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How Do I Choose the Best Community Development Practices?

Kenneth W. Michael Wills
Kenneth W. Michael Wills

Communities are generally considered a good point of focus for overall, sustainable development. The best community development practices, however, must take into account multiple processes, procedures and precursors if success is to be realized. Some of the most important practices include accurately defining a community, using a bottom-up approach, conducting proper searching rather than planning, accurately perceiving poverty, and taking into account both social capital and the level of trust within the community. Participation of community members in all aspects of development is also an essential best practice, though such participation can be negative if not elicited and carried out correctly. Leveraging some or all of these best practices usually results in self-sustainable community development that mitigates the risk of reliance on charity.

Development within a community often begins with defining what is meant by the term community itself. Differing from what is termed society and generally dispensing with association through geographical location, the best community development practices will usually define community by the collective population under development, rather than what is local to that populous. Just as important is using a bottom-up approach, as opposed to the classical top-down approach. This means rather than governments working with governments to dispense foreign aid, putting boots on the ground to assess the needs by interacting with the population bodes well over the long term. Understanding the needs of those at the bottom of the economic ladder and addressing them effectively by going well beyond dispensing aid or charity, tends to propel the development process forward.

Community development leaders need to interact regularly with people in the community.
Community development leaders need to interact regularly with people in the community.

Inherent to the top-down approach and international aid commonly associated with such an approach is the lack of searching for needs to address, but instead focusing on planning for perceived needs without verification of their existence or extent. Just as detrimental to the process, needs of the community are seldom discussed or addressed with the community itself, resulting in no alignment with the community's concerns or capabilities. Community development practices are usually more effective by searching within the community for needs to address and working with the community to devise solutions and implement them. An example of this would be working with the community to effectively distribute concrete aid, such as mosquito nets to combat malaria, rather than transferring funds in foreign aid through bureaucratic channels.

Effective community development practices will also include an accurate perception of poverty and what it means to be poor or underdeveloped. Common misconceptions include viewing the poor as helpless, unable to manage money, and lacking in the capability to better their circumstances. Research has demonstrated that undeveloped circumstances in many cases elicit the opposite characteristics with those in poverty, often exhibiting superior money management skills on a shoe-string budget, while being very resourceful in their daily lives to survive. Recognizing the reality on the ground can help tap into the abundant capability within the community to drive the development process.

Utilizing social capital and understanding the level of trust within the community are other common community development practices. Social capital directly arises from the level of trust within the community, with trust being defined as expectations that result from consistent, honest and reliable behavior between community members. Thus, understanding the level of trust will indicate the available social capital that can be leveraged to expedite the development process. While such social capital is not always a requirement, having it or cultivating it can speed up the development process and mitigate many potential barriers.

Last, but not least, cultivating an environment of participation is central to best community development practices. This means the direct face-to-face involvement of all community members, in all stages of the development process, giving their input, making decisions and acting upon them. Selective participation only hinders the process, and the paternalistic nature of state-led, top-down approaches usually inhibits such a process.

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    • Community development leaders need to interact regularly with people in the community.
      By: Ints Vikmanis
      Community development leaders need to interact regularly with people in the community.