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Community development the wrong way

Henley MORGAN

Wednesday, March 05, 2014    

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HOW is it that after some 20-30 years and millions of United States dollars spent through institutionally funded projects to rescue our inner cities, home to the largest number of the poor, the problems remain intractable and, in some cases, have got worse than before?

There could be only one reason for failure of such magnitude. The approach adopted by our governments, multilateral and bilateral development agencies — though well intentioned — is wrong. Michael E Porter, in a 1995 article, expressed exactly my sentiments concerning the inappropriateness of the strategy being employed. His views are worth recalling verbatim.

"The sad reality is that the efforts of the past few decades to revitalise the inner cities have failed. The establishment of a sustainable economic base, and with it employment opportunities, wealth creation, role models, and improved local infrastructure still elude us despite the investment of substantial resources.

"Past efforts have been guided by a social model built around meeting the needs of individuals. Aid to inner cities, then, has largely taken the form of relief programmes, which address highly visible and real social problems.

"Programmes aimed more directly at economic development have been fragmented and ineffective. Lacking an overall strategy, such programmes have treated the inner city as an island isolated from the surrounding economy and subject to its own unique laws of competition. They have encouraged and supported small, sub-scale businesses designed to serve the local community, but ill equipped to attract the community's own spending power, much less export outside it. In short, the social model has inadvertently undermined the creation of economically viable micro and small businesses. Without such entrepreneurial efforts, and the jobs they create, the social problems will worsen."

To put it squarely, one can't realistically implement a social model expecting an economic outcome. The time has come to realise that revitalising the inner city will require a radically different approach. While solving social problems will continue to play a critical role in meeting human needs, they must support — and not undermine — a coherent economic strategy.

Needs analysis is another of the condemning approaches or methodologies used by the traditionalists. It seems 'commonsensical' that one should begin any process geared towards improving the human condition by determining needs. But, in reality, the resulting data often define needs as social problems and does so in ways that overwhelm the ability of those having the greatest interest in solving them, ie the residents of the affected community. After reading the litany of woes emanating from some of the most exhaustive needs analysis, one is often left with two options: 1. "Burn down the house" and start over for there is no redeeming quality, and 2. Send in the brigades. The externally imposed response invariably alienates community residents from the process and undermines community institutions.

There is one other method that is traditionally used in community development which I find to be of low value: the exalted problem-solving methodology. Now, this will surprise readers, but there is nothing that so entraps and holds hostage the person trying to do good like problem-solving. The traditional approach to community development starts with needs analysis, which as explained before produces a long list of social problems that can discourage the most optimistic soul. The next logical step is to prioritise and start solving the problems; a process which, once started, is difficult to extricate oneself from.

The aforementioned approaches and methodologies have, over time, been developed into a kind of science used by community developers. To put it kindly, this amounts to nothing more than "doing the wrong

things well".

There is a better approach. It's called social entrepreneurship. The social entrepreneur uses business/economic strategies to solve social problems. The end product is wealth produced by persons at the base of the economic pyramid and living in harmonious, sustainable but economically integrated communities. Our first National Hero Marcus Garvey could be considered a forerunner to the modern-day social entrepreneur. He tried to do well (wealth creation) by doing good (economically empowering the dispossessed through their own entrepreneurial abilities).

Typically, at the community level, the social entrepreneur puts the emphasis on identifying assets, not problems. Assets are what entrepreneurs leverage to create wealth. Our inner-city communities have within them wealth-creating assets if only we know what to look for. These include: a variety of skills, entrepreneurs, ideas, institutions, real estate, etc. What's more, our inner-city communities possess competitive advantages such as: strategic location in proximity to urban commercial hubs, mass market demand, and low- cost skills with high school education.

One final and important difference between the social scientist and the social entrepreneur is the tendency for the former to engage in an interminable process of solving problems. The social entrepreneur's interest is in pursuing objectives which, once achieved, s/he can move on to something else knowing a sustainable solution has been found.

A simple example will suffice to explain the difference. The social scientist may identify the focal problem (negative): Too many uneducated farmers. Then set about trying to solve the problem; which could mean importing educated farmers into the community. The social entrepreneur first converts the focal problem to a focal objective (positive): No uneducated farmers. Then works toward achieving the objective which invariably produces a different and more sustainable solution than the problem-solving approach in the previous example.

Nuances like that make studying social entrepreneurship necessary for community workers, social workers, politicians, police, pastors, and corporate social responsibility managers seeking to enter the new paradigm of community development. The International University of the Caribbean (IUC) headed by Dr Maitland Evans has created history in Jamaica by establishing the Faculty of Community Development and Social Entrepreneurship. The faculty, which is headed by a dean, Dr Michael Rosberg, offers a Master in Business Administration (MBA) degree in Social Entrepreneurship.

There is a visible change in the approaches adopted by innovative organisations in Jamaica involved in community development such as Sandals Foundation, Scotiabank Foundation, Jamaica National Building Society Foundation, Digicel Foundation, Arthur Guinness Foundation, and the Branson Centre. There is no reason to continue down a path that's leading to more frustration and wasted resources.

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