Making Neighbourhoods Stronger
by Phil Bartle, PhD
The reasoning behind this methodology
Why Empower Communities?
When we use words, we often convey meanings that we do not intend, or meanings that we do not know we convey. There are emotions and assumptions associated with the words we use.
Take the word "poverty" for example. In the assistance industry (helpers of development), we often see ourselves as soldiers in the so-called war against poverty. Poverty is what we want to defeat. But what is the opposite of poverty? Wealth. Somehow we do not like to admit we are "soldiers in the war in favour of wealth." Why?
Because while poverty and wealth are technically opposite, there are many assumptions, emotions and hidden values that are attached to both those words, and those are conveyed along with their overt meanings. Somehow it is morally OK to help poor people, but we do not always like to keep in our conscious thoughts that we are helping them to obtain wealth.
The module on income generation is more acceptable when it is named as "income generation" than as "wealth generation" even though "wealth" is a more accurate economic term. (Where the objective is to generate wealth rather than merely transfer money). The term "wealth" comes with hidden emotional baggage that implies it means huge richness.
Poverty is a problem because there are disparities in wealth; some have more than others. If genuine equality were possible (and it is not, you may be happy to learn), then poverty would not be a problem.
Closely associated with "wealth" are "power" and "capacity." Communities (and individuals) that have lots of one, usually have lots of all three, and vice versa (those with low wealth usually have low power and low capacity). So when we want to improve the conditions of people in low income communities, poor communities, marginalized communities, we want them to have more wealth, power, and capacity.
But not too much.
It is nice (we think) to help the poor, but (in our hidden desires) we do not want them to become rich, or at least we do not want them to become as rich as us. We do not want to admit that.
Another of the emotionally laden words we use today is "democracy." We are all in favour of it, apparently.
But are we?
When we look carefully at the meaning of democracy, it turns out that we are not always in favour of it, especially if it means having to give up some of our own relative power (or wealth, or capacity).
Many who say they are in favour of democracy are really in favour of a set of institutions that allow people to vote for candidates, putting into power those with the most votes, allowing them to represent the people. This is "representational democracy." That is almost a contradiction in terms. The meaning of "democracy" is "Power to the people" (demo = people, cracy = power). The process of voting for representatives takes power away from people and gives it to the vote winners.
When we say we want to empower a community, we mean that we want to democratize it. That does not necessarily mean we want them to have votes to choose their representative (as in the British or American political model). It means we want the people (not just individuals) as a whole (collectively) to have power. We want to find ways for the community to have more power, wealth and capacity.
The communities most deserving of our assistance, then, are those with the least amount of power, wealth and capacity.
And we must be aware of our hidden desires to keep them poor, powerless and incapable just so that we can keep giving them our charity. If we genuinely want to empower them, we must do it in such a way that they become independent of our charity, that they become self reliant, that they can sustain their own development without our help. Our own desires for wealth and power are normal and natural. We need not be ashamed of them. We must, however, keep in mind that in our desire to help people who are poor and powerless, that we do not do so in ways that, in the long run, keep them poor and powerless ─ and dependent upon us.
The training documents on this web site are aimed primarily at the community mobilizer, and emphasize methods and techniques rather than theory or ideology. To effectively use those methods, however, we must be aware of what reasoning lies behind them, what principles apply, and what long term effects they have. Importantly, we must also constantly examine our own motives and purpose behind what we do.
Getting Stronger through Exercise:
Many times throughout this web site, you are advised to take approaches that can be seen as empowering, rather than those which promote dependency.
We sometimes use the term "charity approach" to name dependency producing methods of giving help. Charity in itself is not bad, in so much as it is based upon generosity, a value that we strongly support.
What we mean by the "charity approach," however, is a way of helping poor and powerless people that does not help them to become self reliant. Gifts that make the receivers more dependent upon the givers, are not truly generous. They sustain poverty. They keep the givers in a position of giving. If you give something to a person or group in need, you temporarily alleviate their need. You can be quite sure that when they are in need again, they will come back to where they received their first assistance.
This is not bad; it is human nature, or the nature of survival for any organism.
If you want that person or group to become self reliant, you need to be sure they want something in the first place. Then you must find ways for them to work or to struggle for it, so that when they need it again they will not come begging for it. If they get something for free, they will know that it was worth (to them) every penny they spent on it.
Several times on this web site, you will see a sports analogy to explain the empowerment method. A coach does not do push ups for the athlete, nor does a coach practice putting the basketball into the hoop for the basketball player. The person who is to get stronger and more competent has to do the work.
Another analogy is found in physiotherapy. If you hurt yourself and lose the use of your arm, you go to a physiotherapist for help. The physiotherapist may move your arm in the manner you need to move it, but only to show you where it must be exercised. You need to practice moving it yourself, and that is a painful and uncomfortable process. You need to want to get better. The result is that you get your strength back, and no longer need the services of the physiotherapist.
If the coach does the push ups for the athlete, the athlete does not become stronger. If the physiotherapist does the exercises for the patient, the patient does not become stronger. If the community worker does the work for the community, the community remains dependent, and poverty is sustained. Weakness.
The empowerment approach to community development is one where first you determine that the community wants something (as discovered in a brainstorming session) and then shows the community members how to get it. The process of their getting it is the exercise (struggle) that strengthens them.
Why Choose a Community to Empower?
If the purpose of community mobilization is to increase its power, wealth and capacity, why would you choose to mobilize one community and not another?
The world is not a fair place. There is inequality. There is strife. There is inhumanity towards mankind, by humans. Life is not fair. We need some purpose in life. Trying to set right the wrongs of the world; trying to help poor people to become independent and escape from their poverty, are among such purposes. Simply trying to become rich ourselves is the main purpose of some people, but it is a very shallow and unfulfilling purpose (the richer that people get, the more wealth they want; there is no satisfaction). There is no evidence, or even hope, that the world will become fair, that poverty will be eliminated. Yet the striving for it is a purpose that has its own rewards.
So we could spend our energy in trying to mobilize and empower a rich or relatively wealthy community, but that has less purpose than trying to help a poor community become stronger. The methods that are explained in this web site can be applied to rich or poor communities.
Choosing to work with a poor community can be a way of putting more purpose in your life. Choosing a community simply because it is the one you were born in is perhaps equally valid, but less purposeful.
The documents on this web site are designed mainly to be applied to low income, poor capacity, poorly empowered communities. Writing them has purpose; no money is earned in putting them here on the internet. It is an element (regiment? ammunition?) in the war against poverty.
Some people like to quote: "Charity should begin at home." They often say this to justify raising money to give out handouts to poor people in their home communities (which does not end their poverty, as we know). Unfortunately, such people often believe that it should not only start at home; it should also end there. What a short sighted and selfish notion.
The whole world has human beings in it. We are all related. We are one big human family. The people far way in isolated poor communities are our brothers and sisters. If we can help them, we have purpose in life. If we help them, we should concentrate on helping them to become independent of our charity, able to help themselves in the future.
If we have a choice in which community to apply our skills as mobilizers, it is more meaningful (and has greater global effect) to choose the lowest income communities, those with less power and capacity.
Empowerment as a Social Process:
In several places on this site, we point out that poverty is a social problem, and is contrasted with the individual problem of lack of cash or other resources. We must distinguish between the social level and the individual level, in our analysis, in our observations, and in our interventions.
A community is a social organization, and is not an individual. It is far more than a mere collection of individuals. It is an entity, sometimes described as "superorganic," that transcends the individuals that compose it at any one time.
It is easy to see and interact with an individual. A "community," in contrast, is a scientific model, like an atom or a solar system, which can be seen at most only partly at any one time, but cannot be seen as a whole. (You know the story of the seven blind men and an elephant). A community does not behave like an individual.
We sometimes anthropomorphise a community (think of it and talk about it as if it is a human being) but it is more like a social amoeba than like an individual human.
We can make individuals stronger (physically, psychologically) and we can make communities stronger (capacity, wealth, power); these are not the same. In our work as mobilizers, we must be careful to avoid making predictions and assumptions about communities as if a community is an individual, thinking, human being. It is easy, but wrong, for us to slip into that kind of thinking.
While you, as a mobilizer, can see individuals, can work with individuals, your target is the community, a social organization, which you can not see in its totality, and with which you must work indirectly.
To be successful then, in empowering the community, it is necessary for you to understand the nature of social organizations, of the social level, of society. It is also necessary for you to know something about the relationship between an individual, or individuals, and community, and society.
While this web site tries to minimize theory and ideology, and tries to emphasize practical guidelines, methods and techniques, it encourages you to learn about the science of sociology, the nature of community as a social organization, and sociological perspectives, in order to do your work more effectively.
Remember, however, that sociology can not be very precise and very predictive as, say, is chemistry or astronomy, because the factors that affect social change are too many. It is made more difficult because as social organization, such as a community or an NGO, is a construct, a model, that you can not see directly.
Nevertheless, you need to set yourself a career goal of learning more about the social perspective, and to develop skills in understanding the social elements that are revealed by the indicators you can see, including the behaviour of individuals, social and economic statistics, some events, and demographic data. To help you in this, there are two modules which identify sixteen elements of empowerment. One is focused mainly on capacity development of an organization (such as an NGO or CBO), and the other is focused mainly on measuring increases (or decreases) in the capacity of a community. These sixteen elements, many of which also can not be seen except through characteristics of individuals, will help you to carefully and in detail look at the empowerment process as a social process.
Empowering a community is not something that you can do to that community. Because the process of empowerment, or capacity development, is a social process, it is something that the community itself must undergo. Even members of a community, as individuals, can not develop their community, it is a growth process of the community as a whole, internally, as an organism (super organism or social organism).
Trying to force growth, trying to force social change, is called social engineering, and it does have its effects, but usually effects that are far from what you want. Our method is to stimulate the community to take action.
We often refer to that action as a "project." By doing a project, the community will become more empowered, develop more capacity. The action it takes is its exercise to become stronger.
We noted above that the people must struggle in order to become stronger. The basic method of a community mobilizer is to first determine what the community as a whole wants, then guide it in struggling to achieve it.
An outsider can not decide what the community wants. The community members have to agree on what they all want most. That is the first of several reasons why they need to participate in decision making; that participation is needed first to determine what they want most.
The brainstorm session is one of several techniques taught on this site that helps you to draw out of them their priorities. When done correctly it is a process that determines a communal choice, not the choice of a few people, or of a dominant faction.
After that is the decision of strategy, or what path to follow in order to reach the priority goal. Again, there are different ways to choose a strategy, but the more it represents the will of the community members as a whole, the more valid it is. Their participation is vital for success.
Whatever the project, it will have inputs and outputs. Inputs are the resources put into the project. An output is an objective when it is realized. While some of the inputs can come from outside donors, including the government, but the community itself, its members should make some sacrifices too. As well as participation in decision making, we suggest that they also make contributions of resources, as inputs.
Monitoring is an essential, but often overlooked, element of any project. The community should also participate in monitoring the project. Members should not leave it only to the outsiders ─ donors or implementors ─ to see if it is going as planned.
In the course of carrying out the project, community members may identify some skills that they lack. These could be in accounting, in reporting, or in technical skills. If you are able to help them obtain training in such skills, we recommend that the training is participatory also. That people learn best by "doing" rather than listening to lectures or watching presentations.
Participatory approaches are recommended throughout the empowerment process. Participation contributes to strength.
The nineteen fifties and sixties (and later) saw the end of colonial period for many new countries. Hope was high that it would also mean the end of poverty as countries became more self reliant and stronger.
The reality was very different, and discouragement replaced optimism as poverty and the number of poor people grew. There are many historical causes for this, neo colonialism, multi national corporations each stronger and wealthier than whole countries, globalization of corporate culture, lack of sophistication and knowledge by leaders, and on and on. Everyone has her or his own favourite theories.
In Factors of Poverty, we distinguish between (1) historical causes and (2) factors that contribute to the problem remaining. This has a very practical purpose. We can not go back into history and change events. We can see current factors, and have some influence, however small, on them. The training on the web site is aimed primarily at the community mobilizer (and her or his manager, planner, programmer and administrator).
In the gender module, we cite the slogan, "Think globally, act locally." This applies here, too. How can we contribute to a strong, self reliant, independent nation? If that country has strong, self reliant, capable communities, then it will become stronger.
You, as a mobilizer, can not (through your work) directly change the national characteristics of a country, but you can contribute to one or more community becoming stronger. Also, by teaching these methods and techniques to others, you can contribute indirectly to other communities becoming stronger. You may be able, too, to influence the legislature and ministry directives and regulations in ways that will contribute to an environment that promotes and supports strong self reliant communities. As more communities become stronger, the country benefits.
Joseph Marie de Maistre wrote, "Toute nation a le gouvernement qu'elle merite" (Every country has the government it deserves) Lettres et Opuscules Inedits (vol. I, letter 53), sometimes incorrectly attributed to the second American president, Thomas Jefferson. If you work towards getting the society you want, you will contribute to getting the government you deserve.
National development will not come through wishful thinking or by bar room debate. It comes as a result of hundreds of thousands of small, steady, changes based upon hard work of many people with vision. You can be among them, and this web site gives you the tools with which to engage in that hard work.
Find the Best and Enhance It:
A positive attitude with optimism and the willingness to keep trying are not mere luxuries in this work. They are necessities.
No person, no community, no society, is perfect. We all make mistakes. If you spend any time and energy on criticizing, you will emphasize the fault you criticize, and hinder its correction. You will meet people who promise and fail, people who do not carry out their side of an agreement, people who lie and cheat, people who are inept, inefficient and inaccurate, people who are dishonest and misleading. From the time you were born, no one promised you that life would be fair. That is just the way it is.
To succeed at this kind of work, you need a positive attitude, and you need to accept that failures are inevitable, and be willing to, "Keep on keepin' on," even after failures.
To get the best out of people, you need to see but not mention their weaknesses and failures, you need to recognize their strengths and achievements, and you need to let them know you expect their best.
Build on strengths, not on weaknesses.
Why help communities to become stronger? The world will be a better place; poverty will be reduced; working towards this is a meaningful endeavour. What is the empowerment method? Charity (giving things for free) weakens communities. Communities will become stronger when they decide what they want, and work (exercise) to obtain it.
What communities should you choose to assist in becoming more self reliant? Choose those in most need, the poorest, the ones with least capacity, the ones with the least power.
Why is poverty and development not merely applicable to individuals? Poverty is a social problem and requires social solutions.
Development is not possible unless it affects whole communities. Why should community members participate in development? Without their participation, there would be no development, and any improvements will not be sustained.
Why not work towards national development? As communities become stronger, they contribute to genuine national development. You as a mobilizer can practically work at helping communities become stronger, whereas work with nations directly is less practicable.
What about all the disappointments, dishonest people, and cheating individuals? A positive approach is a requirement for community work; accept failures and go on beyond them; accept that we all make mistakes so avoid criticism and build on strengths.
Your work is honourable and valuable, even if unsung.
© Copyright 1967, 1987, 2007 Phil Bartle