Community Development Mistakes: Predetermination

By Jeff Palmer, CEO on April 27, 2018 | Print

Please hear me clearly. Doing projects with people–such as water wells, health clinics, tutoring–is not bad. However, just because we run into a village or urban slum and implement a project, doesn’t mean that we have done community development. In most of those scenarios, there are some definite benefits to the local people and they are genuinely grateful, but “our projects” don’t necessarily create sustainable development.

Example One: A medical clinic

Let me give an example. A medical/health care clinic held after a disaster event, refugee situation, or conducted in areas with little or no access to health services, is often a very good thing. It is not sustainable (we can’t bring a team of doctors every week to any one area forever), but it meets a critical/acute need and saves precious lives.

However, take that same medical/health team and clinic to an area of the world that has access to local health care. It may help some people, but may do more harm than good in the long run because people may circumvent their local services in lieu of the free services provided by the foreigners. This ultimately puts people who choose not to seek local care at risk, while damaging the business of the local doctors.

Example Two: Water filters

Let’s say my organization makes and distributes water filters. We believe that our water filter is the best and most economical in the whole world. And everybody needs clean water, right? So every community we enter, despite encountering multiple problems (because communities are complex), our predetermined answer and solution is, “We have a free water filter!”

Like the clinic, it may help some people. But it is a short-sighted solution that doesn’t take into account any contextual factors or community issues. Entering with a pre-determined menu of things we do for people–whether they need it or not–is, at best, short sighted and self-centered. At worst, it is paternalistic and patronizing.

It may well be that the community needs a health care clinic/team or a better way to filter their water. But the good community development worker doesn’t start with what they have, their knowledge, or their resources. The good community development worker starts with the community. By endeavoring to understand the community’s perspective, he or she can better determine the exact nature of the need and the most appropriate ways to meet it.

One of the primary principles we seek to instill in our development workers is this: Seek first to understand before trying to make yourself understood. In other words, don’t go in with a preconceived package of solutions to the problems that no one in the community is wanting to address. Go in as a learner first, knowing that you have some skills and resources as an outsider, but also knowing that the best community development occurs when the people say, “this is our problem” and “let’s work together to do something about it!”

Gayle Berry 6 years ago

We can apply this point to our every day lives here in the good ole US of A in our local churches. My church has a program of providing free lunches in a middle school to about 70% of the kids because "they are not receiving meals at home". Are we helping the kids attain an education or are we providing free food unnecessarily to families that do not need the welfare? Could we be using the funds in a more useful way to support really needy families in our immediate community? This applies to BGR's use of our donations also as discussed in your article. Keep up the good work, Jeff.

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