- Great Lakes Urban
Lessons in Asset Based Community Development from the Villages of Africa
Updated: Feb 28
The following is reprinted with the permission by the team at Visible Hands Collaborative (VHC). This VHC blog post is based on a discussion with GLU Director, Eric Smith.
An old African proverb asserts that "it takes a village to raise a child", but what does it take to raise a village?
In a remote village in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a broken down tractor sits idly in the sand. The once shiny metal body has been dulled with intense weather exposure, and the heavy machinery serves not as an example of power, but as a reminder of isolation and inadequacy. Well-meaning intentions of improving food security, a high priority for the people, inadvertently causes more distress for the local inhabitants.
Curious about the story of the broken down tractor, visitor Eric Smith posed a question, “What’s the story behind that?” He learned that some prominent international person with aspirations of improving the farming process had purchased the tractor, which was shipped in from overseas to the secluded village. Unfortunately, with no ecosystem to support maintaining the tractor, combined with the harsh climate and sandy conditions, the tractor broke down relatively quickly.
In fact, in just one season, it was a total goner. In the remote village, there was no Tractor Supply or Home Depot. The training, tools and mechanics to work on this type of product weren’t available, and a tractor mechanic simply doesn’t exist. Their only option was to ship the tractor overseas to be fixed, but there was no investment in the local industry to support that. So with a dead tractor now serving as a glorified garden statue, further proving that all good things come from overseas, the people went back to their traditional farming ways, and the issue of food security was unchanged.
The cattle and the plow
A few decades later during his time in Uganda, Eric was working alongside the people of Achibu. Through a process of questions, discussions and discovery, Eric found that the the locals were most concerned about food security, mirroring the concerns of the people of Congo. After walking alongside the people to devise a solution, Eric was told that the Acholi, a Nilotic ethnic group of Luo peoples in northern Uganda, were really good at using cattle. “Let's go learn from them,” they mused. So they did.
Armed with newfound knowledge of how to use the cattle and plow, the community was excited and hopeful. They came together with grit and determination, and took the time to figure out the costs associated with purchasing a cow. Concurrently, Eric and his team purchased a second cow for the village. With their newly acquired cattle, they were off and running, increasing food production by ninefold.
Eventually, one of the cows died. Applying the lessons they had learned in the past, the people knew that if they worked together toward a specific goal, they would be more successful. They purchased a replacement cow and reaffirmed that by working together to achieve a common goal, they could achieve great things.
Asset Based Community Development in action
Eric Smith has carried those twin stories with him in both his head and his heart throughout his life. He says that these stories exemplify the process of Asset Based Community Development (ABCD), and clearly displays why he believes in ABCD wholeheartedly. Two villages, each with similar concerns, and two polar opposite outcomes.
So what was the difference? Eric credits the success of the Achibu community to the process of asking questions and walking alongside the community to find a solution to their food scarcity concerns, combined with ensuring the solution is maintainable. Eric has since applied Asset Based Community Development to a variety of contexts in the U.S.A.
Along the way, he's learned that the principals of ABCD work in every circumstance. It has become increasingly clear that when the goal is to support a community, the best aid comes in the right dose at the right time to supplement what residents are already doing. This is Asset Based Community Development at work; a bottom up versus top down approach, and working together to achieve greatness.
This is what it takes to raise a village that raises it's children and families well!
Eric Smith is the Executive Director of Great Lakes Urban, a Michigan-based non-profit organization connecting people in communities and strengthening their efforts to build strong, safe, and healthy neighborhoods. Their goal is to discover, coach, and support leaders across North America who are already working to create strong communities. They are focused on building a movement based on the principles and practices of asset-based community development.
Having grown up in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Eric Smith has seen first-hand the effect that Asset Based Community Development can have on people and their communities. His passion for ABCD was bred from his own experiences, with fond memories of witnessing abundance in community as a child.