citizens and maintaining the dominance of neoliberalism in different countries (see Ong, 2006). In such studies, the critical role of the public sector in general and of its specific policy options has been called into question. To enable the various forces involved properly to be identified, Brenner and Theodore (2005) proposed a study of ‘actually existing neoliberalism’ where the empirical study of real cases rather than the theoretical analysis of neoliberalism in general holds the key to developing a proper understanding of neoliberalism in real life. Thus, Larner and Butler (2007: 74) emphasized ‘the need to think of neoliberalism as a situated process and to focus carefully on the specific political formations emerging in particular contexts’. Similarly, Peck and Tickell (2007: 34) proposed that ‘this process should be informed by concrete research on the projects and programmes of actually existing neoliberalism in its multifarious guises’. These studies have often referred to ‘neoliberalisation’ rather than ‘neoliberalism’ as a way to focus attention on a changing social process. ‘Neoliberalisation’ in this context refers to ‘the mobilisation of state power through the contradictory extension and reproduction of market(-like) rule’ (MacLeavy, 2008: 1658).
As neoliberalisation is a social process, its study demands an ‘explor(ation of) the relative power of particular structurally positioned agents of the state in shaping neoliberal policy as it emerges on the ground’ (Holloway and Pimlott-Wilson 2012: 640). Consequently, research has sought to explore the shifting views, value preferences, ideologies and actions taken by agents of the state when making or implementing policy under the influence of neoliberalism, or when seeking to move in the direction of neoliberalization. Some of these studies have shed light on the policy-makers (e.g. Macleavy, 2008; Raco, 2009), others have unravelled the attitudes and actions of policy implementers (e.g. Harrison, 2004; Holloway and Pimlott-Wilson 2012; Putland et al., 2013). As studies on neoliberalism could arguably serve to reinforce the power and dominant position of this ideology, some researchers have called for investigations that question or resist neoliberalism. In studies that take a critical view of neoliberalism; however, the ideology appears to be prevalent and difficult to challenge. In studying the potential for resistance, some researchers have sought to ‘develop a conceptualisation of the reciprocal interdependence of neoliberalisation and contestation’ (Leitner et al., 2007: 2). These researchers have seen merit in examining the limited cases of resistance, as ‘(s)ome of these struggles have enriched the repertoire of workable progressive alternatives’ (Ibid.: 326). Such research can enable those agents and social movements aiming to construct feasible alternatives. In other words, resistance through policy-making and/or implementation, or through motivating state agents in standing against neoliberalizing pressure can enrich the actual policies and practices involved in developing alternative approaches. Such resistance and research can lead to a proper understanding concerning the content and the changing forms of actually existing neoliberalism.
Community development services have undergone substantial changes in the past several decades under the influence of neoliberalization in different contexts. Such change has correlated with the changing forms of urban governance as a consequence of neoliberalization. Alongside the decline of Keynesian welfare states and the emergence of ‘Schumpeterian workfare states’ in many of the developed countries, society has witnessed a ‘hollowing out’ of state processes, or a ‘selective transfer of state capacities upwards, downwards and sideways’ (Jessop, 2002: 454) Such changes have involved developing new forms of the state in general, and particularly in the forms of urban-scale governance. Urban-scale policy has played a significant role in generating economic growth under the neoliberalizing global context, and this objective has underpinned changing forms of urban governance (e.g. Weber, 2002; Lake, 2006; Long, 2013). Jessop (2002) classifies these new forms of governance into four ideal types: neo-liberalist, neo-corporatist, neo-statist and neo-communitarianist forms.
These different forms all share the features of the ‘Schumpeterian workfare state’ in fostering cities as engines of economic growth, centres of innovation of various kinds, and as actors in promoting international competitiveness, each of the four forms nevertheless having its own emphasis. Through policies of various kinds, partnerships have been facilitated with the non-public sectors, including the for-profit private and the non-profit third sectors. These partnerships have fostered a shift towards prioritizing work in welfare provision, or enforcing workfare.
At the same time, such partnerships have emphasized the significance of entrepreneurship or social innovation in economic growth (Jessop, 2002: 459–464). Of particular interest in this study is the increasing emphasis on the contributions of the community sector, which is one essential component of the third sector in providing economic development and welfare support for disadvantaged groups. The fourth type of urban governance, the neo-communitarianist form, focuses heavily on an enlivened role for ‘the community’ in stimulating the economy. Determining whether these ideal types of governance facilitate sharper analysis of the neoliberalized world is beyond the scope of this study. However, the recent prevalence of policies and programmes aimed at sustaining community development and/or self-reliance of various kinds in different developed countries testifies to the significant role played by the community as a ‘partner’ in urban governance.
Reliance upon the development of entrepreneurial skills and capacities for strengthening the competitiveness of cities is another key feature shared among many urban administrators (Oakley and Verity, 2003; Laurila, 2004; DeFilippis, Fisher and Shragge, 2010; Pollack and Rossiter, 2010; Abu-Saifan, 2012). In focusing upon the community sector, one of the policy measures actively promoted in the past decade has been the development of various social enterprises to support disadvantaged groups (Gray, Healy and Crofts, 2003; Chell, 2007; Defourny and Nyssens, 2010). Even though various kinds of similar practices have been attempted in the past by some disadvantaged groups and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), it was the recent promotional policy measures that have rendered social enterprise a hot topic in the welfare sector and among community groups (Lyon and Sepulveda, 2009; Defourny and Kim, 2011; Luke and Chu, 2013). Such policy measures exhibit the characteristics of ‘market-testing’, ‘experimentation’, ‘pragmatism’ and ‘incrementalism’ (Peck and Tickell, 2007: 47–48). Such measures have had the significant effect of normalizing market and entrepreneurial activities within the welfare sector (Gray, Healy and Crofts, 2003). This shift is particularly evident in the cities and countries in East Asia, where there is still no proper legal definition of ‘social enterprise’, despite the fact that a social enterprise policy has already been implemented in many of them (Defourny and Kim, 2011), HK and China being amongst the most outstanding examples. Even in the West, the meaning of social enterprise has differed, especially between the European countries and the USA. As Kerlin (2006: 250) explains, ‘in Europe, with the exception of the United Kingdom, social enterprise has generally come to mean a social cooperative or association formed to provide employment or specific care services in a participatory framework. In the United States, it generally means any type of non-profit involved in earned income generation activities’. Furthermore, the European definition of social enterprise attends more to the social rights aspect and emphasizes the active role of the state in supporting the endeavour. The US definition places less emphasis on the involvement of the state and more on the pursuit of individual entrepreneurial skills as the key to success (Defourny and Nyssens, 2010).
This study has adopted the working definition of social enterprise used in a recent paper covering social enterprise in HK (Chan, Kuan and Wang, 2011). Specifically, social enterprise is ‘defined by its adoption of an entrepreneurial and business approach with a view to achieving social missions rather than purely economic objectives. Particularly noteworthy are the facts that the notion of social enterprise usually refers … to commercial entities or activities set up by N(G)Os’ (Ibid.: 34). In following a call for studies on resistance to state agents, the present study considers the ways that policy implementers respond to and/or resist policy measures. The study therefore contributes to a proper understanding of the practice of social enterprise in action and of the changing forms taken by actually existing neoliberalism.
As a whole, we follow a process perspective and focus on the views or actions of state agents. More specifically we focus on the community workers within the community development services, who illustrate some of the prevalent practices attempted under different forms of urban governance, in response to the neoliberalization of community development services and the recent promotion of social enterprise within those services. In answering a call for exploring resistance by state agents, this study attends to the actions and/or resistance of policy implementers, so as to demonstrate how the neoliberalization of one type of welfare policy can cause unintended changes to the practices of workers in the community development service, especially under a productivist welfare regime such as that of HK, which is an actually existing neoliberalist government. This study's approach also demonstrates that the resultant outcomes of policy should be empirically studied rather than theoretically determined in an a priori manner.
HK as a productivist welfare regime
HK has been undergoing economic globalization, with its economy restructured from export-oriented manufacturing to service-dominated enterprise over the past two decades (Chiu, Ho and Lui, 1997; Fung, 2014a). This process has testified to the government's de facto support for the financial and commercial complex and its associated neglect of the manufacturing industries (Chiu, 1994). Continual inflows of the foreign direct investment to the finance and producer service sectors have reinforced the dominance of the financial sector and established HK as the regional finance centre. Real estate, trade, finance and tourism have become the four main sectors of the economy (Enright et al., 1999). This economy is renowned for its domination by giant corporations in most sectors (Castells, Goh and Kwok, 1990). The giant developers in the real estate industry and the huge commercial banks are the key powers.
These corporations maintain close relationships with the government, and state-business relations have mediated the deindustrialization process (Chiu, Ho and Lui, 1997).
Following the end of the colonial era in 1997, an executive-led government has been constituted by the Basic Law under the reign of China. The state's executive is chosen by an elite group of 1200 electors, in which major business interests are overrepresented. The legislative council operates under an electoral arrangement through which the interests of businesses and professionals are protected. The prevalence of neo-liberalist ideology within the government and amongst middle-class citizens is evident. Under such a political-economic configuration, the HK government has developed the characteristics of a productivist welfare regime.
These characteristics (Tang, 2000; Holliday, 2002) can be summarized in several ways. The colonial and SAR1 governments have both placed a high priority on economic growth as the main mechanism for improving citizens’ welfare. The social policy provisions concerning health, housing, education, personal social services (which are known as the ‘social welfare services’) and the social security system are predominantly evaluated according to their productive functions, or their contributions to economic growth. Programmes for health, education and housing are regarded as facilitating economic growth through improving the quality of labour, and in turn contributing to a more productive workforce (Tang, 2000). These programmes receive remarkably higher levels of public resources than welfare programmes such as personal social services and social security (which mainly serve those who are unemployed), even though the latter sustain social stability and help to legitimize the government (Gough and Wood, 2004). Overall, members of the middle-class rather than disadvantaged groups have been receiving higher levels of public resources. Meanwhile, the government presumes that the institution of the family should shoulder the responsibility of caretaking for the young, the old, the disabled and the disadvantaged. The SAR government has inherited the orientation of the colonial government towards the role to be played by ‘the community’: ‘[The] (Social welfare) objective cannot be achieved without the support from the community through the establishment of networks of informal care and support provided by families, friends and neighbours’ (HK Social Welfare Department, 1991: para. 19).
By emphasizing the capacity of the community to meet the needs of its members in the design of welfare services, the government has actively made use of the caring capacity of the community, in addition to that of the family institution. It has done this as a justification for and a supplement to its policy of minimal personal social service provision.
Neoliberalization of personal social services
Since 2000, the SAR government has followed ‘new public management’ principles (Lynn, 2006) and initiated a series of reforms in social welfare services that have served a neoliberalist agenda. One of these reforms has involved a proposed restructuring of the community services and of the integrated family service centres. After the 2003 interim review of the Integrated Family Service Centres, the Social Welfare Department (SWD) proposed to merge the centres for community development services with the centres for family services. The reasons given for this integration were to make more efficient use of public resources and to rationalize the modes of service delivery. Another measure of concern was the introduction of a bidding system for the allocation of funds to new services.
Traditionally, most HK social welfare services have been implemented by NGOs with government subvention. Public resources, which accounted for around 70 percent (on average) of the annual budget of the SWD, covered the staff and programme expenses incurred in service delivery (Lee, 2012; SWD, Various years). Before the proposed reform, the allocation of public resources for social welfare services mainly followed the standard unit cost model, which was input-oriented and historically based. The staff costs were financed on a par with civil servants of equivalent grades, and the programme expenses were subvented according to the input and the items utilized for the programmes (the costs of which were calculated on a historical cost basis, Fung, 2014b). The new financing mode involved a lump sum grant system and welfare bidding. The lump grant system involved a block grant for NGOs that covered staffing, equipment and general expenses. NGOs possessed full autonomy in utilizing their lump sum grants. In the welfare bidding system, funding support for new service development was to be allocated through a competitive bidding process. The objectives of the new financing model reflected the principles of ‘new public administration’ (Hood, 1995) for shifting from input to output control through performance monitoring and business management practices, and by emphasizing competition through the newly developed competitive bidding system (Lee, 2012; Fung, 2014b).
Since this reform, various studies have criticized the inadequacy of the funding support to NGOs, as the new system has failed to keep up with the growth of social needs and the substantial social changes that have accompanied the deindustrialization and globalization processes (Lee, 2005; Chan, 2012). The continued organizational development of the NGOs has depended on their success in winning contracts through the competitive bidding system. A study done by the present author (Fung, 2014b) showed that under the bidding mechanism, several NGOs were deeply concerned to avoid jeopardizing their relationship with government, as they described the system as highly non-transparent in its operations.
Last but not least, welfare restructuring has involved an emphasis on entrepreneurship within the social welfare sector during the past decade. There is therefore a trend towards utilizing independent short-term funds for financing new welfare initiatives, which is arguably a further means to contain the institutional growth of the welfare sector (Fung, 2014a). Examples of funds include the ‘Community Investment and Inclusion Fund’ and the ‘Partnership Fund’. Concomitant with the surge of unemployment figures and the decline in economic growth, the government has actively promoted community mutual help through setting up ‘social enterprises’ with support from these funds. Critics have pointed out that despite these endeavours by the government, there has been neither a legal definition of ‘social enterprise’ nor sufficient resources for sustaining its development (see Chan, Kuan and Wang, 2011; Wen and Chong, 2014). Other than the rhetoric of promotion, the main public support has been simple provision of seed money through the Community Investment and Inclusion Fund and the Partnership Fund. Moreover, the policy requires success in the bidding exercise before any initiatives can be attempted. The government's claim to play an active role in the promotion of social enterprises has been challenged by several studies of social enterprises in East Asia (e.g. Defourny and Kim, 2011; Chan, Kuan and Wang, 2011; Lee, 2012). The SAR government's emphasis on projects for developing entrepreneurial skills, which resembles the US-style approach (see Chan, Kuan and Wang, 2011; Defourny and Kim, 2011) is another characteristic of the HK social enterprise programme. This US-style approach regards a limited role of government financial support as the defining feature of social enterprise.
These various restructuring measures within the social welfare sector reveal that the government has moved to contain the expansion of welfare provision, to prioritize cost efficiency over service effectiveness, to extend the application of output-based/business accounting and of competition/market-oriented principles of finance, and to instil entrepreneurship in its mode of service development for disadvantaged communities. These kinds of neoliberalist reforms exhibit both the containment of welfare expenses (or ‘roll back’) and the extension of market-related principles and practices (or ‘roll out’). The developments described above confirm previous findings that neoliberalization can involve both roll back and roll out, either concomitantly or in a contingent manner, and that such policies can be applied in countries other than the United States and the United Kingdom (e.g. Spain and Germany: see Holm, 2006; Engel, 2007). The present study indicates that the neoliberalizing reforms of the SAR government have generated a range of significant changes to HK's community development services.
Community development services in HK
The term ‘mainstream community development services’ in HK refers to standalone service programmes that operate alongside other social welfare service programmes funded by government. Their target is the entire community, usually defined in a geographical sense. Since the 1980s, community development services in HK have consisted mainly of Neighbourhood Level Community Development Projects (NLCDPs) and Community Centres (CCs). NGOs employ separate teams of social workers to deliver these services. The subvention of these programmes has fallen under the ambit of the City and New Territories Administration Department during the colonial era, and under the Home Affairs Bureau in the SAR era.
These community programmes serve to facilitate the administration of HK through enhancing communication between the government and the citizens (www.hab.gov.hk). However, the management of these programmes has been the domain of the SWD during both the colonial and SAR eras. The manifest objectives of these community development service programmes are to build community strength, promote mutual help, encourage community cohesion and participation, and to serve the needs of disadvantaged groups (Home Affairs Bureau, 2005).
Despite being funded by the government with an official goal of facilitating communication between citizens and government in an undemocratic context, the actual implementation of these services has involved the adoption of a conflict approach by community service workers (Mok and Kam, 1994). Such approach resembled the social action (Rothman, Erlich and Tropman, 2001) or the confrontational strategy of Alinsky (1972). Despite their differences, community workers share the goal of empowering community members, and they have used a conflict approach to foster policy changes since the 1980s, which explains the popularity of protest actions during the colonial era (Wong, 1989). Wong investigated and explained the resource allocation process in filtering the government's control, as resources are given to the NGOs that deliver social programmes. Although the government may not agree with the conflict approach adopted by specific teams, it lacks the mechanisms to regulate the projects/centres. This system has therefore provided a facilitative institutional framework for the continued proliferation of the conflict approach to community empowerment.
Through the late 1990s and early 2000s, the government's attempts to terminate the NLCDPs and transform the CC programmes met with large-scale mobilization of community workers, service recipients and academics in tertiary social work training institutes. These groups have succeeded in keeping the thirteen CCs operating up to the present day. As for the NLCDPs, the total number of projects reduced from its prime of fifty-four projects in 1995 to the recent sixteen projects, which mainly serve the rural communities. Under the new welfare finance mode, the CCs and NLCDPs have increasingly depended on successful bidding for additional funding to support their organizational/service development (Tsui, Lee and Chui, 2013; Fung, 2014b). Concomitantly, various government departments and the Urban Renewal Association (which is a quasi-governmental organization in charge of redevelopment of the urban core), have subsidized projects to ease their policy/service implementation process through reaching out to the communities. The funding departments and the Urban Renewal Association have been accused of being highly regulative towards the service provision delivered by project workers (Fung and Wong, 2014).
The research for the present study involved qualitative methods, and it was conducted during the second half of 2014 (Wong and Fung, 2014). The study aimed at exploring factors affecting the decisions made by mainstream community development services in HK in terms of their service planning and implementation. The investigation consisted of in-depth interviews with community workers and secondary data analysis of the projects’ web pages, reports and publications. By means of purposive sampling based upon the membership of the Community Development Network organized by the HK Council of Social Services (which is an umbrella social welfare organisation), fifteen projects of the CCs and NLCDPs were selected to cover a diversity of services for various target groups that had a range of sources of funding. The interviews captured the views of social workers who work for these mainstream or formal community development services.
Findings of the study
Of the fifteen projects investigated, eight were CCs and seven were NLCDPs. Two projects from among the eight CCs were supported by short-term funding, and the other six projects received regular funding support from the Home Affairs Bureau. The service targets of both the subvented and non-subvented projects included settled residents living in old urban areas, new immigrants and ethnic minorities. For the projects under the NLCDPs, two of the seven projects were sustained through short-term funding. The service targets of both the CC and NLCDP projects were similar. They included residents in areas under urban renewal/redevelopment and people in rural districts. The characteristics of the services delivered are shown in Table 1.
aC is a community centre; P is an NLCDP.
bS is subvented by regular funding; F indicates short-term funding by sources other than subvention administered by the SWD.
Consensus approach and the prevalence of services provision
In the interviews, the interviewees noted an increasing prevalence of direct service provision for services. The services most commonly offered were social recreational (8/8 centres, 7/7 projects), educational (8/8 centres, 7/7 projects) or volunteer development programmes (4/8 centres, 6/7 projects). Community economic initiatives, which have conventionally involved facilitating mutual help in the communities, were also offered by most service teams (7/8 centres, 6/7 projects). Individual counselling services were provided by both CCs (5/8) and NLCDPs (7/7). Such counselling services were rare in the 1990s and earlier, as counselling and family support services used to be considered remedial, and were central to conventional social work rather than community development services.
Concerning community organizing work, which mainly involved a conflict approach during the 1990s, relatively few service teams (4/8 centres, 4/7 projects) were involved in the organizing activity during the period of this study. On the whole, this study found evidence of the increasing popularity of direct services provision, which mainly involves a consensual approach and facilitation of community mutual help.
Diversifying the identities of practitioners
A further analysis of the reasons provided by interviewees for their choices of work strategies revealed their differential conceptions of community development work. In general, the participants could be broadly classified into two groups – those who regarded community organising as essential (the conflict approach group), and those who emphasized providing services and bridging the gaps between needy groups and community resources (the consensus approach group).
The consensus group consisted of seven projects. Their service delivery teams adopted a mainly consensus approach, and they usually provided social, recreational and educational programmes. The view expressed by a social worker in Project 4 was typical: ‘If I can help, I will. If I cannot, I will refer (them) to other service organisations that can offer help. This is actually what all community centres typically do’. These workers embraced the identity of ‘conventional social workers’, as was reflected in the views of a worker in Project 2: ‘(A)ctually these are what social workers do. Through group and case … and delivering programmes … these are the three typical intervention methods. Of course, case work is the least as it is not the core work of community centres’. This study revealed that an increasing number of community workers had taken on a social worker identity, which accounted partly for their adoption of a mainly consensual approach.
The conflict approach group consisted of eight projects. The typical understanding adopted by most interviewees in these projects was similar to that expressed by an interviewee from Project 14: ‘Our major services are of different kinds and organising work must be included. As everyone knows, community development must take organising work as its top priority’. The adoption of a ‘community worker identity’ was notable in this group, as a social worker from Project 14 emphasized: ‘Well, we are all CD guys. The whole team consists of CD guys, and we have an action coalition’. In this group, the conflict approach was treated as ‘conventional’ for workers in community development services. The findings of this study further revealed that these workers usually used the concept of ‘grassroots’ in addressing their service users, and they frequently emphasized the service users’ lack of power. The view of an interviewee from Project 8 was typical: ‘The grassroots lacks power to determine their welfare or fight against oppression’. These service workers were aware of the critical role of fighting against the government in furthering the interests of the ‘grassroots’. This idea of ‘grassroots’ resembled the term ‘have-nots’ as coined by Alinsky (1972), even though the participant community workers did not mention that concept.
Fewer incidents of social action
Further analysis of the responses of the conflict approach group revealed the diminishing number of incidents of social action in recent years. Thus, a social worker in Project 12 pointed out: ‘When I review the past 15 years, my impression is that in the past, residents felt like fighting for their rights more’. A Project 5 worker suggested, ‘(t)here are recently no longer those CD workers adopting a conflict approach’. The Project 8 interviewee made a similar observation: ‘The use of this kind of strategies [conflict approach] is less [frequent] in recent years’. The decrease in incidents of social action in recent years was well attested.
Coalition forming has been the most commonly adopted strategy by social movements since the 1990s (Ma, 2009). This approach helps to consolidate opinions and tactics amongst the participants of social movements. The service teams that had adopted a conflict approach (four CCs and four NLCDPs) described the significance of coalition forming in their facilitation of social action. The view expressed by the interviewee from Project 1 was representative: ‘If only our residents fight for changes, the whole issue cannot be raised to a higher level [of societal concern]. … [Through coalition] we can join with more participants, academics or residents from different communities’. Nevertheless, these workers also highlighted the diminishing number of coalitions and social actions involving coalitions in recent years. The observation of a Project 12 member echoed those of several others: ‘(i)n recent few years, … we experienced great difference from the past. We find it difficult to initiate coalition activities’.
Regarding the current conditions of serious income inequality, several interviewees highlighted the difficulties that constrain local residents from participating in social actions (three out of fifteen CCs and NLCDPs). Of those participants who mentioned such constraints on participation, all of them highlighted the adverse effect of long working hours as the major obstacle.
Of the consensus approach group, there were four projects that relied mainly on short-term funding, and were therefore described as ‘funded projects’. As one interviewee explained, ‘Our funding is all project-based. It means that we have to solicit funding to keep a staff member here and get another project funded to keep one more colleague there’ (Project 3). Concern to avoid jeopardizing their relations with the funders limited these workers’ choices of programmes and strategies. This situation was reflected in comments by the social worker from Project 9: ‘(R)esidents know that they can find social workers to help them get a housing unit … if we estimate that they probably can't get it … We shall only pass their information to the relevant institution (the funder) and hope that it accepts our view without pushing much’. The interviewee from Project 10, which was funded long-term and shared a community worker identity, reported an incident in which the project team helped residents to protest against the government, and this activity was known by the government officials. This interviewee speculated, ‘(M)aybe we have already been blacklisted by the government. It might explain why we always lost in bidding for new social service projects’. Both the individual projects/centres and the organizations they belong to have to rely on bidding, which poses greater constraints on their use of the conflict approach.
Thus, the effects of growing social inequality constrain the participation of disadvantaged communities in social action. The continual marginalization of the community development field, the increasing reliance on additional funding for organizational development and the adoption of bidding for the allocation of welfare service resources all have arguably led to a passive tendency of submitting to the preferences of funders and of the government, which is the source of most major funding.
Community economic initiatives and social enterprises
Further analysis of the community economic initiatives exposed a pattern in which the discourse of ‘social enterprise’ was adopted by the majority of the service agencies delivering community economic services (7/7 centres, 6/6 projects). This trend was particularly interesting, as the term ‘community economic development’ was prevalent in the 1990s. This shift in terms was explained by the interviewee from Project 5: ‘We have been calling it ‘community economic development’ before. … yes, in the 1990s. But now many people call these kinds of activities as social enterprise’.
Also, the modes of practice in community initiatives have diversified into three types. The first type resembles the European mode of social enterprise (see Defourny and Nyssaan, 2010) which emphasizes empowerment, democratic participation and development of collective support among the disadvantaged communities and service users. The participant from Project 5 said, ‘(T)hey (the government) call it social enterprise. We applied for funding and followed their requirement … However, we will continue to focus on empowerment of members, facilitating their democratic participation even though it may cost us a lot’.
The second type of practice exhibits traces of the US-style model (Ibid.) in that it stresses the significance of good entrepreneurial strategies and tactics for service delivery, and the importance of non-reliance on the government for funding. A worker in Project 6 emphasized, ‘The key to success in social entrepreneurial activities is to innovate … Finding ways to earn resources, and (most important of all) not relying on government for money, is critical. If we continue our reliance, it is not social enterprise at all’.
The third type of practice takes the new process of bidding for additional public resources as no different from conventional service delivery. Practitioners of this third approach actually have no clear understanding what is meant by ‘social enterprise’. The expression of one such worker was typical: ‘I have no idea what social enterprise really means. … It is just another source of resources for the grassroots. Recently, we stopped the activities because we failed to win the money. Our project will continue to use it’ (Project 12).
Of these three modes of practice, it was the US-style approach that prevailed in the majority of programmes surveyed in this study (four centres and two projects). The European approach, which was the conventional approach in the 1990s when community economic initiatives were developing, was now practised by a minority of programmes (three centres). The US-style approach actually echoes the perspective of social enterprise as promoted by the government. The role of the government has been critical in promoting the US-style approach to social enterprise (Chan, Kuan and Wang, 2011). Furthermore, the group of projects taking the US-style approach consisted mainly of those that emphasized consensus building. Their social worker identities were arguably more receptive to the views of the government, and these groups of workers tended to accept that social enterprise should not count on the government for continual resource support. This view might account for the phenomenon of workers within the community development field advocating for community mutual help and self-reliance. This argument was rarely heard in the 1990s.
The projects that followed the European-style or the conventional service delivery modes of practice were both supporters of the conflict approach. Their responses could be regarded as representing their modes of contestation and/or resistance towards the influence of the government. Specifically, the European-style group stuck to their principles of collective empowerment, and the conventional service delivery group adopted a pragmatic attitude towards mobilizing resources from the government for services to the grassroots. Thus, the increasing hardship of the disadvantaged communities has laid the foundation for the popularity of community economic initiatives in the community development field.
The domination of the US-style approach to social enterprise has been driven by active promotion on the part of the government. Such an approach involves facilitating the disadvantaged communities to mobilize resources from within their communities, rather than from external public resources. Even though the actual effect of this approach is yet to be ascertained, it could have the effect of facilitating horizontal redistribution among disadvantaged communities (DeFilippis, Fisher and Shragge, 2010). For the conflict approach workers, their differing strategies of resistance could have the potential for mobilizing resources from the public sector (the third approach) and of sustaining the collective empowerment of disadvantaged groups through developing resources from both within and outside the communities. However, the effects of these efforts are also yet to be explored. The difficulties reported by all of this study's interviewees testified to their pessimism regarding the future.
Discussion and conclusion
In following a productivist welfare regime, the HK governments of the colonial and SAR eras have been practicing a neoliberalist approach to welfare services, which has weakened the contribution of community development services for improving the welfare of disadvantaged communities. The welfare restructuring process since 2000 has further prioritized efficiency over social needs, and has incorporated market principles and entrepreneurial practices within the welfare sector. These entrepreneurial practices have facilitated a rising influence of the US-style approach to social enterprise. These reforms have resulted in the diversification of community development services, as this study has shown. The increase of direct service provision, the adoption of a consensus approach by workers and agencies, the decline of social action incidents and of action coalitions, the diversification of the identities of social workers, the decline in workers who maintain a community workers’ identity, the spread of discourse on ‘social enterprise’ – all of these trends indicate a growing domination of the US-style approach among the agencies attempting to provide community economic initiatives. These trends in turn point to a further weakening in the capacity of community development workers to improve the welfare of disadvantaged communities through a conflict approach for collective empowerment. This is the current situation of formal community development services in HK.
Nevertheless, there is still a substantial group of community workers ***(9/15 in this study) who adhere to the conventional community worker identity. These workers continue to adopt social action for change, to practise resistance and to take a conflict approach in their community economic initiatives. Within the community development field, one can ascertain the persistence of practices that uphold the collective empowerment of disadvantaged groups.
In the future, the outcomes of service delivery for disadvantaged communities will continue to depend on the actions and/or resistance taken by the differentiated community of workers and NGOs.
In addition, this study testifies to the significance of concrete research on the state of actually existing neoliberalism. The case of HK community development services provides a concrete example that can help in building a proper understanding of the effects of neoliberalist change. The various practices described in this study are not theoretically derived consequences of a neoliberalist welfare restructuring agenda, but the results of actual practices done by the community service agents concerned, as revealed through concrete study. Furthermore, these practices, which are components of the community development services but often at odds with the neoliberalist direction of change, illustrate the diversity of real-life neoliberalist policies and of community development services as currently practised.