News: Volunteer feedback influences approach

My trip to Timor-Leste last November served the purpose of gathering volunteers to reinforce a planning and evaluation process adopted as part of AusAID’s Pilot Volunteer Fund. Though I was there to lead the exercise, I learned something that has helped me think more about the process. Specifically, two volunteers discussed the process of reflecting on their host communities’ assets.

“Arising out of a critique of needs-based approaches to development, asset-based community development (ABCD) offers a set of principles and practices to mobilize and sustain community economic development.”1 While identifying needs is important, ABCD looks to address these by building on the assets that exist within the local community. When development relies on assets introduced from outside of the community it can create dependencies that may not be sustainable.

At Palms we expect the community requesting a volunteer to first identify its existing knowledge and skill assets. This enables them to discern and outline to Palms in a Position Description those skills local people might now usefully improve to assist further community development. ABCD also has the potential to provide a discerning volunteer with a much clearer idea of the assets that can be utilised in further skill development. It is what needs to be done before considering a work plan.

There is little new in this. Palms Australia (as the Paulian Association) was founded on the methodology of See, Judge and Act in the 1950s, which provides a similar approach. Those of you who have been placed with Palms should be pretty familiar with our suggestion of taking six months to really see what is going on in the host community before suggesting, or even thinking of a single
change that might improve work practices. This approach supports the principle of “do no damage”.

Volunteers should use the first six months to do foundational things that will assist to build relationships, such as language learning and trying to appreciate the patterns of behaviour behind each of new experience. After being so patient one might test a judgment through a tentative suggestion to a trusted community member. Then, we suggest being prepared to wait and carefully assess the response, which may not be apparent even as another month or more elapses. The patience required is enough to burst the mind of a “human doing”.

Assets based development suggests another activity that might help to avoid the restlessness felt by the active Westerner during that first six months of “Seeing”. It involves assessing the human and capital assets and resources already being deployed, or that have the potential to be deployed, to address the development in which one has been invited to participate.

I have found, in both Education and Development, that many dismiss new names for similar approaches to their work. You may hear “What’s old is new again” or “Wait long enough and the cycle will repeat itself” as disparaging comments. I like fresh expressions of a similar approach because they frequently bring greater clarity. And at times the stimulation of valuable new thinking is my reward.

Thank you to Heath and Mim for discussing this approach. It will certainly be useful as we prepare our next volunteers at our 2013 Orientation.

Roger

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I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands
to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any. - Mohandas Gandhi