6 April 2017

Asset-Based Community Development: Sustainable development is about discoverables; not deliverables

Over the next few weeks we shall be publishing a short series of blogs focused on asset-based community development (ABCD). 

To get us started, in this guest blog Cormac Russell, Managing Director of Nurture Development, introduces collective efficacy and grassroots power.

"The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper."  
W.B. Yeats
 Asset-based community development is a description (not a model) of how local residents grow collective efficacy [1] and what they use to do so [2].  The work of ABCD involves paying attention to what is in a local place; not what we think should be there, or what isn't there. These include:

  • The gifts, skills and passions of local residents 
  • The power of local social networks/associations
  • The resources of public, private and non-profit institutions 
  • The physical and economic resources of local places.
  • The stories of our shared lives                                           

Setting aside our pre-engagement maps and genuinely coming alongside a given local community demands an act of radical humility on the part of helping agencies. It's the opposite of diagnosing, fixing or prescribing. The logic of shifting the focus from 'deliverables' to 'discoverables' is grounded in four simple but inalienable truths:

  1. People can't know what they need until they first know what they have.
  2. The map that an outside agency has of the community is never the same as the territory. 
  3. If you don't know the territory, you can't help the community and you run the risk of causing harm.
  4. Communities do not work in silos or in tune with agency targets or predefined outcomes. Take health as a case in point: Most of the activity that is health producing, is done by people who do not think or realise that what they are doing is health producing.

Most socio-political challenges are three dimensional:
a) personal
b) environmental/social, and
c) institutional.

The challenge that democratic societies face is in trying to address three-dimensional socio-economic and political issues using a two-dimensional framework:

  • Institutional interventions (services, programmes, policies, legislation)
  • Individual behaviour change.

In the pursuit of more sustainable and enduring change which is ecologically and socially sound we need to attend more to the third dimension: collective efficacy and social capital. Collective efficacy is not the result of behavioural change, nor does it come about as a consequence of institutional reform. It happens as a consequence of effective grassroots community building at neighbourhood level [3]

Doing so calls on all of us as citizens to start seeing our neighbourhoods as a primary unit of change. Making the neighbourhood the primary unit of change will enable us to maximise the potential of discovering, connecting and mobilising the assets of individuals, associations, as well as cultural, environmental and the potential of the local economy. The magic is in the connections between all these domains, not in any particular technique, model or silo-ed approach. This is why working within small bound places is so pivotal to more citizen-led action.

With regard to outside agencies, current community engagement strategies, far from taking such place-based community building approaches to heart, continue to be extremely silo-ed, all the while attempting to engage communities before the work of building communities has actually begun. Consequently, such community engagement efforts are overly focused on named target groups, such as youth at risk or frail older people, instead of connecting diverse parts of the community across common 'fault-lines'. Too often this runs contrary to the principles of good community development practice.

It is important to note that ABCD is not a substitute for services, any more than services or professional programmes are not a proxy for genuine friendship and community led inventiveness. Asset-based community driven efforts recognise:

  1. Everyone has a gift (they are born with), a skill (they have learned and practised, and could potentially share/teach), and a passion (that they act on) that they can contribute to the wellbeing of their community.
  2. Social movements grow stronger when the capacities mentioned above are discovered, and connected into productive reciprocal relationships with associations, the local environment, economy and culture.
  3. That power grows bottom up and from the side-lines in when people identify what they care about enough to act collectively on. 

Growing power from the grassroots  


Communities often grow their confidence and collective efficacy by using their primary assets (what is local and within local residents' control) as their starting point, then proceeding to liberate their secondary assets (that which is local but currently outside local residents’ control). Using the morale and momentum that results, they can begin to figure out what they can do themselves without help, and what they can do with allies and outside support. From there, they ready themselves to take on the challenge of liberating external assets (that which is not local and not yet within their control). So that when they encounter external challenges, they do so not as supine deficient passive clients, but as a strong, connected, vibrant citizens co-create an alternative future.

Over the last 21 years at Nurture Development, we've had the privilege of being alongside hundreds of communities in over 30 countries. Our focus has never been on convincing people to use ABCD, nor has it necessarily been about getting agencies to change their community engagement strategies. The challenge/invitation we issue is for communities and agencies to ask a different question:

Instead of asking: 'how can we get our agencies to add more value to, for or with communities?' ask 'how can agencies create more space so that communities can produce the things they value?'

The answer at least in part is to start with what is strong, not what's wrong, and liberate what's strong to address what's wrong, and to make what's strong even stronger.

[1] Sampson, Robert J, Jeffrey D Morenoff, and Felton Earls. 1999.'Beyond Social Capital: Spatial Dynamics of Collective Efficacy for Children.' American Sociological Review 64: 633-660: http://scholar.harvard.edu/files/sampson/files/1999_asr_beyondsc.pdf

[2] 'Community Capacities and Community Necessities' John McKnight, Co-Director, Community Development Institute Northwestern University http://www.abcdinstitute.org/docs/McKnight%20Speech%207-09.pdf


[3] ‘This is how people can truly take back control: from the bottom up.’(George Monbiot) Guardian, Wednesday, 8 February, 2016: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/feb/08/take-back-control-bottom-up-communities


Views expressed by guest bloggers may not reflect the views of What Works Scotland.

See more about Cormac Russell's work as Managing Director of Nurture Development and Director of ABCD in Europe and ABCD Institute Faculty.


Other blogs in this series on asset-based community development:


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