It wouldn’t start straight away. My colleague Amanda and I would begin our introductions with a traditional Fijian kava ceremony, being welcomed in to the community officially by the highest-ranking male of the village.
All seated on the floor, we were placed at the front with our local project partners, Community Support Network Fiji, surrounded by a semi-circle of men, behind which the women and children of the village would place themselves.
After formalities, we would begin to detail our strengths-based approach to forming community enterprises. With our local partners, we explained that the focus of our approach is building on what works in the community, exploring their talents and helping them identify the skills and resources already available in the local area.
We’d go on to explain that our approach differs markedly from a lot of the ‘business as usual’ approaches people are used to seeing in communities, which tends to follow the formula of: Training + Funding = Flourishing Businesses.
Despite asking people for what was good about their community, it wouldn’t be long until someone, and often not just one person, would bring up the village’s shortcomings, and what was lacking in the community.
We sought their strengths; they proffered us their weaknesses.
And who can blame them? They’ve seen enough NGOs, government departments and other potential donors pass through, with their needs analyses and appraisals of community shortcomings. Asking ‘what’s needed?’ has resulted in this problem-oriented approach and has become a way for communities to make material gains. Economically, having a long list of faults to call upon at a moment’s notice makes sense.
Is this a reflection of broader human tendencies (focusing on the negatives), or moreso the way communities in many developing countries have been conditioned to appraise their circumstances? As evidenced by people’s reactions to our question, it seems people very rarely ask the same communities what their strengths are.
I daresay this is not solely reflective of the Fiji experience but finds itself manifest in communities the world over, particularly (but certainly not exclusively) those in developing countries.
We must ask though, is this the best way to cultivate community resilience and sustainability of any activity or project? Can we possibly achieve the holy grail of international development outcomes, reducing levels of donor dependency, when we focus on weaknesses?
According to Community Development 101 our objective should be to do ourselves out of a job. And if we’re aiming to do this, does it not make more sense to build on solid foundations, such as strengths that already exist in the community? Instead of trying to mould people into what we think they should be, how about working with what people already have?
With a strengths-based approach, we’re seeking to challenge the top-down approach, but we’re facing an uphill battle when the modus operandi of development retains its focus on weaknesses. Many developing country communities have been conditioned to believe that they are less than, lacking, and wholesale ‘in need’ by the international development community. While this paradigm continues to drive the majority of aid and development program approaches, we will continue to see communities persistently blinded to or at the very least distracted from their many and varied strengths. Strengths that can and do often serve their own development very well.
So what happens when you take a glass half-full approach with communities, and ask them to tell you about their strengths, talents, what they’re great at? When positing the strengths-based approach to groups, it took a while for it to sink in.
Once there was an understanding that we weren’t there to examine their weaknesses or any list of shortcomings and instead wanted to hear about how great they are, there were raised eyebrows, quizzical looks, shifty sideways glances, a bit of silence. And then smiles. Eyes lighting up. There was a palpable change of energy when people began speaking about what they can do, and what is working, in their community.
We heard stories of how the community bands together regularly to clean the village, on a weekly basis, and indeed draw regularly on the strengths of their communal ties. There were myriad talents and trades in each place we visited: animal husbandry expertise, agricultural production for subsistence and market sale, very creative artisanal and crafting techniques, highly lucrative eco-tourism ventures and opportunities, incredibly bio-diverse land uses – the lists went on and on.
The more we encouraged people to focus on their strengths, the more easily the conversations flowed, and people began to see the richness and value in what they already had, right within their grasp. Strengths which can be built upon within their communities, with little to no external inputs necessary. With the strengths and resources identified (a process which takes longer than just one meeting and indeed involves extensive community asset mapping), these are presented back to the community at large, often to surprise and awe at just how much they have.
It is from this plotting of assets that obvious opportunities for community enterprise are posited and discussed amongst community members. It becomes increasingly evident that the community doesn’t need to wait for external training and extensive funding to get small enterprises up and running. They discover the diverse economic practices within their community that can help them achieve their aims, such as bartering, energy exchange of labour and communal effort.
A strengths-based approach to community enterprise development places local people in the position of expert and change agent. The approach works on the basis that people, and not just development practitioners or academics, have extensive expertise to contribute to their own communities, and are indeed best placed to create positive social change.
I asked Tina, one of our local field partners from the Community Support Network, what she thought of community reactions when we wanted to focus on the strengths they had, the resources they could draw on, and the talents they had to offer. Her response was:
“Communities in Fiji are used to having trainings done for them and then getting projects implemented. Having an organisation come into a community and ask them questions about their resource’s, talents, etc, will be quite a surprise for them, most NGOs are used to seeing what they don’t have and provide the necessary tools to help them.”
That mindset has been implemented to them and not seeing what they have and using that to make their lives better. I saw that most of the communities, they live together for 10-15 years not knowing that their neighbour can fix a generator or is a good carpenter. Communities were so happy to hear asking about their resources, what talents they have and that is what they feel proud of, telling you their big achievements.”
While this is not a call for the aid and development community to dismiss the relevance of needs-based assessments, which are warranted in certain circumstances, a healthy dose of the glass half-full approach does not go astray in any development practitioner’s toolkit.