24 Feb

While below I talked a bit about the potential advantages of spreading good ideas from one organization of the poor to another, of translating and adapting ideas to different contexts of poverty, in this posting I want to talk about two very different ways of approaching aid.

There is a relatively new approach to international development being carried out these days by Oxfam. Maybe other organizations are using it also, but Oxfam is the only one of which I am currently aware. It is called Asset-based Community Development, or ABCD, and works like this: an aid or ODA provider goes to a poverty-stricken community in the developing world and instead of bringing with it a plan and a project, it does something quite different. It gathers the community  — generally through the auspices of a local NGO – and asks people to start listing their assets. 

The way ABCD works is best described by telling the story of one such community – the village of Holeta in Ethiopia. Although the average income there was, like most of Africa, about $1 per day, villagers were encouraged to list their assets, such as land, their millet crops, and their oxen, as well as their problems – in large part the fact they got very little money for their crops once the cost of fertilizer and pesticides was discounted. Conversations with elders, however, brought back the notion of not only using local organic fertilizers, but terracing the fields to prevent soil erosion, store water and plant vegetables. The people of Holeta not only returned to these traditional techniques, but were able to store their grains in a village cereal bank until prices were higher.

Because they had experience with oxen, they realized that they could also raise milk cows. A very small amount of outside investment underwrote a project in which a few women could acquire milk cows, churn and sell butter from the milk, and expand this new asset by giving away the second-born heifers to other families. The extra income has meant that many more of them are sending their children – especially daughters – to school, and led to more harmonious relationships between men and women, who were more greatly appreciated for their financial skills and ability to earn this extra money. Most importantly, the community sees itself as the source of these improvements, rather than an outside agent. This has encouraged people to demand more from their government, teachers and health-care professionals to staff the mud-brick school and clinic they built themselves, for example, and better transportation services and more frequent visits from agronomists for the road they had improved. While even the NGO originally working there had to adapt its role and redefine its purpose by giving more control to others, the people of Holeta have changed their perception of themselves, from helpless and dependent to able and confident. 

According to Oxfam’s Lucie Goulet, “when, through processes of capacity development, people obtain or take control over their lives, discover an enabling environment, have a voice and become empowered, they are likely to organize – generally with limited external support– along models that contextually respond to their ambitions for change, growth and progress. This reality has been reflected in countless testimonials collected from people in the ABCD communities.”

 Or as one participant described it, “Everything we needed to solve our problem was within our own community.” 

So it’s a big difference from the way many NGOs approach the poor. It costs much less – which is why some large NGOs don’t like the idea – and fosters sustainable solutions. (Those milk cows for example are fed with what is available locally, not purchased forage.) Why don’t more development agencies, like CIDA, start instituting ABCD? That’s a question only they can answer.


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