The Third Principle of Community-Based International 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.

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]

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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).

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Categories: Development Principals, Service Ethics


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6 Comments on “The Third Principle of Community-Based International Development”

  1. August 23, 2010 at 7:25 am #

    Yay for assets based thinking and planning!

  2. August 23, 2010 at 10:08 am #

    I’m not familiar with “Values-based Planning” itself, but I think taking a glass half full approach is much better than seeing the glass half empty. And I totally agree with you that communities will request whatever they think you might pay for, regardless of real need. Comparative advantage is one of the key principles in economics. We need to help communities to think what are they good at, and how can they get better at it?

  3. Joel
    August 23, 2010 at 11:44 am #

    Thanks a lot for the articles. I just recalled to what Paulo Freire used to say about education and critical awareness. The first thing is to use education to empower people and create awareness. Once the community has recognized the needs and problems, the community gathers to find a solution (and ind the case of community developers, I would suggest that they stay at the margin of the conversation listening and asking questions to the community members). Now that they are reflecting on the problem, they have to find the solution. Once the find it, they implement the solution weather they have or not the support of an Non-Profit. Once the community did that, they start looking for other problems or situations they are facing, and the cycle starts again. The thing is to recognize that we, as community developers, are not bringing anything. We are just helping the community to see how capable they are to solve their own issues.

  4. Helen KN
    August 23, 2010 at 11:30 pm #

    Thank you very much for this post. I have been challenged trying to find a solution to working with community based women’s groups. We just travelled few weeks back helping these groups to rethink the way they work. Our observations were very similar to what you talked about – communities will identify those needs they believe you can address. We advised these groups to conduct a needs assesssment of their communities, and few days later, one of the coordinators sends a message saying this is what we have found, but we await your decision. I was so upset they have left us to decide what they should do. Now I know we need to start from what the communities value. I will try this strategy and will share the outcome.

    • August 24, 2010 at 1:56 pm #


      I’m very glad you found this helpful. I would encourage you not to be too disappointed or upset about the result you described. It is a practical result that in some ways demonstrates the group’s creative resilience. So long as the community sees you and your group as the ones with the majority of resources to put into whatever project you’re going to work on together, they are going to let you sort of take the lead. Their fear, justified or not, is that they will say “we want to do x” and you will reply, “oh, that’s too bad, we only fund or do y.” The negotiation tactic of expressing their own point of view, but leaving it ultimately in your hands is a practical way to hedge the risk of stating the results of their own needs assessment.

      One of the ways I’ve worked through this perceived obstacle in the past was to be as transparent up front about what we outsiders had to offer and what we didn’t. At the same time, committing to do everything we could to help them find appropriate partners for anything they decided to put in their development plan that fell outside of our mandate. This gave them “permission” if you will, to throw all of their dreams in the basket, knowing that we could partner with them on some, and for the others, we would support them as far as we could (help with initial planning, budgeting, writing letters or grant applications, introducing them to other organizations that fit that kind of work or hosting an exchange with representatives from other communities doing those sorts of things, etc.)

      Best wishes to you, your work, and the communities you partner with.

  5. September 11, 2010 at 5:27 am #

    You might be interested in the work of the godfathers of asset-based community development (ABCD), John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann:

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