KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Lack of citizen participation, poor government agency cooperation and conflicting goals hinder the nation’s best community-help program, a University of Tennessee-Knoxville sociologist said Friday.
Dr. John Gaventa said the new federal approach is better than past anti-poverty plans because it invites poor community groups — not just government officials — to assess their own problems and form an improvement plan.
In December 1994, the program chose 12 rural and urban empowerment zones and 98 enterprise communities to receive federal money to spur small business, investments and other economic incentives.
The program “recognizes community development as a holistic process that links economic opportunity, community revitalization, environmental sustainability and citizen participation,” Gaventa said. Linking all these factors, however, has caused problems, he said.
“Getting resources from the federal government to a small, impoverished community — to the people most affected — is difficult because there are so many different federal and state agencies involved,” Gaventa said. “The strength of the program in trying to coordinate things and make it comprehensive also makes it difficult.”
Gaventa heads a federal project at UT to assess 10 rural empowerment and enterprise areas. He assesses the program in the current issue of Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy, a journal published by UT and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Gaventa says problems include:
* Rapid turnover of agency personnel, lack of prior working relationships between agencies, conflicting ideas for implementing plans dispersing funds — affecting interagency cooperation.
* Long delays between application deadlines, final selection of communities and implementation of plans — eroding citizen interest.
* Strategies aimed at one goal competing with other goals. In the Kentucky Highlands empowerment zone, for example, job creation conflicted with environmental sustainability goals.
Despite problems, Gaventa said, the program is valuable.
“This is one of the most positive initiatives to come out of Washington in some time,” Gaventa said. “Many communities that applied for grants but were not chosen found the project’s strategic planning requirements were a valuable exercise.
“It will take years before the empowerment zone-enterprise community program can be deemed a success or failure. In the meantime, we will continue to learn valuable lessons from the process.”
Contact: Dr. John Gaventa(423-974-7020)