ASSET-BASED COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT [ABCD] APPROACH
In the early 2000s, the Episcopal Church in the Philippines began exploring a new approach to doing development work which was then being talked about in community development circles. This method was known as the Asset-Based Community Development – or ABCD – approach which focuses on the strengths, assets or resources of a particular community as the key ingredients to fashioning a positive vision for their future rather than on its needs, problems and weaknesses.
For an institution whose development planning had been largely characterized by the “needs-based” or “problem-based” approach however, the ABCD method posed a difficult challenge. The “needs-based” approach had enabled partner communities to gain access to external funding as well as resources and what they wanted was more of these. Earlier, when the Church ceased a long practice of distributing free foodstuffs and other goodies to local congregations – as well as providing scholarships and children’s material support – people lined up in convention and meeting halls to denounce the Church leadership for its failure to continue such programs.
But something dramatic happened in the ECP that led to its embrace of the ABCD approach philosophy and, in fact, consequently resulted in its adoption of ABCD as a national policy. To go back to the history of the ECP, the Church finally constituted itself on 1 May 1990 as a national church province within the Anglican Communion, independent of and autonomous from its mother Church [Episcopal Church in the U.S.A.]. Despite such autonomy however, it continued to receive from the U.S Church annual grant subsidy for its budgetary requirements. At the time it declared its independence, subsidy covered 60% of its total revenues. In hindsight, an autonomous church with more than one-half of its budget being subsidized seems to be a ridiculous situation. Yet, it was then the most logical recourse considering the sheer enormity of the grant, the poverty gripping the majority of church members and the still-pervasive thinking of many Filipinos who looked up to America as the source of salvation and who considered the Church as a rich institution from which material benefits could be derived.
In 1993, the ECP came up with a “Stepped-Reduction Plan” that would reduce the annual subsidy over 15 years up to the year 2007 when the grant finally would finally reach a zero-level. While this 15-year plan was welcomed as a gradual phase-out of the subsidy, it also resulted in a painful withdrawal period that plunged the Church into a recurrent financial crisis. Each year, budget deficits grew. Due to lack of funds, certain program activities had to be shelved and a special retirement program which was instituted among certain lay employees and clergy salary had its rates frozen while payment was delayed in a number of dioceses.
By 2004, the ECP was only three years away from its self-imposed deadline to become fully financially autonomous. While the amount of the grant subsidy had significantly gone down, it was still a huge amount, coming in at ₱9.3 million – constituting 14% of the Church’s total budget. At that time, the Church’s dioceses expressed that they had exhausted every possible means of income-generation and had reached the “end of the road” in terms of local sourcing. In fact, 2003 posted its largest budgetary deficit at ₱6 million. It was generally felt that there was simply no way the Church would be able to meet its 2007 target of becoming completely self-reliant. In such a situation, the only possible recourse was to appeal to its erstwhile mother Church to extend the end of the annual subsidy from 2007 to 2010.
However, against all odds of prevailing, the ECP made a bold decision. Instead of asking for a three-year extension for the annual subsidy, it took the completely opposite course of action and resolved to advance the conclusion of the grant support so that by end of that same year – New Year’s Day 2005 – it would already be fully self-supporting. Initially, there was an uproar against this decision from among the dioceses and general membership. The Church leadership however stood its ground and “bit the bullet” for 2005.
What subsequently happened was almost miraculous!
By the end of the following year , all the fears of incurring huge deficits, serious inability to pay salaries in full, suspension of expansion work, etc. turned out to be unfounded. All of these feared scenarios never came to pass and, in fact, for the first time in more than 20 years, the Church ended the fiscal year with a budget surplus of ₱3 million. Effectively, it had achieved full financial autonomy on 1 January 2005.
From this experience, the Church learned that it is only when it stops looking towards others and instead starts to fully look into itself that it realizes what it has and what it can achieve with it – the very essence of the ABCD philosophy and approach. It therefore did not just read about, analyze and conclude that ABCD was an effective tool – it actually lived it out and proved it to be the correct approach to development. Consequently, the Church’s Executive Council formally adopted ABCD as the way to pursue development work both among congregations and communities.
Perhaps the community that reflected the spirit of ABCD the most is Pangao in the Municipality of Buguias in Benguet Province. This community had earlier submitted a request for the improvement of its water system, which was approved and ready for implementation with a budget of around a million pesos. In August 2012, however, the National Development Office received a communication from the community that it was graciously withdrawing its project proposal and that it had decided instead that it would improve its existing water project on its own.
Pangao is indeed a unique community. Most of its people were former members of a fundamentalist religious sect, but had since transferred to the Episcopal Church. They also had built their own place of worship entirely on their own in a period of almost three years. They started by getting a community member to donate a piece of land which needed much excavation work in order to be appropriately buildable. The congregation did the excavation work every Sunday afternoon for almost two years and then proceeded to construct a church building from locally-available materials and contributed resources. [This kind of experience is rarely seen in ECP congregations where the usual practice, especially in cases of building a place of worship, is to rely heavily on the diocese to provide the resources.]
Pangao had also previously established a water system of its own – using a hose [acquired through contributions] to access water from a source one kilometer away from the community. A water association has been established to manage this crude water system as well. As they had heard about water projects established in other communities by the ECP, they submitted a request for assistance in improving their system by installing reservoir and distribution tanks, as well as replacing the hose with more permanent piping systems. When the project request was received, Pangao was included in the list of pilot areas for ABCD implementation. The situation posed a very difficult question: How can the ECP work with this community to improve its water system in a way that affirms their values of self-reliance and prevents the inauguration of the dependency mindset which often follows when CBDP brings in substantial resources to a marginalized community? In the ECP’s experience, no amount of references to the “lofty” ideals of sustainable development had been able to offset the destructive effects of a grant involving a huge amount of money. The infusion of such amounts often resulted in weakening the erstwhile self-reliance level of communities to the effect that, to reiterate, it actually inaugurated a cycle wherein the communities then continued coming back to the diocese or the ECP for more grants. How then can the project request of Pangao be appropriately addressed without the community being consigned into the world of dependency?
For more than a year, the community went through the ABCD process until finally, an answer to the above question came out. In the course of the ABCD process, the community realized that it actually had the resources to improve its own water project over time and thus that it would withdraw its project request. This has been the most successful result of ABCD thus far.
For the ECP’s development program, the biggest impact of ABCD has been the substantial reduction in the level of external grant support to community development projects. From a peak of ₱28 million in 2010, the annual grant to the program has decreased to now be in-between ₱18 million and ₱20 million, owing not only to the increase in local counterparts but more so to the change in project-designing which now focuses on local asset maximization rather than on needs-listing and accessing external funds to fill in such needs.
THE ABCD PROCESS
The ABCD process refers to the range of activities and exercises that are carried out to engage communities and to identify, appreciate and value local assets and capacities which communities then further enhance and mobilize for sustainable development. In the context of the communities where the ECP works, the process enables communities to do what the ECP did, which is, “to stop looking at others and start looking into itself so that it realizes and appreciates what it has and can look into what it can do with these”. It invites communities to reflect on the dependency-creating ways of working which they are so used to and to invite them to evolve towards another way of looking at realities and addressing challenges – “from a half-empty to a half-full cup.” It is a process that enables people to collectively look at “God’s abundance” within their midst – those assets and resources, often taken for granted, that are found within communities – and to explore opportunities that such assets can create and/or bring about. It is these identified assets and resources that should then drive the development process.
There are three major activities under this process: a] ABCD Orientation; b] Asset-Mapping Exercises; and, c] Community Visioning.
ABCD orientation starts with a discussion of the various approaches to development as experienced in the ECP, as follows: a] the dole-out system as a missionary strategy and the attitude of dependency that it has created; b] the needs-based approach, which institutionalized the “half-empty glass” mindset; and, c] the asset-based approach, which takes on the “half-full glass” thinking. Bible studies on the feeding of the five thousand [Mark 6:30-44], the widow’s oil [2 Kings 4:1-7], etc. are used to affirm the ABCD process and to bring out lessons that: “miracles [and development] start when we maximize what we have”. It also shows that ABCD is not a recent conception but was already a Biblical directive more than 2,000 years ago. Biblical lessons are also used to show that God has gifted every person and community with skills, competencies, capabilities and resources. Also to show that when these are not utilized, they are taken away or are lost or destroyed [Parable of the Five Talents.]
Asset-Mapping Exercises refer to the processes undertaken to take stock of the resources and assets within the community. These include: identification of gifts of individuals, associations, institutions and connections; transect walks and village-mapping around the community to look at physical resources; and drawing the community asset map.
Community Visioning Exercises involve the exploration of asset-utilization and maximization, conducting of feasibility studies to determine the most viable options and drawing-up of the development vision and plans.
ISSUES, CHALLENGES AND RESOLUTIONS
1. TRANSFORMING ORGANIZATIONAL CULTURE
The former needs-based development planning in the ECP has spawned a well-entrenched organizational culture that has revolved around grant-seeking. “Grantsmanship” or the ability to access grant funding has always been considered a primary indicator of success within the organization. ABCD challenged this thinking and for many church and community leaders and staff, the world of development planning they had been used to seemed to have been turned upside-down. The grant mindset was so pervasive that during the initial years of ABCD implementation it resulted in the mere formal or mechanical adoption of the processes without any effect on the program’s understanding of projects which continued to feed on its reliance on external grants.
As part of the attempt to effect a change in organizational culture, the organization was re-visioned and re-structured into what is now known as the “Episcopal CARE Foundation, Inc.”, which has a separate and distinct legal personality. It continues to be the development arm of the ECP, but the management of the development program is no longer lodged in the dioceses but within the Foundation. This means that a national policy or action from its Board of Trustees is a directive that must be embraced and implemented by all the staff. This is unlike in the past when national programs and policies were mere suggestions that dioceses could adopt, modify or even completely ignore. More significantly, the organization adopted the so-called “E-CARE way”, which is grounded on ABCD and the “Receivers to Givers” policy. All proposals and activities that are not in accord with the “E-CARE way” and which embody the old way of development thinking and planning are no longer entertained. Since the reporting formats and documentation processes within the program sometimes prevent the staff from moving past the old way, a quarterly report on the “Four Bottomlines” of the E-CARE way – which does not have any structure or form – is becoming not only a venue for sharing the fruits of ABCD but also to express the emerging positive changes in organizational culture.
- BREAKING THE COMMUNITY GROUNDS FOR ABCD
Advocates say that ABCD gives communities an exciting, new and positive energy that liberates them from the negative cycles of need and dependency. E-CARE affirms these assertions but also points out that the process of gaining such an “exciting, new and positive energy” is a very difficult and challenging one.
Economic marginalization, into which most of E-CARE’s partner communities have been consigned, not only deprives people of the means to a more self-reliant economic situation but also diminishes their capacity to even imagine or envision a better life. Owing to the fixation on the search for the next meal, people do not have the excitement and the urge to initiate a long-term endeavor, especially when such initiatives require time and physical efforts in addition to current pre-occupation. This is the reason why dole-outs, hand-outs or needs-satisfying projects from external sources are very much preferred by them. In a number of occasions, community leaders have balked at the ABCD approach and bluntly expressed that it is just wasting their time. What they wanted to know was how much money and for what purpose the development program was giving. During the initial years, the response of the program to these situations has been to politely withdraw from the prospective partnership with these communities [e.g. Comillas, Sadanga, etc.]. The current approach however is to identify and work with individuals or small groups within these communities who are interested to give ABCD a try. This group is then engaged to become a model of the new approach and with relative successes in a number of cases, some of those who initially rejected ABCD have come back to explore how they can also participate [e.g. St. Augustine’s Insumix Project, etc.]
A majority of the partner communities are indigenous rural villages or small communities that have been sustained on agriculture-based livelihood since time immemorial. As these communities know all the “ins and outs” of their traditional economic activity and its outcomes and limitations, they would scoff at any suggestion that their agricultural resources [small landholdings, farming skills, etc.] are valuable assets that they can further enhance and mobilize for economic development. Asset-mapping and resource identification in such an environment become exercises in futility and always lead to a dead-end as these communities firmly believe that economic salvation can never arise from such traditional economic ways of life and the only way to a better course are the dole-outs from some external benefactors. This mindset is even more rooted in traditional Episcopal congregations.
To address these situations, the program has pursued a number of strategies: a] exploration of alternative or non-traditional livelihoods [such as sari-sari store, buy-and-sell and other trading activities, blacksmithing, etc.]; b] value-chain development; and, c] enhancing the production base.
Value-chain development works on the same economic activity that people are already engaged in under the principle that it is the producers who must benefit from the value-adding potentials of their own products. Value-adding is entrepreneurship, understood as the combination of resources to create new value, which requires not only technical skills but also an entrepreneurial spirit and interests that vary among individual members of one community.
As mentioned above, enhancing the main economic base or maximizing intervention potentials in the agricultural production level requires overcoming peoples’ skepticism of the said potentials of their current economic activity. This has been done through a commitment to work together towards a completely opposite reality – “commitment” being understood as a pledge to purchase large volumes of produced crops. This is shown in the Soquib camote planters’ experience where E-CARE pledged to purchase large volumes of camote from the planters – a product that the community traditionally accorded low value. When E-CARE paid for 0.7 tons of camote from a single planter [which enabled her to pay off her long-overdue debts to a cooperative], many others found the motivation to plant or increase production of the crop. This jumpstarted camote production which is now produced by the community for income-generating purposes. There are a number of strategies which E-CARE is now pursuing to similarly jumpstart larger production in other communities, such as: a] the offer to purchase rice produced under the System of Rice Intensification [SRI] at higher prices as well as lower interest rates by cooperatives to farmers who adopt SRI; b] advance payments [in the form of rice] for legume producers in Tinglayan; c] carbon-offset payments to agro-forestry development groups; d] marketing assistance; and, e] technology transfer. In all of these strategies, it is established that people begin to value their own resources and to scale up and mobilize these resources if there is a matching effort from a partner to invest its own resources to achieve a common goal. It is important to note that, except for carbon-offsets, E-CARE’s involvement in these activities has proven to be economically feasible. While the primary goal is to enable the communities to improve their economic conditions, E-CARE’s investments in the partnerships have also been recovered and, in some instances, garnered a small profit which shows that these interventions are sustainable.
In all of the above activities, ABCD has redefined the program’s understanding of what a “community” is. Given the varied pre-occupations, assets, skills and capacities of individual households, an entire community cannot be expected to take a common interest in one particular activity – whether an alternative livelihood, value-adding or expanding production. Lessons are gained from a previous project where a community was mobilized to plant soy beans, followed by trainings on how to process the beans into various foodstuffs. At the initial stages, many people participated [perhaps out of curiosity] but eventually the interest waned until only one lady was left continuing the trade. Because she had a strong interest in the activity and an entrepreneurial spirit, she was able to gradually make it into a livelihood source.
The program now works with small groups of 3 to 5 persons who share an entrepreneurial spirit and common interest to pursue a particular project with the end in mind that it will spiral into initiatives of other similar-sized groups. It is very important that the first group must exhibit some level of success so that it is able to encourage other groups to set up their own enterprises. The conventional thinking is that a project must have the full participation of and must benefit an entire community. This is certainly not feasible for ABCD projects and so the small-group spiral was adopted as an enhancement to the program’s understanding and practice of community initiative.
But while small groups or individuals pursue varied interests and undertakings, there must be an organization that manages the project when two or more small groups in the same community pursue different initiatives.
In the past, micro-finance institutions have worked with “groups of five” whose members not only guarantee each other’s loans but who also strengthen and help each other in pursuing common ventures. This scheme is now almost passé, again because of the recognition that entrepreneurial capacities and interests vary. E-CARE must be able to support even individuals who exhibit that passion and drive to succeed and who have the knack for innovations, can spot opportunities and convert them into goods of value. This is always done with the goal of reaching out to other community members by modeling a concrete positive experience. One of the positive aspects of the current practice in E-CARE is its “Receivers to Givers” policy, which precludes any perception of granting favors to certain individuals as anybody is eligible to be a partner for as long as he/she is able not only to receive but also to give in-kind.
Asset-identification and mobilization entail many variables and so the work varies from one community to another. Unlike previous CBDP projects, e.g. water projects, there is no such thing as a “one size fits all” framework. Each project is assessed on a case-by-case basis and lessons from each are documented to guide future initiatives.
As shown in the discussions above, there will always be hesitance among groups or communities to launch into uncharted waters. Again, this reticence is expressed in varied ways from community to community. E-CARE has taken up the challenge to break into that wall of indifference and convert peoples’ reservations into productive courses of action. At Holy Faith in Cainta, the community has identified a project that can positively impact peoples’ livelihoods. However, despite its clear viability, only 6 people participated and contributed resources amounting to ₱300,000 to capitalize the project. When E-CARE engaged with the community, however, that reluctance was overturned and in only two weeks’ time, 20 additional people had joined the project and contributions had risen to ₱700,000, further evidencing the power of E-CARE’s dedication to transforming the deeply-entrenched mindsets of these communities.