Community Development Mistakes: Impatience

By Jeff Palmer, CEO on April 30, 2018 | Print

The past week, we’ve discussed two common mistakes in community development: misidentifying a community, and imposing predetermined solutions or projects without first learning the community in which you are working.

Now that you are aware of the importance of developing an authentic relationship with community members, you’re ready to dive in to the five-step process that serves as a framework for development:

  1. The community identifies and becomes more aware of their problems
  2. The community analyzes the problems identified
  3. The community comes up with solutions to their problems and prioritizes as to which is doable and feasible
  4. The community lays out their plan to solve their identified problem and begins implementing their chosen solution
  5. The community monitors and evaluates their progress; they celebrate the success of their efforts; and they move on to other problems/challenges that they’ve identified

Easy, right? It all goes smoothly and as planned, correct?

Well… maybe.

But in most cases, the above process takes time. If you’ve not experienced it before, you’ll likely learn that waiting for the community to take ownership of the process can be extremely frustrating. To you, the answers are clear and obvious. How could they possibly not put two and two together?

It’s at this juncture where we can make the critical mistake of letting impatience get the best of us and make a decision for the community, moving the project along, but also cutting the process short. When we do this, we undermine the entire framework outlined above. In each and every step, the community–not the development worker–is the key actor and decision maker. Our job is to facilitate the process, not hijack it. The second we jump in to “save the day” the process is no longer the community’s; it is ours.

Most times, this type of development behavior is well-intentioned and benevolent in nature. However, even if one gets off to a good start with community involvement, it’s tempting and likely feels natural to offer a menu of pre-prepared technologies/resources that can save the day and solve the problem. This is a mistake on multiple levels:

  • It tells the community that they cannot come up with solutions to their own problems.
  • It communicates that the outsider is superior and has all the answers.
  • It communicates that the outsider is a magician who had a solution all along for their problem and pulled the rabbit out of the hat. And, if it is this outsider’s solution, then the community is sure that the resources to accomplish this solution will probably come from the outsider as well.

Patience is critical when it comes to community development. The problems in any given community did not emerge overnight. Years of behaviors, beliefs and patterns have perpetuated the situation and will take time to first identify, then untangle and finally discover solutions.

When we as development workers intervene with our own idea and/or technology, we are putting a band-aid on a major wound. It looks like we’ve done something but it doesn’t really stop the bleeding. We have to allow people to think, grow, and take charge of their issues and developmental needs. And we have to be careful not to do it for them but rather participate with them.