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Asset Based Community Development…

January 26, 2011

Last week I ran a workshop for the Yorkshire and Humber Community Development Network on Asset Based Community Development (ABCD), what it is, and why we should think about it.

And one of the questions I got was ‘What is the relevance of ABCD to health promotion?’

An excellent question.

But first let’s establish what we mean by ‘asset based community development’.  Or even ‘community development’.  But wait, can we even agree on ‘community’? Or ‘development’?

Community development, at its best, helps individuals and groups of people develop the power that they need to make the progress they choose in their own lives.

This is done either through a focus on ‘assets’ or a focus on ‘needs’, giving us ‘asset based community development’ or ‘needs (or deficit) based community development’.  The following table gives some examples of assets and needs as they might be described in relation to individuals and communities.

assets and needs in personal and community development

So, in ABCD we start with what people and the community already have and with what they want to achieve, individually or collectively.  Development starts where the people are, and works with what they have got.  It embraces a philosophy that says we already have everything that we need in order to make progress. “Start change from where you are, and with what you’ve got.”

On the other hand, needs based community development starts with some sort of judgement of what is wrong with a community or individual.  What is missing.  This takes the form of some sort of assessment, usually done by an external agency, with a view to working out what needs to be fixed and how this might be achieved.  The vast majority of what is described as ‘community development’ work in the UK takes this needs based form.  It starts from a philosophy that says  ‘we know what is good for the community/individual and we will work to bring it about’.    It might be characterised as ‘Start from where we want you to be, and work with what we give you’.  The vast majority of health promotion work is close to this needs based model.  These needs based projects often use the tools and techniques of ‘community development’ recruiting local champions, building interest groups and generally doing what is needed to achieve the funders policy goals.  But is it community development?  Does it give people and groups the power to work on their agendas, or does it merely seduce them into working on the agendas of the funder?  And if course when the funder runs out of money, or the policy goal changes the community development stalls.

It is worth noticing that if you adopt a need based approach your stance will essentially have to be one of nagging, nudging or nannying however carefully you present it.  Whereas if you choose an asset based approach your role will be to facilitate, coordinate and connect.

So what would an ‘asset based’ approach to health development look like?

Well first of all it would not be on the agenda just because a funder had identified a need.  It would only be on the agenda if local people or groups recognised that they needed to work on health issues in order to make the progress that they want to make.  This implies that funders would need to learn to respond to the self-determined needs , or wants, of the community.  They need to understand working responsively as well as their more usual strategic perspective.

Health would be negotiated alongside enterprise, culture, employment and many other topics that the community may wish to address.  The development agenda in an asset based approach is much more likely to be holistic, whole system and person centred.  This contrasts with need based approaches which frequently lack integration, only work on part of the system and are centred on policy goals rather than people and their aspirations

An asset based approach, starting from where we are, working with what we have got, would be much less sensitive to the changing funding priorities of policy makers and is more likely to enable prolonged and steady progress.  It is also much more likely to build long-lasting social capital, of all types.

So why then are so many, the overwhelming majority in fact, of community development projects ‘needs based’ rather than ‘asset based’?  Well it has little to do with efficacy, in my opinion, and everything to do with accommodating the policy goals, timescales and resources of funders.

With the asset based approach you never really know what issues you may end up working on or what might be achieved. And, regardless of what might be done to help individuals and groups of people develop the power that they need to make the progress they choose in their own lives, which funder is going to invest in a methodology that will not allow them to tightly control outcomes, milestones and resources?

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