Grass-roots organizations in Cities
More than half the world’s populations now live in urban areas. Urban geography, which we can simply define as a study of places where there is a higher concentration of buildings, infrastructure, and economic activity, coupled with a high population density, uses the science of geography how to develop or how not develop an area and so is important in planning for the development of urban areas. With the sharp rise in the world population, the widespread demand for more work and better services in the urban areas has become more urgent.
Governments have been challenged to resolve urban processes with regards to more opportunities for work and higher income in the face of rising inflation rates. The theme of governance has emerged with economic, political, cultural and institutional transformations over the years. Related to this is the question on the plurality of hierarchic organizational structures and centralized decision-making processes of government as against the issue of local economic development and policies for urban development. This has been associated with a questioning of the status of government bodies as well as the importance of civil society.
What is the role of civil society in this juncture? Since the industrial revolution and the era of mechanized production, more and more people from the rural areas have been on an exodus to the cities, after being displaced from their farmlands due to an encroaching urban area and in order to find better-paying jobs. With world population almost reaching 7 billion , better plans and alternatives for alleviating the scourge of poverty in this modern world is a challenge that is taken on daily by governments, international organizations and also civil society by means of grassroots organizations.
Numerous grassroots organizations are organized and fold-up in a year. Hundreds of organizations exist worldwide, from simple concerns for a specific state like the Alabama Black Bear Alliance to more complex ones as the Polaris Project – a grassroots organization aimed at combating human trafficking and modern-day slavery all over the world. The Cambridge Dictionary defines grassroots as the ordinary people in a society or an organization.
Billions of dollars are siphoned yearly into grassroots organizations worldwide by funding entities like the United Nations, for example, which seeks to achieve “significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers by 2020. ” How effective are grassroots organizations in a modern city? Made up of ordinary people who, by themselves have no real power in society, these organizations are dependent on benefactors and funding agencies for the projects outlined for delivering them from unemployment and poverty. In the 1990’s, for example, grassroots organizations were receiving close to four billion dollars worldwide.
Many people endorse grassroots organizations as an alternative to government. With this view, grassroots organizations can limit the growth of the state, provide flexible services without the constraints of government regulations and oversight, and devise solutions to public problems that do not require government intervention. This results then in avoiding the hierarchic organizational processes that are a burden to ordinary people. The broad, bipartisan appeal of grassroots organizations to help solve urban problems and improve the governance of urban institutions is apparent in many contemporary urban policy and program initiatives.
Notable examples include: the Atlanta Project designed to revitalize distressed parts of the city to community development corporations (CDCs) to foster economic development and build low-income housing; the federally sponsored Enterprise Zones which rely heavily upon nonprofit organizations at the local level; the support for greater reliance on faith-based organizations to provide public services; the growth of community partnerships and coalitions to solve a variety of problems facing urban America; and the restructuring of decision making in urban communities to incorporate a greater role for neighborhood associations and groups in the planning and oversight of municipal services.
However, where do these organizations get the funding needed for their various projects? Most of the funding actually comes from government contracts or foundation grants, which may take them away from their community roots and connections. Many grassroots organizations face an extremely nettlesome dilemma: they can remain faithful to their historical mission at a risk of financial instability, downsizing and even closure, or they can pursue new government contracts and foundation grants that have an agenda which is different from the organization. One of the foremost examples of this dilemma is the CDEDs (corporations de developpement economique communautaire) of Montreal.
In the 1980’s, these CDED’s contributed a lot to the learning process in social, technical, cultural and institutional terms. These organizations entered the international arena to negotiate support for their projects. At the same time, they remained outside these institutions, maintaining and strengthening relationships with the community organizations in urban neighborhoods where they were active. But by the 1990’s, because these CDED’s achieved success in facing the problems of unemployment and poverty, the state decided to utilize existing and create new CDED’s as local development players in Montreal, essentially making them government organizations.
A broad range of citizens and policymakers regard grassroots organizations as critical to fostering citizen participation, grass-roots democracy, and effective urban governance and services, like the experience of the “Healthy Cities” movement that has been supported by the National Civic League, based in Denver. In the book, To Empower People by Peter Berger and Richard Neuhaus (1977), community organizations and neighborhoods were mediating institutions in between the state and the individual promoting diversity, pluralism and individual freedom, and can be forms of mutual self-help that provide more effective solutions to social problems and avoid the problems attendant to a professionalized bureaucracy. But there is a dark side to this development.
These organizations are being used as a new type of politics fostering decentralization and privatization, reflected in the growth of coalitional governance with grassroots organizations entering into public-private partnerships or the participation of a wide array of public and private individuals in coalitions such as BUILD or New Detroit. The trend of government to delegate public responsibilities to grassroots organizations now has negative distributional consequences on the disadvantaged and further undermines public accountability and control. They provide limited services to narrow groups of communities and are not accountable to the people since they are private entities. Sadly, this fosters a government unwilling to take responsibility for the people it has sworn to lead and take care of.
If at first, grassroots organizations are effective in serving the people, in the long run it will be ineffective in serving the disadvantaged and powerless in society since government and large firms, which will be providing funding and projects, will be the one to whom these organizations will be beholden.
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