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We may not always have control over every event that happens to us, but we still have the power to not be diminished by them. All communities and their individuals contain this power to change the cards they were dealt. The unfortunate circumstance in South Africa is a never-ending supply of communities who have not yet tapped into this power. Yet, these communities have the possibility to find their strong suit by taking advantage of the Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) approach. By placing emphasis on their assets and not their needs, communities have the ability to better their circumstances, and ultimately their health, through community engagement.

Group of people brainstorming on a large piece of paper on the floor.

Amava Oluntu in the process of collecting local assets based on ‘heart, hand, head’.

During the 1990s, a need to empower inner-city communities grew throughout the United States, leading to the development of ABCD, pioneered by Kretzmann and McKnight.1 The focal point of ABCD emerged through the social and economic problems of these populations, creating ways for communities to recognise and address their own issues using available assets.2

Recently, the increasing gap in health inequity and inequality has led to a revival of interest in ABCD’s value throughout the world. Across South Africa, scores of ABCD-styled projects are being propelled forward by NGOs in an effort to create communities that are self-driven and that take control over their own health. To give an example, Ikhala Trust has applied ABCD in many rural communities in the Eastern Cape in order to foster freedom and to equip them with tools and approaches that drive change locally without external supplies.

The potential posed by an asset-based approach to improve social determinants of health could, in turn, lead to a decrease in that gap2. Social determinants of health are all the (non-medical) conditions in a person’s life that impact his or her health, such as education, living and working environment, and age. The concepts surrounding ABCD is to target these determinants for a more holistic approach to improve well-being, health, and quality of life. This is opposed to simply focussing on mortality and morbidity the way many systems tend to rely upon.

Another theme in the ABCD approaches to community development is empowerment. ABCD aims to create tools to empower communities and support community members to improve their well-being and socio-economic development through collective action. Outside help from private, public, or non-profit services can lead to disadvantaged communities who “begin to see themselves as people with special needs that can only be met by outsiders. They become consumers of services, with no incentive to be producers.”1 However, ABCD creates a process where community members view themselves not as consumers, but “coproducers” of health.2

As the name suggests, ABCD revolves around locating, improving, and using individual or community assets. Strengths and resources are identified, otherwise known as asset mapping, and are used for capacity building, sustainable community development and creating economic opportunity.

Large piece of paper listing cultural assets from a community brainstorming session.

Amava Oluntu’s cultural assets collected by facilitator Ninnette from Elamanzi.

Especially relevant are the five main kinds of assets:

  • Human assets like skills, knowledge, labour and health
  • Social assets/ social capital like social networks and relationships of trust and reciprocity
  • Cultural assets like values, spirituality and traditional knowledge
  • Natural assets like land, water, fertile soil, animals, weather patterns and slopes
  • Financial assets like cash, livestock, grain stores, savings and pensions
  • Physical assets like roads, bridges, clinics, schools, transport, shelter, water supply and sanitation

When these assets are used to create a sustainable approach to public health initiatives, it can lead to positive changes throughout communities and increase social justice. Shifts in values, attitude, self-esteem, motivation, and empowerment can improve health on an individual and communal level.2

A recent research paper concluded that although the ABCD approach has the potential to positively influence health, there is a large gap of empirical studies to support it. Literature regarding ABCD appears to be inconsistent with definition, methodology, and results. This is unfortunate because the success of ABCD programs would not be completely understood by those who were not a part of it or felt its influence. A lack of evidence makes it difficult to use previous programs to influence policymakers in producing positive health reforms. Especially since ABCD has a “people must help themselves” approach, leading to less financial investments and therefore being relatively “politically attractive”.2

Despite the limits that ABCD currently holds, the possibility that it can improve community health and well-being through a range of methods is becoming more optimistic. To make systems like ABCD realistic, we can’t view disadvantaged communities as a pile of needs, but instead an abundance of untapped strengths. If it may seem that the cards are stacked against us, perhaps it’s time to shuffle the deck.

In June 2021, we got invited to an ABCD workshop held by Ninette Eliasov. She helped our team to learn more about the principles and practices of ABCD so that we can apply it in all our projects as a cross-cutting methodology. We learnt so much in just two days and hope to multiply the learnings with many more.

References
  1. Kretzmann, John, and John P McKnight. 1996. “Asset-Based Community Development.” National Civic Review 85 (4): 23-29. https://comdev.osu.edu/sites/comdev/files/d6/files/Assets-Based%20Community%20Development%20-%20Article.pdf[][]
  2. Blickem, Christian, Shoba Dawson, Susan Kirk, Ivaylo Vassilev, Amy Mathieson, Rebecca Harrison, Peter Bower, and Jonathan Lamb. 2018. “What is Asset-Based Community Development and How Might It Improve the Health of People With Long-Term Conditions? A Realist Synthesis.” SAGE 1-13. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2158244018787223[][][][][]
Joanne du Randt

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