Too often we who are trying to do community development come to the economically poor with the question, "What do you need? What is wrong with you?" The implication is "You have problems, I can fix them." Corbett and Fikkert write:
Given the nature of most poverty, it is difficult to imagine more harmful questions to both low-income people and to ourselves! Starting with such questions initiates the very dynamic that we need to avoid, a dynamic that confirms the feelings that we are superior, that they are inferior, and that they need us to fix them."
This is the biggest area where we failed on the first trip I took to Jamaica with my church. We held a big meeting at the church and opened with the question, "What are the needs in your community?"
Instead, the authors suggest Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD -- cute, right?). Start with the question, "What do you have? What are you good at?"
What is wrong will come out soon enough; but by starting with what is right, we can change the dynamics that have marred the self-image of low-income people and that have created a sense of superiority in ourselves.
In all this it is important to remember that community development and poverty-alleviation are NOT attempts to put band-aids over "manifestations of underlying brokenness." No, we want to bring wholeness and reconciliation to all relationships (God, self, others, creation), and address the underlying causes of poverty. This is a much harder, longer task.
A summary of the four key elements of ABCD from the authors:
- Identify and mobilize the capabilities, skills, and resources of the individual or community. See poor people and communities as full of possibilities, given to them by God.
- As much as possible, look for resources and solutions to come from within the individual or community, not from the outside.
- Seek to build and rebuild the relationships among local individuals, associations, churches, businesses, schools, governments, etc. God intended for the various individuals and institutions in communities to be interconnected and complementary.
- Only bring in outside resources when local resources are insufficient to solve pressing needs. Be careful about bringing in resources that are too much or too early. Do this in a manner that does not undermine local capacity or initiative.
I know from experience that number 2 is hard. In Jamaica, in Detroit, in Cairo--the expectation from the poor is that I have money, they do not, and therefore I should give it. It's hard to say, "Is there a way for your community to fund this project?" knowing that it will take great sacrifice, when I could write a check on the spot.