What Really Is Development Work?

National Lotteries Commission’s Sarah Hugow says asset-based community development is slow, but more effective in the long run

As CSI practitioners, we disburse considerable amounts of money to fund all sorts of interesting and exciting-looking endeavours – but how much of it really changes people’s lives?

If you’re not questioning what you do, regularly critiquing your own methods and assumptions, chances are you’re wasting your own time and someone else’s money.

As far back as 1989, Alan Kaplan, then head of the Community Development Resource Association, compared true community development to the painfully slow and delicate process of a butterfly emerging from a cocoon.

In a seminal work that has influenced development practitioners critical of mainstream ‘development’, he laid bare the hypocrisy and blundering that often characterises ‘development projects’:

‘Deep in the bush, unconnected by road to any source of supply or marketing outlet, one and a half hours walk from the nearest village, a 30-hectare plot of cleared ground stands fenced and empty. You have put down two bore holes, and this together with the fencing and some unused machinery lying about, has cost you 50,000 dollars.’

How many times has this scenario played out across Africa? Kaplan goes on to explain that in the above project, purporting to reinvigorate agriculture in a rural community, nothing the donors created was wanted by the villagers – and, by inference, nothing created by the villagers was valued by the donors.

What the villagers wanted was help with making their own fledgling gardens more productive – not a massive, fenced, shared space in which they were expected to run a co-operative after two weeks’ training.

The donors, government departments and NGOs overseeing the project had made the classic development mistake of assuming what people wanted and needed. They failed to listen. They failed to take their lead from a community which already had assets, ideas and a specific need. As a direct result, the project fell into disuse almost instantly and thousands of dollars went to waste.

A long involvement in development – Sarah Hugow
Kaplan’s scathing critique of development is prominent in the mind of Sarah Hugow, Manager for Research and Knowledge Management (R&KM) and Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) at the National Lotteries Commission (NLC). Sarah has been involved in the development sector for over twenty years, many of those with NLC. She is also Chairperson of Ikhala Trust, a community development support organisation and micro-grant maker that pioneered Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) in South Africa.

All of this makes her eminently qualified to offer insights into how development work can be more imaginatively and sensitively undertaken, so that projects are, in fact, led and owned by community members. As with all attempts by one party to help another, it starts with listening. Real development starts with asking the right questions.

One of these questions is, ‘What do you already have, and what do you already do?’ This question shifts the focus from what is lacking in a community to what is abundantly present. Invariably, answers will involve land, people and that intangible third asset: the strong relationships that exist between members of a street, a neighbourhood, a village or an organisation.

Asset-based community development (ABCD)
This question – what do you have? – is the kernel of asset-based community development  (ABCD) that seeks to link micro assets – a piece of land, willing participants, time, youth, the elderly, perhaps a spade, a shelter, a tap, a vehicle – to the macro environment.

ABCD mobilises individuals, organisations and institutions to come together to build on their existing assets, rather than focusing exclusively on ‘needs’. It involves a subtle but momentous shift in mindset, and can ignite a group to see themselves and their situation through new eyes, and to find creative ways to build on what they have.

The development practitioner in this case acts as a facilitator, not as a leader, wanting only to hear what people have already done, what gifts (talents, know-how, relationships) they already have, and what would most help them to achieve their goals.

In many cases, goals exist but may not be formally expressed or logically organised. The facilitator helps the group to share ideas and to define goals more specifically. Only then does the possibility of appropriate forms of assistance arise; these may be small at first and tailored to the expressed desires of the group. What’s important is that the development process arises ‘from the inside out’, with donor resources (funds or expertise) matching and supporting the aspirations and initiatives initiated and led by the community.

A humbler, slower way
In chatting with Hugow, one is struck by her yearning for this slower, less ostentatious and less technical way of doing development to find its way into the many projects that currently make up the corporate contribution to development in South Africa.

The National Lotteries Commission – comprising about 300 staff working in nine provincial offices – is currently working more consciously to support and build an outcomes-based model of development assistance. It is striving to make its funding more accessible through a decentralised model, an open funding window, and less onerous application requirements for smaller grants.

But lest anyone think this more welcoming process means a lowering of the bar when it comes to proposal scrutiny, Hugow is quick to point out that NLC is stepping up not only its adjudication process by which proposals are read and screened, but also introducing more robust monitoring, evaluation and learning processes for continuous refinement of its funding approach.

‘Historically, the NLC emphasis was on fund distribution. Now, we’re paying far more attention to whether or not a project aligns with our own strategic outcomes. We’re looking at your reporting mechanisms, and whether or not reports take cognisance of the principles of good corporate citizenship – that is, the economic, environmental, social and governance aspects of your project.

‘And, of course, we’re looking at your whole approach. Does your work really make a difference?’

Over the course of three more articles, we will be looking more closely at emerging trends in development work and in grant-making post-Covid-19, with input from National Lotteries Commission’s Sarah Hugow. She will give input on exciting development work being pioneered in India and Australia, discuss challenges and a way forward for grant-making in SA, and profile work done by South African NGOs that practise asset-based community development.

We stand to learn a lot if our aim is to make a real difference and not just to tick boxes!

1 Comment

  • Completely agree Jane. Unfortunately philanthropists often wrongly assume that an individual without access to opportunities is also unable to make sound decisions for themselves and their communities. It is a subconscious judgement that leads do-gooders to decide on behalf of, rather than develop adult-to-adult relationships where decision-making is shared.

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