The importance of asset-based community development

by Mark Duanmu

Seva Gandhi led the "Asset-Based Community Development" workshop Thursday for the first workshop block in at the Global Engagement Summit 2016. Gandhi is the Senior Program Coordinator at the Institute of Cultural Affairs in Chicago and specializes in community development and outreach.

The workshop was centered around the idea of an “assets-based” approach, in contrast to the usual “needs-based” approach. The workshop kicked off with delegate introductions, as each delegate briefly introduced their projects and identified a specific skill or asset that they held.

After introductions, Gandhi, with the assistance of a PowerPoint presentation, delved into the differences between a “needs approach” and an “assets approach”. According to Gandhi, “needs approaches” focus on the needs and deficits of a community, and aim to use external programs as solutions to the community’s problems. In contrast, “assets approaches” focus on the unique assets and strengths of a community, so that instead of creating programs, the people of the community can be utilized to solve problems.      

Gandhi noted, however, that both needs and assets should be identified and considered to achieve effective problem solving, saying that, “you need to think about what is working in a community, and how to use those assets to fix what’s not working.” She then went on to discuss the potential negative effects of taking a strictly needs-based approach to community development, and articulated the main principles of asset-based community development.

The delegates generally seemed supportive and enthusiastic about the idea of asset-based community development, with some citing a lack of positivity among community developers. “When doing work in a struggling community, we usually don’t talk about the good things about the people and the community. We always focus on the problems and the bad behavior,” said delegate Gerald Hodges from Liberia.    

Gandhi split the delegates into three smaller groups for a research and brainstorming activity. Each was given a unique country (Kenya, Panama, Turkey) and a specific “assessment tool” (happiness index, permaculture, 9 projects). These assessment tools are different systems that can be used to tackle community development and assess progress in a community. The delegates did brief online research to identify specific assets in their given country, and apply them using their “assessment tool.” In this way, delegates could better understand exactly what an asset-based approach entails, and the many different approaches community developers can take when tackling problems in a community. “You all have different views of what development means, so I wanted this activity to make you more cognizant of that,” said Gandhi.

After the activity, delegates discussed what they liked and didn’t like about the activity, and how these “asset based glasses” might help delegates in their projects. Heather Ryan, a delegate from Florida, noted, “I think this is the best way to do meaningful research about a country you know nothing about.. it’s an effective ‘brain-dump’ and I think it’s very useful.”  

Additionally, delegates discussed the disparate mismatch between the assets and needs of the communities they researched. “When businesses move to African countries like Kenya, they don’t take the youth seriously, and they don’t realize the youth is seventy percent of the population. This is why the unemployment rate can be so high,” said delegate Jephthah Achampong.                        

Gandhi concluded the workshop by emphasizing the importance of deeply analyzing the assets of a community before trying to tackle a problem, using an Albert Einstein quote, “If I had only one hour to solve a problem, I would spend 55 Minutes thinking about the problem and then five minutes solving it.”