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Self-reliance in community development projects: a mirage or an oasis?

Self-reliance in community development projects: a mirage or an oasis?

Aid is the past.”

This quote came from Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid earlier this month when Britain announced it would cut all aid money to India by 2015. The decision, while driven partially by Britain’s own economic woes, reflects the belief that India no longer needs foreign aid when it can support its own space program. Despite this, millions of Indians still live in poverty and many aid organisations and governments will continue to donate money and implement programs.

It raises an interesting question: how should we measure when a community no longer needs foreign assistance?

If the stated goal of most employees in this sector is to ‘work themselves out of a job’, then knowing  when we’ve reached the end-point of a project, program or entire funding relationship is essential to good development practice.

One response to defining that elusive end-point is the idea of self-reliance; a marker that should testify when a community is sustainably independent and in no further need of external assistance.

Although the idea of self-reliance has been around since the 1980s and a growing number of development organisations are making it the central tenet of their work, in practice, many communities are still grappling with what achieving self-reliance really means.

In the Brazilian Amazon, the Community Empowerment Network (CEN) is one organisation that has adopted the goal of self-reliance in its mission to end rural poverty in the Juá area. CEN supports an eco-tourism project there that creates jobs and contributes to local industries and culture by bringing sustainable tourism to the community.

At CEN, self-reliance is defined in three ways – knowing that people can solve a problem for themselves, ensuring that they have the resources and skills to do something about it, and granting them freedom from external obstacles. Identifying this tricky trio is only the beginning of the complex process of understanding what self-reliance actually looks like (let alone reaching it).

Self-reliance emerged as the core concept driving CEN after Founder and Executive Director Robert Bortner became frustrated with top-down development approaches that focused primarily on how much money had been given to a community as the measure of success. Instead, he wanted to take a more comprehensive approach that addressed the problems for the long-term. “Giving people money doesn’t necessarily solve a problem. If people aren’t interested in solving a problem for themselves, how are you going to change the situation?”

This question led the organisation to develop a method of teaching and learning called PRACTICAR, a mentoring model that works closely with community members to empower them to reach self-reliance through a focus on sustainability. In Juá, this means training community members so that they have the organisational capacity to manage and maintain an eco-tourism project. After skills are delivered in the areas needed, people form community groups to continue managing projects with their own funding and resources; part of their learning addresses income-generation.

While CEN considers its training programs for community members a success, Bortner says that the organisation, like many others, is still struggling to measure when self-reliance has been achieved. “It’s hard to define. Is it synonymous with self-empowerment? Superficially, it’s about giving someone something and then they can do it for themselves. But in reality, it’s a lot harder than that. It’s difficult to know when people don’t need any further help.”

For Emmanuel Ojameruaye, a member of the Urhobo community of Nigeria and Vice-President for Research and Program Development with the International Foundation for Education and Self-Help (IFESH), self-reliance is difficult to measure precisely because it is usually only thought of as an end-point. “Self-reliance can be a goal, but it’s also a mirage. It’s something that cannot be achieved 100% when you’re dealing with very poor communities.”

But, assessing whether a community truly owns a project often can’t be tested until after the funding has stopped. Given the complexities of measuring when self-reliance has been achieved, economic indicators still tend to be used to determine when it is time for an organisation to withdraw. Ojameruaye argues that financial sustainability remains one of the most effective measurement tools. “If you are building a block of classrooms in a village somewhere in Africa and the community contributes 50% of the costs, then in five years they contribute 75%, until finally they can build a school without any support, then that is self-reliance.”

Bortner also feels that economic indicators are a useful measurement tool. In addition, CEN uses timeframes to determine when they will leave. In their work in the Amazon, communities are told from the start how long the organisation will be there for. “For example, if the entire project is eight years, then at the end of that timeframe, we will leave and we will have made that clear from the beginning. We’ll still be around to help – leaving the skills and networks for them to use – but we will physically be out. And in the last few years of the project, our involvement will be significantly reduced,” Bortner says.

This strategy exposes the organisation to the risk of leaving before the community has reached self-reliance, but Bortner defends it. He argues that in practice, self-reliance is a continuum. “You need an exit strategy, you can only do so much; you improve self-reliance, you don’t achieve it. There is a point where you must get out or you will have just perpetuated dependency again.”

But still, no-one seems to be quite sure of a hard-and-fast measure for knowing when the time has come to leave. When enough is enough.

Ojameruaye believes that in part the only solution is better governance from above. Although this would seem almost contradictory in the framework of self-reliance, he insists that it is necessary, as long as it takes place according to certain conditions: “The government must provide support and impetus on a continued basis, but they should do that while ensuring that the communities participate and have a voice.”

Perhaps it’s the idea of voice that provides the best measure of all – it’s time to leave when the community says so. Both Bortner and Ojameruaye admit that while the self-reliance approach has its flaws, its respect for community voices and autonomy is what makes it a useful approach for the development field as a whole. It is through this focus on people’s needs that they can get closer to challenging the question of knowing how much help is enough. According to Ojameruaye: “People don’t want to be dependent, at least not for a long time. The communities should be the masters of their own development – this approach is about ensuring that.”


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Jessica is the Programs Director for social enterprise Everyone Eats, as well as Proposal and Programs Manager for Opportunity International Australia and a Member of the Executive Council of the Sydney Peace Foundation. She is passionate about helping people share their stories to inspire change and make the world a better place. Jess has worked with communities in India, Bangladesh, China, South Korea, Canada and Australia for a diverse range of development, media and research organisations.

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4 thoughts on “Self-reliance in community development projects: a mirage or an oasis?

  1. Loveth

    Is it possible for a community to be 100percent self-reliant?

  2. This is a very interesting post and a supports a much needed debate in the sector. The tricky thing will be defining ownership, sustainability and self-reliance. I do not think these things are mutually exclusive, nor are they independent, rather they are part of a continuum. Sustainability of a project does not always dictate self-reliance since many initiatives may come to a natural end (i.e. the construction of a school – once it is complete, that is all that is required – three schools may not be required for a small local population). This plays an even larger role in economic development initiatives where markets may shift and demand may change – the end of a certain product does not mean the community is no longer self-reliant.
    I look forward to following the evolution of this debate and seeing what the final recommendations are.

  3. With all due respect, lots to critique in this article (not all words of the author): 1) “how should we measure when a community no longer needs foreign assistance?” Why do we assume that communities need foreign assistance? 2) “If people aren’t interested in solving a problem for themselves, how are you going to change the situation?” Ouch. Patronizing! 3) “assessing whether a community truly owns a project often can’t be tested until after the funding has stopped.” If the community has to be convinced to “own” a project, then it wasn’t theirs and shouldn’t have been funded in the first place 4) My overall question, where is the acknowledgement that the problems that internationals seek to solve are often caused by internationals and that damage in ongoing? Just my two cents.

    1. Thanks for your two cents Nora.. I agree with a lot of what you’re saying and I also had some of those questions in the back of my mind while writing this.. Maybe I didn’t articulate the idea clearly enough, but I think the self-reliance idea is obviously at its best when a community owns a project from the get go (ie they want it, it’s their vision, etc). In fact, I think the comments you quoted speak to the same question – Ojameruaye, for example, is a Nigerian working for Nigerians and I think his ideas are more about working WITH people to bring about long-lasting change, not about foreign nationals seeking to cause damage. CEN too.
      I think the self-reliance idea, if clarified, could go a long way to ensuring that internationals don’t impose solutions and cause ongoing damage.

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