Traditionally, efforts to improve the living conditions of the poor have adopted an approach that focuses on the community’s problems and needs rather than their strengths, capacities, and assets. When most people think of impoverished neighbourhoods, a mental map of deprivation serves to represent the entire community – that is what they hear politicians and social workers discuss and what they see in the media. This one-dimensional picture has spawned an industry of social-service providers who perceive the community in terms of the extent of its problems and needs. Tragically, residents themselves share this distorted, negative picture of their community and succumb to pessimism and apathy. Citizens in these situations become consumers of services rather than producers of solutions. It behoves them to emphasize their deprivation rather than contemplate the possibility that they have some of the tools to improve their well-being.
In such a situation the individual in need of assistance looks to outside funders and experts to make things better, ignoring and diminishing the capacity of those human bonds that exist in church groups and recreational clubs, for example, to serve as sources of strength and provide the social glue to hold the community together in the face of adversity. When a needs-based strategy prevails, the best residents can hope for is survival. Energies go toward maintaining a marginal status quo rather than contribute toward visioning future growth. The pervasive sense of hopelessness bars any possibility that the community will have the confidence and desire to participate in shaping its own destiny.
The alternative to this bleak picture is a capacity-building strategy that identifies and brings into play those skills, assets, and human networks often overlooked and untapped by agencies seeking to improve living conditions. When the strategy adopted assumes an attitude of ‘seeing the glass as half-full rather than half empty’, decades of feeling inferior and without value can give way to a future where community members participate in their own improvement. A new mental map contains landmarks of opportunity, possibility and innovative solutions to the challenge of poverty. Community members must participate in generating this map and use it to formulate a development process that builds on their human, cultural and social capital present in individuals, informal associations and institutions.
An asset based approach to development must be driven from the bottom-up, in order to instill a sense of empowerment and self-sufficiency with community members designing and implementing improvement strategies; it must be comprehensive in cutting across and integrating bureaucratically distinct areas of social services, crime prevention, health, job creation and housing; and it must begin with an accurate analysis of indigenous talents, resources and networks. According to this approach, benefits only result when community members take an active hand in the process and assume a sense of ownership of the development agenda. The role of the outside expert is to advise and provide guidance.
- MAMTA MANTRI