Sustainable Community Development: From What’s Wrong To What’s Strong – Cormac Russell

Cormac Russell, a leading advocate of Asset Based Community Development (ABCD)

In a previous blog entitled Community Building, I introduced Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) as a way of facilitating healing in communities.

I pointed out that the most common approach to ‘helping’ communities (and individuals) has involved focusing on the community’s needs, deficiencies and problems. This approach leads to the development of deficiency-oriented policies and programs. Public, private and non-profit service systems develop and they ‘teach’ people the nature of their problems and the services they need.

Community members become disempowered. They come to see that their well-being depends on becoming a client. They begin to see themselves as people with special needs that can only be met by outsiders. They become consumers of services, with no incentive to become productive.

The alternative path to community development (ABCD) focuses on a community’s assets, capacities and abilities. Historical evidence indicates that significant community development takes places only when local community people are committed to investing in themselves and their resources. Communities are built bottom-up, not top-down.

Cormac Russell is one of the leading advocates of the ABCD approach. His work, along with that of his colleagues at Nurture Development and the originators of the ABCD approach, John P. Kretzmann and John L. McKnight of the ABCD Institute in Chicago, USA, has greatly inspired me over the years.

There is no doubt in my mind that this approach is far more productive in helping the wellbeing of individuals, families and communities than is the needs-based approach most commonly adopted by governmental and non-governmental organisations.

As Cormac points out in his excellent TEDxExeter talk below:

‘… despite the fact that thousands and thousands of pieces of evidence call us to the idea that we should start with the capacities and the abilities in people and in communities, we see this great preponderance in governmental and non-governmental programs alike around the focus and the obsession with the starting on what is wrong, what is broken, what is pathological in people.

Sadly, that focus has caused huge harm to millions of people around the world, especially poor people and especially communities. And it has created four harms, unintended as they may be in particular.

The first of which is, it actually takes people who they are trying to help and defines them not by their gifts and capacities and what they can bring to the solution, but by their deficiencies and their problems.

The second unintended consequence of this top-down obsession with what’s wrong is that money which is intended to go to those who need the help doesn’t. It actually goes to those who are paid to provide the services to those who need help.

The third unintended consequence is that active citizenship, the power to take action and to respond at the grassroots level, retreats run in the face of ever-increasing technocracy, professionalism and expertise.

And finally, entire neighbourhoods, entire communities that have been defined as deficient start to internalise that map and  believe that the only way that anything is going to change for them is when some outside expert with the right program and the right money comes in to rescue them.

These are unintended harms. No caring professional wants these things to happen. But it also clear that no community needs these things to happen. Fortunately, there is another way of thinking about helping.

Please watch Cormac’s talk and learn about this alternative approach and see examples of it in action. Enjoy!

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