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date: 23 February 2017

Community Development in Taiwan

Abstract and Keywords

The United Nations has long promoted community development as a way to improve people’s livelihoods and beautify the environment, and the concept was adopted as the main approach to social work in Taiwan between the 1960s and the 1980s. However, the government took a top-down directive approach and violated the principle of community participation, focusing more on physical construction than on human development. With the lifting of martial law in 1987 Taiwanese society has gradually moved in the direction of democracy, providing fertile ground for the concept of community building to take root, a development that will, in time, lead to the displacement of the term community development.

Keywords: community development, community building, directive approach, community empowerment, Taiwan


When the Republic of China (ROC) promulgated its “Social Policy for People’s Livelihood” in 1965, which incorporated the idea of “social progress through community development” promoted by the United Nations (UN), community development became the primary approach to social work in Taiwan. Along with many other developing nations around the world, Taiwan adopted the community development model as the main means for improving the quality of life.

The History of Community Development in Taiwan

Based on the principle of enhancing public welfare by assisting the poor living in one’s own neighborhood, settlement houses (often called “neighborhood houses” in the United States) provide such services as counseling, vocational assistance, midwifery, lodging, childcare, medical care, and education. The settlement movement originated in the United Kingdom in the late 19th century, and it soon spread to other parts of the world, including Japan and Taiwan. During the 1930s settlement houses were established in six additional locations in Taiwan: Jiayi (1934), Taizhong (1936), Dongshi (1937), Zhanghua (1937), Fengyuan (1937), and Qingshui (1937).

The Human Hall, a settlement house established in Tataocheng (modern Taipei) in 1916 by the Japanese social activist Inagaki Tōbei (1892–1955), was probably the first modern community-services organization in Taiwan. Modeled on the Kingsley Hall settlement house founded in Tokyo in 1897 by the Japanese socialist Katayama Sen (1859–1933), the Human Hall provided food to the indigent. It was divided into community services and children’s services. The ancillary Toko Technical School provided schooling for poor children, mainly Taiwanese who were unable to attend public school.

During the Japanese colonial period social services were also provided by the district committee system, which originated in Osaka, Japan, in 1918. Upon being introduced to Taiwan in 1923, a district committee was set up in each district, with a prominent member of the local community as its commissioner. Each district committee was responsible for providing such services as health care, childcare, mediation, employment matching, household registration, and cash assistance (Historical Records Committee of Taiwan Provincial Government, 1972).

When Taiwan was handed over to the government of the ROC at the end of World War II, both of these early social-welfare organizations were disbanded because the ROC government, headed by Chiang Kai-shek, regarded such institutions as minimum charities which propagated undesirable vestiges of Japanese colonialism (Xu, 1948).

In 1952 Dr. Chiang Monlin, chairman of the Sino-American Joint Commission on Rural Reconstruction (JCRR), invited American rural youth expert A. J. Brundage to introduce the 4-H Club to Taiwan. Combining the efforts of government bodies, farmers’ associations, and schools (Yan, 1998), the 4-H Club soon became the main force behind rural development in Taiwan. However, due to the steady flow of rural youth to the cities, by the 1990s the 4-H Club began to curtail its activities in Taiwan.

In 1955 the Chiang Kai-shek government initiated the Basic Livelihood Program, the goals of which were to increase production and quality of life by making basic improvements at the neighborhood level in the areas of agricultural production, education, health, and welfare (Tan, 1971). In addition, the program included rural construction projects, some supervised by the JCRR and others carried out jointly by civic-minded individuals with the assistance of ruling Nationalist Party local branch offices. However, during the martial law period (1949–1987) local autonomy was largely lacking. Although village heads were selected by local residents, they had no authority over budget or personnel matters, making it difficult for them to take the initiative in matters of well-being. Thus, during this period the Basic Livelihood Program was not carried out in accordance with the principles of community organization, community development, or community work.

In 1963 Zhang Hongjun, a graduate of the University of Chicago’s MA program in social services administration, retired from his position as community development training consultant for the UN Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East and relocated to Taiwan, where he succeeded in generating considerable interest in the concept of community development.

In 1968 the Ministry of the Interior promulgated the “Guidelines for Community Development,” and the agency strived to spread the idea of community development throughout Taiwan. During the same year, the Taiwan Provincial Government promulgated the “Eight-Year Community Development Plan,” which divided Taiwan’s 6,215 villages into 4,893 communities. In 1972 the plan was extended to 10 years and the communities were rearranged into a total of 3,890.

Taiwan’s first community development plan was divided into three broad areas: improving infrastructure, so as to beautify the environment; improving production, so as to enhance the people’s livelihoods; and promoting spiritual civilization, so as to improve public mores (Liu, 1977).

In 1970 the UN Development Programme (UNDP) helped set up the Research and Training Center for Community Development in Taiwan and assigned Meyer Schwartz, Leon Sinder, and Raymond J. Apthorpe as consultants (Wang, 2002). By the 1970s the community development approach had become popular in the field of social work in Taiwan, making it necessary to systematically explicate its theoretical basis. Local scholars who studied social work in the United States, such as James Hsu, Pai Hsiu-hsiung, Cai Han-xian, Wang Pei-xun, and Lu Guang, played a crucial role in transplanting the Western concepts of community organization and community work to Taiwanese society. However, it was highly challenging for these Taiwanese scholars to translate the philosophy and principles of community development into an undemocratic society such as characterized Taiwan in the 1970s and 1980s.

Evaluating Community Development in Taiwan

A close look at how community development has been implemented in Taiwan since the 1960s reveals that the UN’s ten basic principles of community development were not fully implemented. According to Xu Qingzhong, who headed the Ministry of the Interior between 1966 and 1972, application of the community development approach during the 1960s resulted in seven achievements: (1) improvements in basic infrastructure, (2) increased civic autonomy, (3) enhanced voluntary services, (4) greater importance given to public welfare, (5) improved public mores, (6) strengthening of local organizations and leadership, and (7) enhanced faith in the government (Xu, 1971). Xu also pointed out four shortcomings: (1) public construction projects carried out for appearance’s sake, (2) poor coordination, (3) inadequate measures for promoting public welfare and ethics, and (4) a lack of qualified personnel.

According to Social Progress through Community Development (UN, 1955), community development has ten principles or characteristics (Bilinski, 1969). Table 1 summarizes the extent to which these ten principles have been implemented in Taiwan (Lin, 2012).

Table 1. Implementation in Taiwan of the UN’s Ten Community Development Principles

UN Community Development Principle

Implementation in Taiwan

1. Formulating programs according to people’s needs

  1. 1. 4,893 (afterwards 3,890) communities were demarcated according to geography and the needs of residents.

  2. 2. Communities were generally mobilized in accordance with the goals of the three areas (construction, welfare, and mores).

2. Balanced development with multiple goals

1. Although construction, livelihood, and public mores are equally promoted, construction was given priority.

3. Self-initiative

1. Public construction projects are initiated and implemented by the governments, with limited participation from citizens.

4. Community participation

  1. 1. Prominent members of the community, especially retired soldiers, teachers, and civil servants, were encouraged to join the community council.

  2. 2. Directors of government bodies at all levels, members of relevant organizations, and local gentry were invited to become committee members of the community development council.

5. Utilizing grassroots talent

  1. 1. Local residents lacked relevant skills, and were unfamiliar with the principles and techniques of community development.

  2. 2. Many personnel in community organizations were not local residents, and thus lacked familiarity with local affairs.

6. Organizing youths and women

1. Scout groups, 4-H clubs, and women’s education were implemented.

7. Government economic and technical support

1. US$8,333 was provided by community residents, while an additional US$8,333 was provided by the local government. Specifications and materials of public works were set by the government.

8. Policy and administrative coordination

  1. 1. The provincial or metropolitan government proposed community development projects.

  2. 2. The central government promulgated the regulating Guidelines for Community Development.

  3. 3. Some project concerned more than one community, it was often difficult for the local leaders to reach consensus.

  4. 4. There was poor coordination between various government and civic bodies.

  5. 5. A national center for research and training in community development was established.

9. Utilizing local resources

  1. 1. Community residents provided volunteer labor.

  2. 2. Local funds were used for construction projects.

  3. 3. Subsidies were provided by the UN Food and Agricultural Organization.

  4. 4. Indigenous communities were provided with financial assistance from World Vision.

10. Balanced socio-economic development between the central and local levels

  1. 1. Public construction projects were given precedence.

  2. 2. Social Policy for People’s Livelihood was the guiding principle.

Between 1969 and 1981 a total of US$202.5 million was spent on community development in Taiwan, including US$122.82 million from the government’s community welfare fund and US$79.49 million from donations (Huang, 1999).

By the 1980s the community development initiative in Taiwan was clearly on the wane. Public infrastructure lacked maintenance, communities had become overly reliant on government subsidies, and a sense of community and self-initiative was generally lacking. Largely because Taiwan had been under martial law since 1949, a civil society with citizen participation and autonomy had yet to take root. Accordingly, in 1980 the Taipei city government proposed the Taipei City Community Development Plan and encouraged residents to establish formal communities. Also, in 1981 the Taiwan provincial government announced its first five-year community development plan, and in 1983 the Executive Yuan amended the Guidelines for Community Development. In all of these measures the former top-down approach to community development was replaced with a bottom-up approach, whereby community development commissions at various levels of government merely provided assistance to grassroots community development councils in such areas as drafting by-laws and carrying out projects.

In 1986 the Taiwan provincial government announced its second five-year community development plan, in which Taiwan was divided into 4,230 communities. Between 1981 and 1991 the provincial government spent over US$807 million on community development, around two-thirds of which came from government sources, the rest coming from donations and matching funds from civic sources (Huang, 1999). This comes to an average of around US$190,896 per community, a nearly fourfold increase in comparison to the amount spent per community (around US$52,060) between 1969 and 1981.

In 1991 the Ministry of the Interior amended the Guidelines for Community Development again to allow greater participation by civic groups, and the former “community council” was replaced by a “community association.” In retrospect, right from the beginning community development in Taiwan exhibited a certain amount of bias. Wang (1971) has pointed out that evaluating the effectiveness of community development is not merely a matter of counting how many buildings were constructed or how many roads and drains were laid. Yet, such critiques went unheeded, and it was only around 1990 that excessive spending compelled the government to consider alternative approaches to community development.

Actually, community development in Taiwan prior to the late 1980s does not fully correspond to any of the three models of community organization set out in Rothman (1968): locality development, social planning, and social action. Nor does it readily fit in with any of the three modes of community development presented in Christenson and Robinson (1989): self-help, technical assistance, and conflict. In fact, in the Taiwanese farming villages of old, what we now term “community development” was a matter of course. Whenever the need arose, the residents simply banded together and went about doing whatever needed to be done, in the process gaining valuable experience and strengthening their sense of community, an action that might be called “development of the community.” By contrast, in the modern era, community development in Taiwan has mainly been initiated and financed by the government, which has emphasized the rapid construction of basic infrastructure so as to readily gain highly visible results, namely developed communities. However, such an approach gives excessive emphasis to the results while neglecting the value of the development process itself. Accordingly, local residents lack a sense of full participation in the project, and they may not even know why it is being carried out, what might be called “development in the community.” As a result, residents gain neither self-sufficiency nor a sense of empowerment (Littrell & Hobbs, 1989).

The Transformation to Community Building

When the Ministry of the Interior began to allow greater scope for civic organizations to initiate and participate in community development projects, the Council for Cultural Affairs of the Executive Yuan began to gradually promote the concept of comprehensive community building. In October 1994 the Council for Cultural Affairs officially unveiled in the Legislative Yuan its “comprehensive community building” strategy, an approach that emphasizes the ecological environment, aesthetics, public order, and the utilization of community assets. The concept of comprehensive community building lacks the emphasis on community-initiated development found in the UN’s version of “community development”; in fact, it more closely resembles the Japanese concept of “town planning,” the main concerns of which are (Huang, 1995):

  1. 1. addressing such issues as environmental degradation and the large numbers of people relocating to the cities

  2. 2. the problems that result from giving too much priority to economic growth

  3. 3. the increasing demand for democratization and participation.

According to the Council for Cultural Affairs (1999), comprehensive community building in Taiwan needs to address the following issues:

  1. 1. Over the past half century economic development in Taiwan has been spearheaded by bureaucrats and technocrats, who have given excessive emphasis to infrastructure construction and economic growth while failing to give due consideration to the actual needs and livelihoods of the people. All this has had a deleterious impact on local culture.

  2. 2. Previous industrial development has seriously damaged the natural environment and encouraged migration to urban areas, thereby reducing the overall quality of life.

  3. 3. Large-scale migration to urban areas has had a negative impact on rural communities and the traditional industries that once thrived there.

  4. 4. Beginning in the 1980s various social movements have raised awareness of such issues as aboriginal rights, environmental protection, farmer’s livelihoods, political participation, and human trafficking, all of which are inextricably tied up with community development and cultural integrity.

  5. 5. Community development carried out since the 1980s has adopted a top-down approach, which fails to encourage community residents to develop a sense of cohesion and self-sufficiency.

It should be pointed out that by the time martial law was lifted in 1987 democracy and indigenization movements were already fairly strong (Lin, 2012). Actually, no significant difference exists between the concept of community development as advocated by the UN and the concept of comprehensive community building adopted in both Japan and Taiwan (Xu, 2004). Although community development stipulates that material and social development need to proceed hand-in-hand, when this model was applied in Taiwan a top-down approach was adopted and too much emphasis was given to physical construction. In comprehensive community building, now a familiar term in discussions of community development in Taiwan (Su and Tian, 2004), stress is also placed on simultaneous material and human development, but priority is given to cultural considerations. By contrast, in the community development approach priority is given to such items as infrastructure construction, agriculture, and public health. Yet, both give much importance to local participation.


The concept of community development was transplanted into Taiwan in the 1960s by Zhang Hongjun and soon thereafter by American advisors from the UN. Despite much initial enthusiasm, by the 1980s it had become clear that the community development model was not properly applied in Taiwan, mainly because it was not compatible with the autocratic political atmosphere. Although the UN attempted to use the implementation of community development to promote social progress, under martial law the KMT government was unreceptive to any movements that encouraged citizen participation and local autonomy. Thus, at that time little scope existed in Taiwan for organizing civic associations and practicing grassroots democracy. The top-down way in which the KMT government actually implemented the community development approach promoted by the UN could be described as a “directive approach” (Batten, 1973) or even “non-development of community development” (Littrell & Hobbs, 1989).

In 1972 Chiang Ching-kuo, a son of Chiang Kai-shek, initiated a policy to groom young Taiwanese intelligentsia for high-level government positions. One of these individuals was Lee Teng-hui, who later became the first native Taiwanese president. In this way, young Taiwanese intellectuals acquired roles in the government sector based on their knowledge and abilities rather than through political nepotism. For instance, although hereditary politics led to the appointment of Chiang Ching-kuo as president in 1978, he chose the native Taiwanese Xie Dongmin as his vice president. According to the same logic, in 1984 President Chiang nominated Lee Teng-hui to be his vice president. When President Chiang died on January 13, 1988, Lee succeeded him as president. As president, Lee vigorously promoted democratization and localization, which culminated in the opposition Democratic Progressive Party coming to power in 2000.

During the first fifty years in which it held the reins of power in Taiwan, the KMT government was widely regarded as an “import regime” because it was led by mainland Chinese who had little understanding of Taiwan’s history, geography, and culture, all of which are essential elements of community development. However, since the 1990s President Lee’s localization policy has helped community building to flourish in Taiwan.

Undoubtedly, the concept of community development as proposed by the UN was never properly applied in Taiwan. Yet it should come as no surprise that different organizations will apply the same model in different ways. This fact is something the current government needs to keep in mind when applying the model of comprehensive community building. Also, it should be noted that comprehensive community building does have the advantage of being carried out at a time when grassroots democracy is already quite strong, which was not the case during the community development era. Indeed, the main reason for the failure of community development in Taiwan was that it was carried out in a top-down, almost compulsory fashion and with little regard for the unique characteristics of each community and the wishes of its residents. By contrast, comprehensive community building does take these factors into account, and therefore it is likely to be more successful.


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