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by Phil Bartle, PhD

Reference Document


Simply providing resources to a community encourages dependency upon more of the same. Sustainable development of a community, removal of poverty, improvement of self reliance, requires that the community use its own resources.

While accepting certain kinds of outside help, it cannot do so in a way that it becomes dependent upon it. Fortunately, every community has resources, often hidden; and the task at hand is to identify and use them.


Our goal is sustainable development, poverty eradication, community self reliance, in low income communities. We want to help. But our help can be dangerous; it can contribute to poverty, stagnation and dependency.

What we need to do is to understand the nature of poverty and the nature of development better, so as to be able to provide genuine assistance, assistance that contributes to removing dependency on further assistance, not contributing to continued poverty and dependency.

Poverty is Not Absolute:

No community is totally and absolutely poor. So long as there are living human beings in the community, then it has resources, enough to allow its residents to survive. If a community is only an archaeological site, with no living residents, then it is no longer a community.

No living community is absolutely poor. "Oh!" you say, "but the people have no shoes, no clean water, poor nutrition, high child mortality, illiteracy, apathy, disease, ignorance, intolerance, and no facilities. They need help!" Yes they do, but we, who are interested in sustainable development, must be very cautious about the nature of that help.

Every community has resources.

It is important to remember that every community has resources. Why? If we are to strengthen those communities, we need to release those hidden resources. If we are to assist, we need to assist in ways that strengthen, not weaken the community. If we parachute resources into the community without also using internal resources, we contribute to community atrophy. It would contribute to increased dependence upon the outside, and therefore to continued long term endemic poverty.

What are Resources?

A resource is any good or service that is relatively scarce and relatively useful; in short it has value, it is wealth. Not just any wealth, however, a resource is something that can be used, or potentially can be used, as an input, as something that can be used for the production of some other desired output. It is the raw material of a productive activity; in the case of a community, it is the input for a community project.

The most commonly considered resource of a community project is cash; cash is the most fluid or convertible form of resource, for it can be used to purchase or rent real resources (goods and services). Cash is usually scarce, however, and poor communities will have to seek non-cash resources, and try to turn them into cash, or into resources that will be useful to the chosen community project. Community resources include many non-cash goods and services.

Think of the kinds of resources that a community might need for its priority project. It needs land, a place to locate the project. It needs tools to operate the project. It needs raw materials that it will convert into the projects outputs, it needs labour to provide human energy for the conversion, as well as mechanical energy such as electricity sun, wind, water power. Another kind of human resource is mental, people who will help in the planning, monitoring decision making, management, report writing; all of those are resources needed, and can be provided from within the community.

The important thing is not to undervalue those non-cash resources, and to put a fair cash value or market value on them (including the time and effort spent by the implementing committee and the executive committee of the community). There is a common tendency for community members to under value these, and a requirement for you, the mobilizer, to ensure that they are given a fair recognition of their worth.

Outside Sources:

There are two main kinds of sources of inputs and resources from outside the community. They are (1) government and (2) assistance agencies.

Government sources include the regular and fiscal budgetary expenditures of central, regional and district governments who may be responsible for providing goods and services, and ceded funds, to the community. It is important that the decisions to make these expenditures are done only after communication with the community. Decisions made by bureaucrats in faraway capital cities (national capital, regional capital or district capital) without involving the communities are as bad a charity; they contribute to apathy, dependency, and the sustaining of poverty.

While you as a mobilizer do not have a lot of control over how such decisions are made, you can contribute in two ways: (1) by encouraging and assisting government officers to dialogue with the community in your role of broker (explained more below) and (2) supporting and suggesting the development of policy papers in community development that support a governmental "enabling" environment in which central, regional and district plans are done only in response to the plans and priorities of the local communities.

Assistance agencies come in several varieties. For any one community, the most common will be an international NGO, or a national NGO that is funded by an international one. (NGO means non-governmental organization; it usually implies a not-for-profit voluntary agency). Other outside agencies may be churches or their secular assistance departments, bilateral or multilateral projects. The International Red Cross claims it is not an NGO; it is an NGO. Increasingly the international sources of assistance are calling for community participation and sustainable development.

Again, your role can be one of broker, especially since foreign agencies are seldom well versed in local conditions and in opportunities for empowering communities by including them in decision making and developmental contributions.

The Charity Paradox:

"Helping the poor," is a close to universal human value. The giving of alms or charity is included in the sets of values of the world's major religions. Government assistance to economically depressed areas in a country, international aid by the wealthy countries, and governmental subsidies and support to the disadvantaged, are all manifestations of this close to universal value.

Helping poor persons is not the same thing, however, as overcoming poverty. That is the paradox. Giving assistance to individuals in need may even contribute to the social problem of poverty rather than assist in removing poverty... Why? Giving alms to a beggar trains the recipient in begging, and reinforces his/her conviction that begging is the answer. Giving foreign aid to low income countries reinforces their notion that aid is their right, and can be used to fund their fiscal plans.

Look also at the motivations for giving alms. How does the giver benefit, and therefore has a vested interest in the survival of the custom? In many societies, rich people give money to beggars to appease their guilt because they know that their very wealth is obtained off the backs of the poor (Tolstoy). Giving alms reinforces begging, therefore reinforces the structure of inequality that keeps the elite classes wealthy, and sustains poverty.

Do not despair. This paper dopes not argue to abolish aid or outside assistance. Nor does it advocate violent revolution. It argues that the way aid is given is important, and that the "how" must be understood; it is not to do more damage than good. Appeasing the poor (eg poverty alleviation) is not the goal; fighting and overcoming poverty is.

So what does all that –the charity paradox– have to do with mobilization? The paradox exists at many levels (individual, community, national, international). There are many social, political and economic forces that sustain poverty. If you are to fight poverty, especially at the community level, you need to understand the charity paradox among those forces.

As a broker between a communal and its outside resources, you need to inform both of the dangers of charity. As any good military strategist will tell you, "Know the enemy." The enemy is poverty.

Release the Resources:

Your task as mobilizer is to encourage and aid the community to identify and use its local resources.

You need to reassure the community members that it is not in their best interest to hide their resources (or to hide knowledge of their resources) and to pretend to be more poor than the community is. They may be tempted to do so. Appealing to the pity of donors in that way is neither honest and honourable, nor effective in developing self reliance and empowerment of low income communities.

It is important and necessary to guide community members in identifying internal resources. This can be exciting and fun. Our normal mobilizers' tools are appropriate here: a community or group meeting, a large paper on the wall with a felt pen (or a stick to write and draw in the dirt on the ground).

Call for potential resources from the participants (as you would in a brainstorm session), such as a retired carpenter who may be willing to train some young members of the community, some unused land that could be used for a communal facility such as a clinic or school, some unemployed youth who can provide energy and enthusiasm, some farmer or other food producer and some people willing to prepare that food for communal labourers who donate their time and energy, some loyal and trustworthy community members willing to put in time and thinking to design a community project.

Do not analyse suggestions when they first come up (you want to encourage everyone to contribute ideas; some shy participants may fear criticism). As in a brainstorm, you set aside criticism and cross talk; simply list all the suggestions on the wall. Explain that they can be analysed later. Remember to point out that cash is not the only resource, many non-cash resources are valuable. How valuable? A monetary evaluation of the cash value of non-cash resources will eventually be needed for an accurate project design, but can be done later by the community executive committee. Money and wealth, although related, are different things.

When identifying resources in this way, however, do not forget to include potential cash resources. These may include: a fund raising event, a raffle or local lottery (if legal), a sale of donated goods (I have seen a wealthy business person from the city pay a thousand dollars for a glass of water in a public auction in his rural home town).

Encourage innovative and non-orthodox thinking by participants, even to suggest things that might not later be done (here you just list them, not analyse them). Just because something has not been tried is no logical reason for not listing it here.

Struggle to Strength:

It is well known by biologists that living organisms become stronger in adversity. Sports enthusiasts know that physical exercise strengthens their bones and muscles. Teachers and psychologists know that mental exercises strengthen mental capacity. So, too, in the sociological realm, a community, group or organization that faces adversity becomes stronger.

Not total adversity that kills the organism or organization, but incremental adversity that builds up strengths.

What does that knowledge teach the mobilizer? If communities are given everything as charity, they become atrophied (immobilized in weakness). If, as adviser and guide to a community, you inform them of this principle, if you guide them towards making their own communal decisions, towards taking the time and effort to choose their goals, identify resources and make their own community action plans, you help to empower them and their communities.

If a community struggles, it becomes stronger.

The Mobilizer as Broker:

Knowing that potential resources lie outside the community, a mobilizer for that community acts as a "broker" between the community and those sources (including government and assistance agencies).

A "broker" is some one who acts as a "go-between" selecting and introducing parties that may not already know each other, and assisting in negotiations and communications between those parties (like a marriage broker).

As a broker, the mobilizer also increases awareness and understanding by both sides. Both the sources (donors and government) and the community members should learn about such principles as (1) "Sustainable development assistance, not charity," (2) "Identify and use local resources," (3) "Struggle to become stronger," (4) "Nothing for nothing," (5) "Help comes to those helping themselves," and other principles in this series of training modules.

Sustainable Development:

It is a mathematical impossibility (as well as anti-developmental) to assist every poor community in the world using outside resources. Too many poor communities; not enough available resources.

The key to sustainable development, the eradication of poverty, is to release the hidden resources that already exist within all those poor communities.

This is an investment; in order to release those resources, they must be identified, they must be acknowledged both by the community members and the outside donors, and management training must be invested in releasing them.

Donors can be more useful in directing their assistance resources towards the training and awareness raising needed to release those resources, than in buying pipes or roofing, and giving aid in other ways that increase dependency rather than self reliance.

Because paper and ink are relatively expensive, it would be out of financial range to produce enough hard copies of the required training material for every rural village and urban neighbourhood in every least developed nation on this globe. It is financially feasible, however, that eventually every human settlement (from rural village to urban neighbourhood) will get access to the Internet. That realization lies behind the motivation of producing this series of training modules on this Internet site (http://cec.vcn.bc.ca/cmp/). The elimination of poverty can be a realistic global goal, with the combination of (1) these methods and (2) the world wide web.

© Copyright 1967, 1987, 2007 Phil Bartle
Web Design by Lourdes Sada
Last update: 2011.09.27

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