Our history

ICA USA Global Archives Project


The Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA) is a global community of non-profit organisations advancing human development worldwide. It aims to act as a catalyst for people in a variety of contexts and circumstances to take active responsibility for their own personal, community and societal development.

We trace our origins to ICA’s predecessor organisations, the Faith & Life Community and the Ecumenical Institute, of the United States in the 1950s & 1960s, however ICA itself has been explicitly secular and international since it was first separately incorporated in the 1973.

The 1950s – exploring community and social responsibility

In 1952 the Faith and Life Community was founded by students and faculty of the University of Texas in Austin, to explore how and where their Christian faith was relevant to the social issues of the day. In 1962 a member of that community Joseph Wesley Mathews became director of the Evanston Institute for Ecumenical Studies, a training centre established eight years previously by the World Council of Churches, in Evanston, Illinois.

He was joined at the Institute by seven families of the original community, where they began to develop and teach programmes of religious and social studies stressing the need for individuals to take responsibility for their own actions.

The 1960s – pioneering participatory local community development

It was the desire to put the theory behind these programmes into practice which led these families to move to Fifth City, an almost derelict and abandoned black neighbourhood on the west side of Chicago. Here they discovered that the greatest block to development was the people’s own self-image – their view of themselves as helpless victims of social forces beyond their control.

As the Ecumenical Institute, they worked with residents of this depressed and neglected community to help them to discern their problems and devise practical, locally-based and replicable solutions. As a result, programmes of social and economic development were designed and implemented through voluntary co-operative action, creating a practical operating model of participatory community development.

Soon the community began to believe in itself. The Fifth City Community Project survived the 1968 Chicago race riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, and became a prototype for citizen participation in community renewal around the world.

Programme activity of the Ecumenical Institute had already expanded rapidly such that, in 1967, 14,000 people participated in Institute programmes and courses in North America, and over 2,000 in various countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America. By 1972, over 30 community living units, or Houses, were working with 188 congregations in North America to replicate the Fifth City model in a variety local contexts.

The 1970s – replicating human development projects worldwide

As programmes expanded beyond the confines of the Church and became international in scope, and after a decade of operating as a programme division of the Ecumenical Institute, the Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA) was separately incorporated in 1973 – “to further the application of methods of human development to communities and organisations all around the world, based on a secular philosophy”.

By the mid-1970s ICA had expanded from its base in Chicago to over 100 Houses in 30 countries. The foundational participatory methods of the Fifth City model were further tested, refined and replicated in pilot Human Development Projects with disadvantaged communities in each of the 24 time zones worldwide, and also through new private and public sector seminars known as LENS – Leadership Effectiveness and New Strategies.

During this period, ICA began to actively recruit local staff where it worked around the world, from a wide variety of religious and social backgrounds. As national ICAs came to be established worldwide, the Institute of Cultural Affairs International (ICAI) was established and registered in Brussels, Belgium in 1977 to facilitate the activities of autonomous national member Institutes.

The 1980s – sharing approaches that work

By the early-1980s, ICA’s programmatic focus on small pilot projects gave way to wide-scale replication and dissemination of learnings. The New Village Movement saw ICA’s programme in Kenya grow in 10 years from a single demonstration to involving over 1,500 villages.  The International Exposition of Rural Development (IERD) was a three year exchange programme co-sponsored by the United Nations.

It drew global attention to over 300 successful locally-managed initiatives in 53 countries, and culminated in a major international conference in New Delhi in 1984. The IERD was documented in a series of three books.

By 1988, ICA had been completely decentralised. This paved the way for a movement toward local restructuring, reorientation and indigenisation of national ICAs worldwide. Programmes continued to build on the proven models that had been pioneered in Fifth City, and on ICA’s foundational participatory methods. These had been named the Technology of Participation’ (ToP) with the publication of the first ICA methods ‘text book’ (‘Winning Through Participation’ by Laura Spencer, 1989).

The 1990s – diversifying our local programmes

As a result of our decentralisation, programmes were able to become increasingly diverse and specific to local circumstances. By 1992, at it’s quadrennial global conference in Prague , ICAI was describing the wide-ranging work of its member ICAs in terms of four primary themes – enabling sustainable development, facilitating organisational transformation, advancing life-changing learning and promoting international dialogue. These four arenas still represented the main thrusts of ICA’s work globally in 1996, as reflected in the four streams of discussion on ‘civil society’ at the 1996 ICAI global conference in Cairo – Development, Business, Education and Culture.

By the time of the ICAI global conference in Denver Colorado, USA in 2000, “the Millennium Connection”, these had broadened to include 7 streams – the Art & Practice of Participation, Arts for Community Transformation, Community Youth Development, Philanthropy for Social Innovation, Spirituality in Organisations, Sustainable Community Development, and Wholistic Lifelong Learning.

The 2000s – strengthening our global presence

Diversification of locally driven programme activites continued such that by 2008, at our 7th global conference in Japan, the focus was on a set of 10 major human development challenges.  These were Effective Governance and Protection of Human Rights, Persistence of Poverty, Environmental Degradation and Climate Change, Sustainable Agriculture and Livelihoods, Violent Conflict and Social Disintegration, Access to Healthcare and Preventing the Spread of Disease, Literacy and Education, Consumerism and Over-Consumption, Disconnectedness and Barriers to Engagement and  Private Sector Collaboration.

This decade also saw, however, a strategic move to strengthening our global presence for greater impact.  ICA International relocated to Canada in 2006, and a new and expanded Secretariat staff team was appointed in Montreal to lead an ambitious strategy of global policy and advocacy work in addition to member capacity building and programme support.

The 2010s – developing our ‘peer to peer’ approach

In 2010 it was agreed to develop a decentralized, “peer to peer” approach, with a regional perspective, as the most effective way for national ICAs to support one another and collaborate together at the global level.  It was agreed that responsibility for priority functions would be delegated & appropriated by national ICAs. This new ‘peer to peer’ approach was agreed to allow for new opportunities & creativity among ICAs themselves.


This page is adapted from ICA:UK – Our History – we are grateful to former ICAI Secretary General Dick Alton for agreeing to draft a short ICAI history soon to replace this .  For more on our history, see also: