Friday, January 14, 2011

Community Development 101

Let’s cover some basics, so that we all have a general picture of what does and does not fit in with what I am calling community development.

I am often tempted to describe community development by what it is not, but that’s not a great way to describe anything.  How could we ever start to act on something that we cannot describe?  So let’s start with what we do, and then that will be followed with a little description of what we don’t do.

We help people improve their lives.  Sounds nice right, a lot of people aim to do that.  We specifically look for communities of people that are underserved (i.e. by government or by private sector that lacks opportunity or common public services).  Then we get together with these communities and do some assessment of their community.  Good assessment needs to be about assets the community has, as well as challenges or problems.  It is often necessary to challenge a community to work back from the consequences of problems that they have stated, to determine the root causes of problems.  Assessment is a process and can take a while, and it should (more on this later). 

Good assessment will spring into negotiation of action plans.  In community development we take action only when the community itself is ready to take action.  We don’t work alone, but we don’t expect the community to work alone- we partner together. 

What do we work on?  It might be any number of things, but as a rule it needs to be challenges that the community has prioritized, and challenges we as developers have the skills and resources to help with.  In our context, there are many problems of water and sanitation borne disease, high infant and maternal mortality, and agriculture inefficiencies.  Knowing this, we do all we can to equip ourselves with the best appropriate technologies and training, so that we are ready for our part of the action.

As we work, we follow some rules:
1-    We do not do for the communities what they can do for themselves.  This will often set a community back in their initiative of improving their lifes.
2-    We do not pay for what a community can pay for.  Same reason as above.
3-    We use local knowledge and resources first, and be very careful about our technologies and products.  Everything has to be understood, often by illiterate people.  We also want neighboring communities to look and see that they can reproduce the projects in their own communities.

When one project nears completion, it’s time to start talking with the community again about ‘what’s next’.  We encourage communities to keep the ball rolling and continue with other improvements that have been on many of their minds. 

With this brief description of what we do, it hopefully makes sense now when I list what we do not do:
            -hand out free stuff, even if “they are so poor”
            -choose the projects we are going to do for the community, because “the problems are so    obvious”
-bring in a bunch of foreign stuff because “that’s the best way to solve this problem”

It is easy to be tempted to make decisions based on our foreign observations.  We must ask ourselves:
-Who are these problems being solved for? 
A- The external organization that already had heaps of resources and can leave if things get worse rather than better, or
B- the poor community that needs to learn how to start a whole succession of positive changes in which they are the planners and actors.
-Will my project’s contribution build community capacity and self-suffiency, or will it break down their capacity and foster dependency?

Community development is not automatic, not even (or especially) if you have billions and billions of dollars for the purpose of alleviating poverty.  It seems most big governments of the world are still stuck on that lesson, which leads me to conclude that community development can only be done by people that believe the poor people themselves have something to invest or sacrifice in order to bring positive change to ‘their people’.  

Some of today's blog might seem to lack tangible examples.  Don't fear, those examples will come, and those should help flesh out what I'm talking about.  Til then, bring on the questions or comments, lets get this blog rolling.


  1. It would be interesting to know what the elevation of your village is and some of what the weather is this time of the year. I am sure you have a lot to offer for the people you work with.

  2. THANKS for posting! Nice groundwork laid!