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REFLECTIONS ON THE PROBLEM-BASED APPROACH AND THE ASSET-BASED APPROACH TO COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT

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Abstract

The aim of the article is to reflect on the traditional problem-based approach to community development in relation to the asset-based community development approach (ABCD). Although the traditional approach to community development has some guarantee for survival and the improvement of services and facilities, it is likely to reinforce dependency and is not designed to bring about sustainable change. The ABCD approach seems to be an alternative and complementary approach. This approach is a collaborative process between community members and professionals, allowing them to work together to determine outcomes that draw on community members' strengths and assets. In community development it is necessary that people take up their power and gather some semblance of control in their lives to prevent problems becoming the road map of their lives.
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The Social Work Practitioner-Researcher, Vol. 24 (2), 2012
REFLECTIONS ON THE PROBLEM-BASED APPROACH
AND THE ASSET-BASED APPROACH TO COMMUNITY
DEVELOPMENT
Edmarié Pretorius
Senior Lecturer, Social Work Department, School of Human and Community
Development, University of the Witwatersrand
Edmarie.Pretorius@wits.ac.za
Hanna Nel
Professor, Department of Social Work, University of Johannesburg
hannan@uj.ac.za
ABSTRACT
The aim of the article is to reflect on the traditional problem-based approach
to community development in relation to the asset-based community
development approach (ABCD). Although the traditional approach to
community development has some guarantee for survival and the
improvement of services and facilities, it is likely to reinforce dependency
and is not designed to bring about sustainable change. The ABCD approach
seems to be an alternative and complementary approach. This approach is a
collaborative process between community members and professionals,
allowing them to work together to determine outcomes that draw on
community members’ strengths and assets. In community development it is
necessary that people take up their power and gather some semblance of
control in their lives to prevent problems becoming the road map of their
lives.
Key words: community work, community development, problem-based
community development, asset-based community development
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INTRODUCTION
Although community work is one of the primary methods practised by the
social work profession, during the process of democratisation in South
Africa, the practices of community work, social and community development
have gained recognition as the most appropriate ways to address inequalities
in the South African society. These practices in social welfare evolved
from the country’s unique history of the violation of human rights and
inequality under colonialism and apartheid (Patel, 2005). It was realised
that empowerment of communities where environments are created in
which community members are mobilised to take ownership, learn to be
independent, and become more self-reliant is more likely to enhance
sustainable development.
Through a detailed analysis of relevant manuscripts and texts community
work, community development and two different paradigms to community
development are contextualised. The article explains the traditional problem-
based approach and the alternative asset-based approach to community
development and attention is drawn to critics of both approaches. Lastly, the
differences between the two approaches are underlined.
COMMUNITY WORK AND COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT
Community work, one of the three primary methods applied in social work
practice, aims at bringing about social change required within a community.
Depending on the context, different practice models or combinations thereof
are used to facilitate the required change. The five models most often used
are social planning, community development, social action, community
education and social marketing (Weyers, 2011). Different models facilitate
different types of change within communities. Although the social action
model focuses on power and uses conflict when necessary in an attempt to
achieve the desired outcome of structural change, the other four models are
primarily problem-focused, and aim at facilitating functional change as the
desired outcome in a peaceful manner (Weyers, 2011). Ife (2002:2) sees
community work as “the activity, or practice, of a person who seeks to
facilitate the process of community development …”
The many different views about what community development is cause
challenges in defining community development. The White Paper of Social
Welfare (1997:68) uses the 1960 United Nations’ Department of Economic
and Social Affairs’ definition of community development, which refers to
“uniting the efforts of people with those of governmental authorities to
improve the economic, social and cultural conditions of communities and
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integrate these communities with the life of the nation in order to enable them
to contribute fully to national progress”. This definition highlights the
partnership between community and government, and the importance of
integrating social, economic and cultural aspects to the benefit of all citizens.
In relation to this, Ife (2002:2) argues that community development is a
process “of establishing, or re-establishing, structures of human community
within which new ways of relating, organising social life and meeting human
needs become possible”. Community development is also explained as
“a vehicle for change” (Chile and Simpson, 2004), and a process largely
concerned with meeting the needs and aspirations of community members
who have limited or no access to adequate services and who are often
excluded from opportunities and/or decision-making (Gilchrist, 2004).
Community development is a comprehensive form of community inter-
vention (Weyers, 2011; Green and Haines, 2008) with the intention of
bringing about substantive and sustainable change. Throughout the literature,
community development is explained as both a process and an outcome
(Weyers, 2011; Phillips and Pittman, 2009; Stepney and Popple, 2008; Ife
and Tesoriero, 2006).
For the purposes of this article, community development is seen as a “people-
centred change process facilitated with a community of people to take action
to increasingly actualise their fundamental human needs to enhance
the quality of their own lives and those of the wider community that they are
part of” (Schenck, Nel and Louw, 2010:6). The characteristics of a people-
centred community change process as described in Schenck et al. (2010)
Block (2009), Brueggemann (2006), McKnight (1995) and Burkey (1993),
are based on strengths and potential and belong to the community. Moreover,
a people-centred community change process is dialogical, evolves over time,
consists of cycles of planning, action and reflection and facilitates a
collective decision-making process.
Specific principles underpin community development and it is important to
realise that these are not independent, but related (Ife, 2002), and should be
applied within the specific context of the community.
The principles can be categorised in broad categories. The ecological
principles underlying community development include holism, sustainability,
diversity as well as organic and balanced development. Social justice
principles include addressing the structural disadvantages and discourses of
disadvantage, empowerment and defining the need. The notion of ‘valuing
the local’ coined by Ife (2002), which implies respect for indigenous
knowledge and culture, existing resources and skills as well as existing
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processes in communities and participation, seems to be a fundamental
principle in community development. Process principles refer to outcome and
vision, the integrity of process, people-centeredness, consciousness raising,
participation, cooperation and consensus, inclusiveness, the pace of develop-
ment, peace and non-violence and community building. Lastly, global and
local principles comprise linking the global and the local and anti-colonialist
practice (Schenck, et al., 2010; Ife and Tesoriero, 2006).
Being mindful of these principles when practising in the field of community
development in South Africa is of the utmost importance. The destruction
of apartheid and the way social and community development were
practised pre-1994 disempowered people and were criticised as not being
developmental.
DIFFERENT PARADIGMS TO COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT
Community development can primarily be approached from two different
paradigms. The conventional way of working with communities is to identify
problems, and needs within the community. An alternative approach is to
focus on strengths and assets with the intention of building the community’s
capacity.
Both approaches focus on facilitating change within communities. According
to Breuggemann (2006), there are two different but related approaches used
by professionals to problem-solving when assisting people to create a more
humanitarian social environment, solve social issues and make social change.
The two approaches described by him are rational problem-solving and social
thinking. Rational problem-solving is a cyclical process consisting of specific
steps. It is the conventional way of making decisions and is often used when
applying the problem-based approach to community development.
Social thinking is an uncomplicated method used in natural human
engagement, is change-oriented, uses a citizenship approach, is the basis of
civic consciousness, utilises collective effort, is interdependent, empowering,
rooted in practice and utilises multiple thinking strategies (Brueggemann,
2006). Asset-based community development tends to utilise social thinking
when dealing with communities.
Problem-based community development
In social work practice, problem-based approaches are implemented across
micro, meso and macro levels. Prior to 1850, proto-social workers used
problem-solving to assist with the justification and streamlining of services
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to persons with intellectual and emotional disabilities. During the
Reconstruction (1865-1880) and Progressive (1880-1915) Eras, social
workers used problem-solving thinking for planning the provision of private
charity, and in this way contributed to placing government in context. In the
1930s and 1940s problem-solving thinking was extended by John Dewey’s
How We Think in 1933. Dewey argued that effective problem-solving
requires the pursuit of specific steps in a precise and systematic sequence
(Brueggemann, 2006; Compton, Galaway and Cournoyer, 2005).
During the 1950s and 1960s Perlman was the first person to openly connect
social work practice with problem-solving. In 1957 Perlman developed a
framework to describe the social case-work method as a problem-solving
process with different steps (Brueggemann, 2006; Compton, Galaway and
Cournoyer, 2005). Rational problem-solving as described by Brueggemann
(2006) forms the foundation on which clients, groups and communities are
assisted by professionals to resolve personal and social problems. The social
work profession predominantly applies ‘problem-focused’ practice models
because of the pre-occupation with human deficits, social problems and
dysfunctional attributes and limitations in groups and communities (Russell
and Smeaton, 2010).
In Africa, the problem-based approach was the preferred approach to
development throughout the 1950s and 1960s, and until the late 1970s the
inhabitants of Sub-Saharan African countries were rarely asked what their
priorities and concerns were aid organisations hardly ever considered that
the people might have something of value to offer in responding to the
countless humanitarian crises they encountered (Russell and Smeaton, 2010;
Booy, Sena and Arusha, 2000). Even today, the identification of felt needs
and problems is the predominant approach to community development.
In South Africa, the majority of the population is confronted with severe
social problems. The starkness of social problems like poverty, unemploy-
ment, illiteracy, famine, lack of basic services (water, housing, electricity,
sanitation), dependence on social grants, crime and violence, drug and
alcohol addiction, physical, sexual and emotional abuse, disability, HIV and
Aids, tuberculosis, unhealthy living conditions and poorly managed waste
in many informal settlements, underdeveloped areas in townships and low-
income neighbourhoods compel the professional to start with the
identification of problems when working with a community.
With reference to problem-based community development, the common
point of departure appears to be the mapping and analysis of needs, problems
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and/or impediments in the community (Weyers, 2011; Kretzmann and
McKnight, 1993). By focusing on the problems, the professionals and the
community members tend to concentrate on what is dysfunctional and/or
absent in the community. The community’s needs map becomes the
foundation of the mental map of professionals and the collective mind map of
community members about their community and determines how problems
are to be addressed (Kretzmann and McKnight, 1993). Problems are then
prioritised, and this is followed by choosing a suitable community work
model and designing, developing and implementing a deficiency-oriented
plan, project or programme to address the needs (Nel, 2006; Wade, 1989).
Much of social work theory and practice is constructed around what Saleebey
(2009:3) refers to as “… the supposition that clients become clients because
they have deficits, problems, pathologies and diseases; that they are, in some
essential way, flawed or weak”. In relation to Saleebey’s view, Gray, and
Collett van Rooyen (2002:193) argue that professionals are inclined “… to
approach the helping situation with preconceived ideas that influence the way
they listen to, hear and interpret the client’s story and thus the way in which
they design their intervention”.
Generally, people’s mind-sets and attitudes about life are influenced by their
perceptions of the realities they are confronted with and the lens through
which they see life then often determines how they address problems.
Brueggemann (2006) claims that the attitude that people take towards the
necessity of solving problems determines whether social change will take
place. The prevailing problem-based paradigm of professionals contributes to
the creation of environments where people believe that “their well-being
depends on being a client” (Kretzmann and McKnight, 1993:2). Debilitation
starts when community members begin to see themselves as ‘victims’ or
people with ‘special needs who are unable to take responsibility and
dependent on outsiders to craft their destinies (Russell and Smeaton, 2010;
Mathie and Cunningham, 2002; Kretzmann and McKnight, 1993).
Problem-based community development might identify many problems like
poverty and unemployment; however, these social issues, which require
structural change, are too large and overwhelming to be resolved by one
community (Haines, 2009). Although this approach genuinely aims to
eliminate problems, there are different factors on the macro level, for
example, existing policies, economic growth, job creation and education,
over which professionals and community members do not have control, and
these factors hinder development. Attempts to address these issues might
create unreasonable expectations from professionals and community
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members, which is likely to lead to disappointment and failure over time. The
unsuccessful attempts by community members in conjunction with their
collective negative mental map about the community contribute to the sense
of hopelessness, low self-esteem, limited energy and lack of motivation often
present among many community members (Green, Moore and O’Brien,
2006; Mathie and Cunningham, 2002; Kretzmann and McKnight, 1993).
Critics of problem-based community development
Firstly, continuous focus on problems implies that energy is spent on analys-
ing, maintaining and nurturing the undesirable. Saleebey (2009:3) argues that
“the metaphors and narratives that guide our thinking and acting … are
sometimes negative constructs that are fatal for the future of those we help”.
As Russell and Smeaton (2010:4) explain, a needs map contaminates the
collective mind-set of local people, as they then start to believe that their
community is no more than a barren landscape, bereft of productive capacity
or value which can only develop by bringing in outside help this paves the
way for experts who will come and fix their brokenness, fill their emptiness,
and cure them of their maladies”.
Secondly, Kretzmann and McKnight (1993) argue that problem-based
community development allows professionals to be in control of the inter-
ventions. This might create perceptions among community members that
only external experts or consultants can provide real help (Russell and
Smeaton, 2010). They lose faith in their internal and local expertise and no
longer invest in mutual support and internal problem-solving. The principle
of ‘valuing the local’ as described by Ife and Tesoriero (2006) is not always
acknowledged and honoured. This results in disempowerment and inhibits
development from within the community. External dependency does not
build strong communities, and when a community starts believing that
its needs can only be addressed by outside professionals, it becomes needier
and further removed from its capacity to deal with its own needs (Green,
Moore and O’Brien, 2006; Mathie and Cunningham 2002; Kretzmann and
McKnight, 1993).
Thirdly, Brueggemann (2006), Braun (2005:131-132) and Kretzmann and
McKnight (1993:4-5) claim that problem-based community development
tends to limit sustainability. Because the primary focus is on problems and
deficiencies, it constrains the perceptions of people and organisations about
the resources, capacities and capabilities, and community members become
paralysed by problems, many of which require structural and not functional
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change. As Haines (2009:39) claims, problem-based community develop-
ment “… can point to so many problems and needs that people feel
overwhelmed, and, therefore, nothing is done”. This contributes to the
elusiveness of sustainable development because, when they are over-
whelmed, communities are likely to be reluctant to explore unknown
territory, and this impedes development per se.
Fourthly, when problems and needs within a community are used as the
exclusive guide to attract funding and other resources, it implies that funding
and the provision of other resources is dependent on how many things are
‘wrong’ within a community. As Russell and Smeaton (2010:3) state, “the
consequence is that there is no real incentive to reduce this deficit list for fear
of a correlated reduction in funding”. Therefore year after year, needs
analyses are conducted to gather evidence to convince donors and prove to
them that problems are worse than the previous year hence the need for
increased donor investment in the community. When problems are used as
the draw card for funds, it is almost a given that donors and sponsors will be
prescriptive about the conditions attached to the funding (Kretzmann and
McKnight, 1993). This results in jeopardising community empowerment, and
communities are reluctant to take ownership of their own development. This
might also be perceived as denigrating and undermining local leadership
within the community (Ife, 2002). It also reinforces the dependency mentality
and strengthens the dependency cycle.
Fifthly, service providers often write funding proposals based on the needs
and problems of the community on behalf of the community. When funding
is granted it is generally managed and controlled by the service providers.
Unfortunately, all the funds do not necessarily reach the community and
capacity building of community members might be lacking. Therefore, some
needs might be addressed and some problems might be resolved; however,
the sustainability of some projects and programmes is questionable
(Kretzmann and McKnight, 1993).
Lastly, as soon as needs and problems form the foundation of policy design
and development, a ‘maintenance and survival’ strategy for marginalised
groups and isolated individuals in communities is developed, and the entire
community is not included in the development plan. Ife and Tesoriero
(2006:145) argue that “community development must always seek to
maximise participation, with the aim being for everyone in the community to
be actively involved in community processes and activities and to recreate
community and personal futures”.
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If maintenance and survival is the focus of community development, no
structural change will result, and, as Kretzmann and McKnight (1993:5)
claim, “… if maintenance and survival are the best we can provide, what
sense can it make to invest in the future?”
The challenge is to go beyond the consideration of problems and deficiencies
and make a paradigm shift to an alternative approach where the focus is on
possibilities, capabilities and assets, “gradually challenging our mechanistic
view of the world and moving towards a more holistic, ecological view that
gives greater eminence to the role of human consciousness in constructing
reality” (Braun, 2005:133).
Asset-based community development (ABCD)
The ABCD approach was designed and applied by Kretzmann and McKnight
(1993) at the Northwestern University Center for Urban Affairs and Policy
Research, Illinois, United States of America, as a way of counteracting the
problem-based approach to community development. Their ideas for ABCD
were based on observations made in the 1980s that disadvantaged
communities had a high level of individual, associational and institutional
assets that were either untapped or “under-tapped”. These observations were
critical to their thinking about how communities might change if residents are
mobilised to participate in the process of change. The ABCD approach
challenges communities to think about what they have and not about what
they do not have. According to Morse (2011:10) it assists community
members in developing “new eyes about themselves and their surroundings”,
and for professionals “it shifts the conversation from thinking of citizens as
objects to fix, to assets to tap”.
Changes brought about by a globalised world economy and the weakening
role of government as a provider of solutions to community problems
facilitated a shift to an ABCD approach to community development. The
challenges of building the capacity of local communities to realise their rights
and entitlements of citizenship and finding avenues of economic opportunity
also contributed to the shift (Mathie and Cunningham, 2003).
The ABCD approach is founded on the essentials of the strengths
perspective, which is a collaborative process between community members
and the professional, allowing them to work together to determine outcomes
that draw on community members’ strengths and assets (Frediani, 2010;
Saleebey, 2009; Oko, 2006; Gray and Collett van Rooyen, 2002).
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ABCD is embedded in the rights-based approach and honours social justice.
It empowers passive community members who wait for others to accord and
respect their rights to become active citizens and to take responsibility and
accountability for their own destinies and secure one another’s rights
(Mathie, 2006; Patel, 2005).
This approach is also complementary to the Sustainable Livelihoods
Approach (SLA). The starting point of both approaches is that people have
strengths and capacities, and uncovering these is a key motivator for
proactive action (Hadidy, 2008; Xiaoyun and Remenyi, 2008; Braun, 2005;
Kretzmann and McKnight, 1993).
ABCD encourages an appreciation and mobilisation of assets and strengths in
communities. Assets afford each person with a sense of purpose and identity.
The ABCD approach is designed to recognise the assets and capacities of all,
irrespective of age, gender or class, and to show where opportunities for
collaboration exist for mutual gain in communities (Mathie and Cunningham,
2003). Assets are more than just resources. Awareness of assets facilitates
engagement with resources.
The literature on ABCD emphasises the importance of valuing the personal/-
human, physical, financial, natural, political, social, spiritual and cultural
assets/capital within a community (McKnight and Block, 2010; Green and
Haines, 2008; Hadidy, 2008; Ife and Tesoriero, 2006; Mathie and
Cunningham, 2003; Camey, 1998; Kretzmann and McKnight, 1993).
There is a strong emphasis on social capital in ABCD. Social capital refers to
the networks, connectedness and relationships of trust and reciprocity on
which people rely to make a living. Social capital is inherent in associations
where members work together in collaborative action (Green and Haines,
2008; Ife and Tesoriero, 2006). Social capital includes philanthropy of
community, which refers to the horizontal relation among people who
practise the principles of ‘Ubuntu’. Social capital is the asset that enables
access to other assets (Mathie and Cunningham, 2003). Real social capital
includes spiritual capital, and "no other kind of capital really works without
an underlying base of spiritual capital" (Zohar and Marshall, 2004:3).
Affirmation of the above-mentioned assets plays a key role in providing each
person with a sense of capacity and purpose. Assets are also the basis on
which people take action. According to Mathie and Cunningham (2003), the
ABCD approach is designed to recognise the capabilities and potential
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contributions of all, irrespective of age, gender or class, and to show where
opportunities for collaboration exist for mutual gain in communities.
The intention is to surface, reinforce and apply these assets/capital and to
cultivate a positive vision for the future. This does not mean that the ABCD
approach denies the existence of problems or the need to urgently solve them,
but problems or needs are not the starting point. The energy is focused on
strengths and assets and a positive meaning is then given to “problems and
needs” as opportunities for development (Libanda, 2007; Braun, 2005;
Ashford and Patkar, 2001). It is a ‘meaning-making’ process, and it aims to
assist with finding solutions for current problems based on available assets
and resources, as well as past experiences of success.
Associations (formal or informal) within communities are one of the main
features of the ABCD approach. Associations are voluntary organisations that
operate on the basis of consent (Boyd, Hayes, Wilson and Bearsley-Smith,
2008, Green and Haines, 2008, Mathie and Cunningham, 2003). There are
various types of associations, for example, informal burial societies,
‘stokvels’, church groups, groups formed around pressing social issues, for
example, women abuse, or groups organised around sport, arts and culture.
Citizen-driven development happens spontaneously when citizens organise
themselves and establish associations that build powerful communities. As
vehicles for collaborative effort, many associations can expand beyond their
original purposes by taking on different roles in linking with public and
private sector institutions to contribute to the development process
(Cunningham, 2008; Hadidy, 2008; Mathie, 2006; Mathie and Cunningham,
2003).
ABCD is aimed to stimulate an authentic, participatory, community-driven,
self-mobilised process of development. Mathie and Cunningham (2003:3)
argue that the poor are often allowed to participate in development, but only
in so far as they do not attempt to change the rules of the game “… it is like
riding a top-down vehicle of development whose wheels are greased with a
vocabulary of bottom-up discourse”. Different authors proposed different but
complementary typologies of participation, which clearly explains the
contested nature of the concept, its complexity and different meanings it can
have (Chikadzi and Pretorius, 2011; Davids, Theron and Maphunye, 2009;
Ife and Tesoriero, 2006; Kumar, 2002; Arnstein 1969). Differences in terms
of power are attached to the different types of participation. The type of
participation suggested by the ABCD approach is authentic, where the
community participates in decision-making and self-mobilisation. People in
communities can organise and drive development processes themselves.
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There is a significant shift from the opinions and solutions of the outsider to
the collaboration and wisdom of those most involved, namely the citizens.
The focus is the journey away from bureaucracy and hierarchy towards self-
organising and authentic participation. This approach requires a commitment
from professionals to “step back” and allow the community to lead. It
compels professionals to act as facilitators and intermediaries rather than
“drivers” of the community development process. Their focus is on partner-
ing with various organisations using methods and techniques of participatory
action research (PAR) with the purpose of strengthening and linking
community assets (Schenck et al., 2010; Cunningham, 2008; Brown, 2007).
The logical consequence of focusing on the assets, capacities and capabilities
in communities is to encourage community members to fulfill pro-active
roles as citizens and replace the passive, dependent roles community
members often play when practising community development. Citizens and
not government or non-governmental organisations (NGOs), are initiating,
designing and implementing the development process. Emmet (2000:512) is
of the opinion that outside resources can be more effectively utilised “if the
community has already mobilised its own resources and defined the agenda
for the utilisation of external resources”. Therefore, ABCD is an endogenous
and not an exogenous process.
The ABCD is also a methodology and process for identifying and mobilising
community assets for change (Mathie and Cunningham, 2003). The process
usually begins with a period of building relationships with community
members with a particular emphasis on the inclusion of marginalised groups.
Identifying the network of existing associations and local groups within the
community is an important part of the process.
The premise behind the methodology is that communities that recognise their
assets and opportunities are more likely to be motivated to take the initiative
to mobilise and strengthen their asset base. Guided by this premise, the
community in partnership with the professional has to decide which
combination of tools and methods, for example, appreciative inquiry
techniques, inventory and asset-mapping exercises, are appropriate in the
identification and mobilisation of community assets. Community members
share stories of successful endeavours, which encourage them to focus on
successes achieved. These stories are analysed collectively, themes are
identified and inventories and maps of assets are developed.
The community should also identify and include local organisations, as part
of the asset maps. Ideally the process results in the formation of a community
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structure that can sustain the community-driven process (Ennis and West,
2010; Boyd et al., 2008, Emmett, 2000).
From the above description of ABCD the four main principles are that
change must come from within the community, that development must build
upon the capacities and assets that exist within the community, that change
should be relationship-driven and that change should be oriented towards
sustainable community growth (Ennis and West, 2010; Ashford and Patkar,
2001; Kretzmann and McKnight, 1993).
Critics of ABCD
It seems if there are three major limitations of ABCD. Firstly, the approach
over-emphasises the contributions of community members and associations
in terms of development. This could blind professionals to the role and
responsibilities of external agencies, for example, government in the
development of communities (Emmett, 2000).
Secondly, while ABCD has some scope for creating dialogue with the macro-
level structures that impact communities, for example, government,
municipality and businesses, the approach has been criticised because it tends
to ignore issues related to power and oppression (Mathie and Cunningham,
2003). This approach is also based on the premise that communities must
learn to survive within Western societies that are based on neo-liberal models
instead of challenging, for example, the economic systems (Ennis and West,
2010). For professionals and, most importantly, the communities they serve,
the ideological foundations of the unjust macro issues might be difficult to
accept.
Lastly, a major criticism of ABCD is that descriptive reports primarily
written by the agency that undertook the project mainly focus on reporting
about the capacity building of community members and associations
(internal-looking) without reporting on structural changes (external-looking)
brought about by the approach (Ennis and West, 2010).
SUMMARISING THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE ASSET-
BASED AND PROBLEM-BASED APPROACHES TO COMMUNITY
DEVELOPMENT
The explanations of the two approaches to community development allow the
differences to emerge clearly. The main difference lies in which lens you
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choose to view the community: is the focus on problems or assets? The main
differences of the two approaches are summarised below.
Firstly, when practising the ABCD approach to community development,
concentration on strengths, assets, capabilities, capacities and opportunities
is the focus, for example, asset inventories and mapping are the techniques
used during the process (Green and Haines, 2008; Wilkinson-Maposa, 2008).
In applying the problem-based approach to community development, the
emphasis is on the problems, needs, weaknesses and deficiencies, for
example, needs assessments, problem identification and analysis are
deliberated (Mathie and Cunningham, 2003; Kretzmann and McKnight,
1993).
Secondly, recognising and utilising basic community wisdom and problem-
solving capacities to address the community’s problems demonstrate a
bottom-up approach. In contrast, problem assessments are often based on
preconceived ideas and ‘instructions’ by ‘experts’ on behalf of communities.
Prescribed programmes for communities are developed which results in
dependence on experts who influence and control the process of
development. This shows top-down action (Brown, 2007; Mathie and
Cunningham, 2003; Kretzmann and McKnight, 1993).
Thirdly, the ABCD approach assumes that even the poorest communities
have resources, strengths, assets and opportunities that can be the starting
point for interventions. The result is an inside-out process where endogenous
resources are acknowledged and utilised. Associations and informal groups in
communities are the first groups to engage with when ABCD is applied.
When the focus is on weaknesses, deficiencies and problems, community
members see themselves as people with no capabilities who have ‘to be
saved’ by experts from outside. Using this as a starting point for community
development is an outside-in process that utilises exogenous resources
(McKnight and Block, 2010; Wilkinson-Maposa, 2008; Kretzmann and
McKnight, 1993).
Fourthly, philanthropy of community (known as ‘Ubuntu’) is the ‘horizontal’
relationship of help among and between people that enhances cohesion and
care. Philanthropy for the community is the more vertical transfer from the
‘haves’ to the ‘have nots’. It ignores helping existing community systems and
can be destructive by creating unhealthy conflict and competition (Schenck et
al., 2010).
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Fifthly, another distinguishing feature of ABCD is its emphasis on the active
role of community members as productive citizens. According to McKnight
and Block (2010), one of the ways in which individuals act as citizens is by
taking responsibility for initiating community-building activities, rather than
leaving this function to government and other agencies. This process of
citizen-driven development happens spontaneously when citizens form
informal or formal associations and take ownership of community
development activities. They then become producers taking ownership for
their own destiny. On the other hand, when applying problem-based
approaches only, community members become clients and consumers of
services, who are dependent on service delivery by government and other
agencies. They then see themselves as people with special needs that should
be met by experts from outside the community (McKnight and Block, 2010;
Green and Haines, 2008; Hadidy, 2008; Wilkinson-Maposa, 2008; Libanda,
2007).
Lastly, the asset-based approach facilitates collaboration and partnerships
between different stakeholders in the community and allows for
empowerment to take place, whereas the problem-based approach requires
community members to fulfill the role of recipients and enforces dependence
(Schenck et al., 2010; Braun, 2005; Ife, 2002).
CONCLUSIONS
In conclusion, it is apparent that these two approaches view communities
through different lenses. When the asset-based approach is practised, the
focus is on the capital and assets within the community. However, the
realities of poverty, limited access to resources and unemployment should not
be ignored. The difference lies in the mind-set and attitude with which the
professional approaches community development. When communities are
aware of their assets and encouraged to mobilise them, how to seize
opportunities for genuine community- and citizen-driven development is
better understood.
It is evident from this article that the ABCD approach is founded on four
basic principles. Firstly, it is internally focused on what is present in the
community and builds on existing capacity and assets. The strong internal
focus is intended to stress the investment, creativity, hope and control of
citizens in the community. Secondly, it is relationship-driven, meaning that
community development professionals need to constantly facilitate the
building and rebuilding of relationships between and among local citizens,
associations and institutions. Thirdly, it acknowledges, respects and embraces
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The Social Work Practitioner-Researcher, Vol. 24 (2), 2012
community-rooted traditions. Lastly, it aims to promote sustainable growth in
a community.
The traditional approach concentrates on and prioritises problems in
communities. Conducting need and problem analyses, or compiling need and
problem maps, instills feelings of despair, inadequacy and hopelessness in
community members. This approach enforces a dependence on outside
institutions and experts for solutions to problems. The deficiency-oriented
mind-set establishes powerlessness in the community. What is important is
that community development professionals should reflect on why very few
community development interventions are sustainable. Given the devastating
and deeply rooted consequences of apartheid, in order to create sustainable
development the challenge for professionals in community development is to
adopt an endogenous process, facilitate participation of all stakeholders (an
inclusive process that is not a simple task) and ensure that community
leadership resides where it belongs.
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