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Glass half full - the case for asset based community development

The asset approach values the capacity, skills, knowledge, connections and potential in a community. It doesn’t only see the problems that need fixing and the gaps that need filling. In an asset approach, the glass is half-full rather than half empty. The more familiar ‘deficit’ approach focuses on the problems, needs and deficiencies in a community such as deprivation, illness and health-damaging behaviours. It designs services to fill the gaps and fix the problems. As a result, a community can feel disempowered and dependent; people can become passive recipients of services rather than active agents in their own and their families’ lives.

The asset approach is a set of values and principles and a way of thinking about the world. It:

  • identifies and makes visible the health-enhancing assets in a community

  • sees citizens and communities as the co-producers of health and well-being, rather than the recipients of services

  • promotes community networks, relationships and friendships that can provide caring, mutual help and empowerment

  • values what works well in an area

  • identifies what has the potential to improve health and well-being

  • supports individuals’ health and well-being through selfesteem, coping strategies, resilience skills, relationships, friendships, knowledge and personal resources

  • empowers communities to control their futures and create tangible resources such as services, funds and buildings.

While these principles will lead to new kinds of communitybased working, they could also be used to refocus many existing council and health service programmes.

An asset approach starts by asking questions and reflecting on what is already present:

• What makes us strong?

• What makes us healthy?

• What factors make us more able to cope in times of stress?

• What makes this a good place to be?

• What does the community do to improve health?

In practice, this means doing the following:

  • find out what is already working and generate more of it

  • promote the project based on what it is trying to achieve, not what the problems are e.g. ‘Durban: a smoke free city’ rather than ‘reduce the high number of smokers in the city’.

  • cherish the assets – as soon as people are talking to each other they are working on the solutions

  • actively build capacity and confidence among communities and staff

  • involve the ‘whole system’ from the beginning – those left out will be left behind • design in what is needed to achieve the desired future

  • design out the structures, processes and systems that are stopping this future being achieved

  • ensure the long-term sustainability of the solutions and the project.

The asset approach is compatible with development tools and approaches included in traditional social development many of which are already in use by local government and other practitioners.

They can be used as:

  • research tools to uncover the assets in a community, to build on the lessons from past successes and to develop a vision for the future – this strengthens local confidence and points to what might work in future

  • development and educational tools to build strong communities and civil associations, support social capital networks and sustain local activists who are the catalysts for change

  • participatory tools that create shared ambitions, empower local communities and build ownership of improvement and regeneration processes.

GrowZA adopts the asset based community development approach to shift community assets into community capital that fuels change and deepens the existing adaptive capacity of communities.


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