Thinking about Assets on Africa Day
ABCD as an alternative to the dominant Needs-Based Approach in Africa
This week, on Monday, May 25 to varying degrees the world celebrated Africa Day. This blog reflects on the harm that the deficit approach visited on the people of Africa in the name of being helpful.
The needs-based approach, which defines poverty as the absence or lack of the basic elements required for human survival, was the preferred NGO approach to development in Africa throughout the 1950s and 1960s (Booy, Senaand, and Arusha, 2000: 4-11). By definition, its focus was almost exclusively on needs, such as primary health care, water supply, and humanitarian food aid. Without a rights-based analysis, however, such a model ignores the structural causes of poverty as well as the potential capacities that people may have to respond to their own crises – albeit with outside help and support as appropriate.
A legacy of the needs-based approach in Africa is that many receiving aid have learned to define themselves and their villages/communities by their needs and their deficiencies to the point where they can no longer identify anything of value around them.
They  have come to believe that only a state of degradation will enable them to attract resources. Individual citizens all too often define themselves by their powerlessness and absolute dependence on outside help to meet even their most basic human needs. The net result of the needs-based approach is that vulnerable citizens are left even more vulnerable when the next crisis arrives because they have traded self-reliance and the social capital that grew naturally for millennia within Sub-Saharan African communities, from inter-dependence with one’s family and neighbours, for dependence on foreign aid and outside NGO support.
Until the 1970s, aid organisations rarely asked citizens of Sub-Saharan African countries themselves what their priorities and concerns were, and almost never considered that they may have something of value to offer in responding to the myriad humanitarian crises they faced (Booy, Sena, and Arusha, 2000: 4-11).
Clearly, then, as voluntary activists are highlighting, the major disadvantage of the needs-based community development approach in Sub-Saharan Africa is that it all too often becomes self-perpetuating, generating ever greater levels of need. When funding is dependent on how many things are ‘wrong’ in a given community, there is no real incentive to reduce this deficit list for fear of a correlated reduction in funding.
Thus, year after year, NGO-conducted needs analysis evidences the ‘need’ for greater levels of donor investment. Despite the dedicated work of many development workers who employ a needs based approach, there are fundamental problems with the policies that influence their work and its context.
Firstly, needs-based development work starts and finishes with a negative map of a given area that defines it according to its difficulties, its needs, its limitations and its dysfunctional attributes. At risk of stating the obvious, the map is not the territory; it is simply a superimposed impression of reality that is neither right nor wrong but can prove to be extremely helpful or tragically debilitating, depending on how sensitively and intelligently it is used.
Debilitation starts when local people begin to absorb the maps created by such needs-based analysis, and use these to navigate their villages (Kretzmann and McKnight, 1993:7). They no longer see the capacities that are part and parcel of the real landscape; all they see is what they do not have. They don’t see a community that possesses numerous assets and untapped growth potential – just a place of real deprivation, health crisis, hunger, injustice, drought and poor sanitation. Yet, every struggling community is like a glass that can be perceived as either half-full or half-empty. Central to the ABCD approach is the observation that, focusing politically and creatively on the half-full, rather than pessimistically on the half-empty, glass, profoundly enhances citizen driven development.
Secondly when this mental map infects the collective mind-set of local people – who then start to believe that their community is no more than a barren landscape, bereft of productive capacity or value, which can only develop by bringing in outside help- this paves the way for experts who will come to fix their brokenness, fill their emptiness, and cure them of their maladies (Kretzmann and McKnight, 1993; Mathie and Cunningham, 2002; Green, Moore and O’Brien, 2006). Such external dependency does not build strong communities, nor, by extension, civil society. Thus, the needs-based model transgresses a central tenet of community development: communities are built from the inside out and not from the outside in (Kretzmann and McKnight, 1993:7). When a community believes its needs are so significant that only outside professionals can address them, it becomes both more needy and further removed from its capacity to address its own needs. The reader of the map becomes completely dependent on the map and the mapmaker thereby becoming incapable of independently perceiving and understanding the territory.
Thirdly, over-reliance on outside services to build community will always result in some level of disappointment since communities, by definition, are places where people who live in them build their own sense of common identity, through acts of caring, cooperation, connection, association and shared problem-solving.
Disappointment is something we can all live with. What we cannot live with is the over-reliance that underlies this disappointment – the process by which far too many citizens of far too many African countries are subliminally defined by external agents as no more than consumers of foreign aid instead of producers of social capital and other forms of capital, and, thus, active citizens on their own terms and prime drivers of their own development. To read the full text please click here.
 While making such assertions the authors of this paper are also working to the assumption that communities by their nature are highly diverse, factioned, unequal, and to varying degrees susceptible to external factors, some of which require emergence responses, as well a myriad of internal issues such as the incessant out migration of its young people. It is important therefore to acknowledge that there can be no ‘cookie cutter’ solutions. Instead what is proposed is a framework of approaches which allow sufficient flexibility to honour indigenous capacity, and build equal partnerships between citizens and NGOs; while simultaneously promoting greater levels of social inclusion.