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Asset Based Community Development (ABCD): Looking Back to Look Forward

By Cormac Russell

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Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD), as a perspective, is timeless, because it simply describes what communities do when they come together to effectively make things better where they live, and what they use to do so, despite the challenges they face.

There’s power because you’ve got a lot of money and there’s power because you have a lot of people. And we don’t have a lot of money in this neighbourhood but we do have a lot of people – they’re just not organised to be powerful....yet!

If you let institutions grow, become big and powerful through time, then these are the phases. While they’re small they’ll be relatively productive and over time as bureaucracy and power are assembled, they begin to become less and less productive. Then they’ll begin to decline in productivity until they become counter-productive.

The way to really reform society is to create a society where the people at the edge are inside, not by making new rules and laws that will keep them further outside. Community building is about getting the greatest number of contributions by the greatest number of people.

The thing that really struck me about all these dissenters was that all of them were expressing their belief and the government was coming down on them. Yet the government action never changed a single one of them.

It’s hopeless to try changing people by denying them the right to express themselves. Freedom of expression is critical in a democratic society.

A strong community is one in which everybody contributes, and that the fewer people who contribute the weaker the community will be.

Many of the doctors I deal with see that the whole medical system, the pill system, the hospital system - is now out of their control and is controlled by people who understand systems and making money.

The progressives, the institutional reformers are the final defenders of keeping what doesn’t work going – or as Mike Green would say, “They’ve never figured out that doing more of what doesn’t work won’t finally work.”

You never make a plan, because that in itself will stop you. Those in power – officials, professionals, unions, will learn what you’re going to do when they see the plan and because they’ll be against it they will mobilise the forces that want to keep the system going the way it is. So act quickly and then act in a way that mobilises the community’s resources.

So that every time you work in the community, your failure is public. Every time you work in the system, the brutality is private. And that’s the difference.

“A man will never understand that which his salary depends on him not understanding.”

A grant is money that starts big and at the end there is no money. An asset is the opposite of a grant. It starts small and, if you invest it well, it ends up big. It’s a multiplier of what people have, from something little to something bigger, not huge but bigger. And so that’s why we called them assets. They are the local investments that, correctly connected, will create much more together than they do apart.

The most important community asset, the gifts of individuals, is deeply personal, not just words or categories. Most people are so institutionalised that the personal gifts are submerged below ground. Yet giving these gifts is the most powerful thing they can do in life.

The promise of globalisation is that, through technology, a liberal democracy and western corporate expansionism taken to scale will make the world a better place for everyone. It is a form of what some refer to as trickle-down economics, the belief that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” In fact it only lifts yachts and cruise liners, leaving the handmade crafts of the poor in their wake. As an ideology it devalues playing small and thinking local. Scale and privatisation is the only path to a single global economy. *

In the last recession, Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain bankers were rescued, and citizens were made to suffer, which is to say that the rules of free-market economics were reinforced at the expense of citizens and government social programs. What was held sacred was the trading in a free market in support of banks and corporate interests.

The people of Greece have dissented en masse against a centralised global economic system that has hyper-accelerated worldwide corporate economic growth at the expense of the world’s poorest populations and the planet.

Perhaps we don’t need more start-ups; we need more upstarts, heretics and genuine radicals.

Perhaps the Left thinks the Right is wrong, and the Right thinks the Left is wrong, and that’s what’s wrong.

Perhaps we need fewer leaders who say ‘this is the way’, and more connectors who help us co-create ‘our way’.