Instead of mapping problems through needs to external solutions, you help the community identify its values and then map these through local resources to develop a vision and action plan.
This is the third post of a 6-part series republishing the original Staying for Tea article from The Global Citizen journal (2005). You can link to the other posts in this series here: [1: Stay for Tea] [2: Process Matters] [3: Focus on Values] [4: Check your Filter] [5: Cultivate a Servant’s Heart] [6: Conclusion]
Principle #3: Focus on Values
So now that you are helping build capacity in the community to manage its own development process, how do help community members define their situation and shape their plans? The standard formula tends to begin with a needs assessment. You might ask questions such as, “What are the problems facing your community?” in order to identify the most important needs. More sophisticated types might precede this with the development of a community vision. This has the added value that the community can compare the vision with the reality and see where it falls short (where the needs are). This is a logical approach, but there may be a drawback to defining the situation in terms of needs, because it automatically frames the whole development issue in terms of the community having something wrong with it that needs fixing. It lacks something, and therefore the solution is to get this needed thing; this can lead the community to seek an interventionist solution. Let me illustrate:
Q. What’s the problem?
A. We have no school.
Q. What do you need?
A. We need a school.
Q. Shall I build you school?
A. Yes please.
As a side note, communities can be strategic about their answers. If a truck shows up in town with engineers from an NGO that does water projects, how do you suppose the people are going answer the needs assessment questions? Is it likely to be different if the NGO does microcredit or health education? You’d better believe it.
It’s not surprising that beginning your work in a new community with a needs-assessment tends to lead to the types of projects I talked about in the previous section. The poor community is seen both by itself and by you as incapable of supplying its needs, but you’ve got solutions and resources – cash, materials, technical solutions, a dozen volunteers with hammers, whatever – and you’re going to save the day. Sometimes this stuff works, I admit, but I think as often as not it produces solutions that are not sustainable, not empowering, sometimes not even realistic (We need a million dollars ‘cause we’re poor and helpless), and are often based on principles of redistribution rather than those of development.
So what’s the alternative? One is values-based planning. In 1999, I attended the First International Conference on Values-Based Planning, in Bolivia, with Heifer Project International and World Concern. Values-based planing was a relatively new idea to almost everybody there, but it’s actually been around for a while. The basic idea is to start with values instead of needs and to allow these to shape the dialogue on planning, monitoring, and evaluation. According to the World Bank website, “Empowering poor communities and groups, so that they exert agency over their own development, requires deference to their values and aspirations… [and] helping these groups to develop decision-making skills that lead to practical actions based on their values, that can evolve into methods of sustainable self-governance and strategies to influence others.”
It’s been pointed out to me that volunteers working in urban community development here in the States use something similar; they call it “asset-based community development.” Instead of mapping problems through needs to external solutions, you help the community identify its values and then map these through local resources to develop a vision and action plan.Intervention may still be called for and appropriate, but it will be of an entirely different flavor. It will be the kind of help that gets them over a bump in the road, or maybe builds a bridge along the way, not the kind that builds the road, provides the car, gas and driver, buckles the seatbelts and pays the tolls.
I applied this values-based model with the women’s groups my microfinance program worked with. This led one group to realize that they had been formulating annual plans based on the services we could offer them, not on what their hearts desired for their community. They decided that, while working with us for microcredit and training was good, what they really wanted was to organize more activities for their children. Since then, they have organized events, including an annual Christmas celebration for nearly 1000 children from their own and surrounding villages.* My program’s role in these is minimal. Had we started with a different set of questions, we would have never gotten further than “The problem is we have no access to capital; our need is microcredit; the solution is that you lend us money.”
______________________________________________________* There is reason to believe that celebrations, rather than being a waste of scarce resources, are actually part of the development process, cementing community bonds and building social capital. For an example of the literature on this, see Vijayendra Rao’s “Celebrations as Social Investments” in the Journal of Development Studies, Vol. 38 (1).