The wisdom of the community always exceeds the knowledge of the experts


Start with what people care about, not your agenda

In the predominant needs/deficit model of community development, community members are inadvertently encouraged to stop acting like citizens and act like “clients” or “consumers of services” with no incentive to be producers themselves.

Asset-based community development (ABCD) turns the tables on “needs-based and deficiency-based” community development. As a methodology it seeks to uncover and use the strengths within communities as a means for sustainable development.

The first step in the process of community development is to assess the resources of a community through a capacity inventory or through another process of talking to the residents to determine what types of skills and experience are available. The next step is to support communities, to discover what they care enough about to act. The final step is to determine how citizens can act together to achieve those goals.

Alison Mathie, PhD,[The Coady International Institute, St. Francis Xavier University, 2002] provides a helpful summary to assist in better understanding the philosophy behind ABCD:

“Based on extensive inquiry into the characteristics of successful community initiatives in the U.S., John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann at the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) at Northwestern University, articulated ABCD as a way of counteracting the predominant needs-based approach to development in urban America.

In the needs-based approach, well-intentioned efforts of universities, donor agencies and governments, have generated needs surveys, analysed problems, and identified solutions to meet those needs. In the process, however, they have inadvertently presented a one-sided negative view, which has often compromised, rather than contributed to, community capacity building.

Kretzmann and McKnight (1993) point out that if the needs-based approach is the only guide to poor communities, the consequences can be “devastating”. One of the main effects is leadership that denigrates the community. Leaders find that the best way to attract institutional resources is to play up the severity of problems.

Local leadership is judged on how many resources are attracted to the community, not on how self-reliant the community has become. Another consequence Kretzmann and McKnight point out is that people in the communities start to believe what their leaders are saying. They begin to see themselves as deficient and incapable of taking charge of their lives and of the community.

Not surprisingly, community members no longer act like citizens; instead they begin to act like “clients” or consumers of services with no incentive to be producers.

Yet another consequence of this approach is that local groups begin to deal more with external institutions than with groups in their own community. This reinforces the notion that “only outside experts can provide real help” and further weakens neighbour-to-neighbour links.

Funding is made available on the basis of categories of needs rather than for integrated approaches which leads to “the much lamented fragmentation of efforts to provide solutions…[This] denies the basic community wisdom which regards problems as tightly intertwined, as symptoms in fact of the breakdown of the community’s own problem solving capacities”.

To make matters worse, the bulk of any funding tends to go to the institutions filling the needs. Perversely, these institutions begin to develop a vested interest in maintaining this approach.



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