Community Development Mistakes: Misidentifying

By Jeff Palmer, CEO on April 23, 2018 | Print

For all the virtues that surround community development, there are also common barriers that can create setbacks and pose challenges. This next blog series will identify some of these issues and how they impact process and strategy in the field. I hope that you will find some similarities with your own struggles and maybe some answers that will get you over a particular hurdle you are encountering in your community development efforts. Please share your thoughts and feedback along the way so that, as we learn together, we can better serve those within the communities we encounter, facilitating a more effective development process among them.

Mistaken Identities

When considering common misconceptions or missteps of community development, step one is as simple and complex as semantics. What do we really mean when we use the word, “community”? Often, it refers to a geographical area, but may not involve all the individuals in the area. Ideally, in a rural area, a community would be a small village. These communities are usually easily identifiable, homogeneous, and fairly easy to work with utilizing a community development process. However, when we enter an urban area or if we are dealing with a larger rural group (maybe a town or district), the community lines can be blurred. The larger the grouping of people, the more complicated the community lines and ties.

“We” People

The most natural communities exist among “we” people. In other words, the natural and existing groupings of people that see themselves as community and, in general, use the word “we” when they talk about one another. The core root of the word “community” means, “to have in common” and thus we are looking and desiring to work with those that already have something in common.

If we begin a community development process with a random group of people who really don’t have anything in common to begin with, the chances are we are headed for a failure. Proximity does not always equal community. Just because people live close to one another, they don’t necessarily have much in common with each other or existing community ties.

A great example is a slum that I visited not long ago in a major African city. The slum itself consisted of over 300,000 people. We could say that the slum itself was a community. However, in reality, what we would find if we took time to dig deeper, is that there are thousands of communities within that large slum area. While the 300,000 people live in the same general geographical area and have some of the same basic challenges in common (income, water, education, etc.), the reality is that most of them live in a smaller world of 20, 50, or maybe 100 people where they have their relationships, daily interactions, business transactions, etc.

A common mistake (and thus barrier) to successful community development is to either choose (as a starting point) too large or a group or a group that really is not already, in some way, community. Usually the first few community meetings might start out well because of the local curiosity and cultural politeness, but as you move through the community development process, if the groups doesn’t have some sense of community, things will begin to break down. Individuals will start pulling the direction of the conversations and planned programs to themselves or their group. People will begin to work as individuals and not as a group.

So, my question to you (the reader) is, “How do you identify potential communities to work with?” Or more importantly, “How do you know that you are really working with a community from the very beginning?”

Let us hear your feedback. I look forward to the dialogue!

Gayle 3 years ago

Are you breaking the major grouping down to a family sub-group or a nationality sub-group/ And I'm not meaning to be critical, just raising a question. Where and how do you break down a major group of 300,000? I'm sure that's going to be a point in future discussions. Thanks for your weekly emails. They do raise many excellent points to think about.

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