Subsidiarity: Power, theology and human flourishing

Walker, David, and Ted Vanderloo (2009). "Subsidiarity: Power, theology and human flourishing " Paper presented at the 6th annual conference of the HDCA, 10-12 September 2009, Lima, Peru.

In theories of governance and of development evaluation there are tensions between approaches that stress or imply power is most legitimate when deriving ‘from the bottom up’ and those that emphasise rather the effectiveness and efficiency derives from starting from the macro picture ‘top down’. Of course these are not exclusive approaches; but a kind of ‘complementarity’ or ‘in all things moderation’ compromise between the two often ends up with a de facto legitimation of the existing elite interests and power structures. This paper sets out to review the broad habitat of the newly-popular linkage concept of ‘subsidiarity’. Can it help to deliver practical development outcomes and human flourishing, or is it likely to be a mixed blessing like some of its preceding linkage concepts such as ‘participation’? Participation: Since the 1960s, the answer to this ‘top/down vs. bottom up’ power dilemma has primarily focussed upon the concept of ‘participation’ – involvement of people in their own governance. This territory has been well reviewed. In practice it led to such grand social programs as for example in the USA, the ‘war on poverty’ and ‘The Model Cities Program’; while in the Australia of the 1970s there emerged a plethora of ‘community development officers’ associated with the Australia Assistance Plan. These were grand plans; high on rhetoric and idealism; but low on concrete returns for the most marginalised people involved. How could such good-sounding social theory go so awry in practice? Probably the most famous answer was Arnstein’s 1969 presentation of a ‘ladder of participation’ – which distinguished a series of types or levels of what ‘participation’ could mean in practice (1).
scroll to top