On Needs!

Some, on first reading, assume that ABCD is suggesting we ignore needs and focus only on assets. That is a fundamental misunderstanding! Such a surface understanding of ABCD can lead to unfair criticism of the approach, as well as creating unnecessary fears among those who are genuinely endeavouring to address very pressing needs and doing valuable development work in the process. So, far too often ABCD can seem to offend this important work and those who undertake it. This bothers me intensely, because this is not the intension as I understand it.

So let me try to set the record straight. ABCD is not denying the existence of needs, instead it is highlighting that there are three kinds of needs:
1. First, needs we can best meet in the citizen and associational space, from intimacy to a wider sense of belonging. No matter how well system or material alternatives are wrapped up, no service or product can replace the role and existential appeal of family and community in producing, through care and passion, the joy of such giving and receiving, that orbits in a virtuous circle around such needs.
2. Second, needs we can meet as citizens with the support of systems, public health being an example, this is a space where co-production is central to social protection and the prosperity of communities. When we understand the importance of this kind of partnership we are clearer, for example, around when we require more hospital beds and when instead we need more hospitable communities, and will have the flexibility to step outside our silos to mobilise the necessary tools.
3. Third are needs which are best met by systems through the provision of services, products/goods...few among us would for example trust our neighbour enough to perform brain surgery on us...excepting where they are qualified to do so.

I think the above distinctions highlight the need for clarity around when we should use which tools in addressing the three levels of need. ABCD reminds us that there are two tools for social change and building prosperous communities. One is the ‘systems’ tool; the other is the ‘citizen’ tool. These tools when worked in the right sequence have the capacity to build powerful and sustainable solutions....but when used out of sequence, or in extreme isolation, they can cause significant disempowerment, and ultimately create even greater levels of need than they originally set out to address...

So it is wrong to say then that ABCD ignores or denigrates need...since it is as true to observe that the glass is 'half empty’, as it is to say the ‘glass is half full’, we simply believe that communities will be better equipped to tackle the half empty part if they first, identify, connect and then mobilise the half full. In other words what ABCD is saying is that in the journey towards social justice we need to address needs in a way that empowers those with the ‘needs’ to be their own first investors in defining and addressing them; from a place of internal power.

ABCD also notes that if we are serious about understanding needs in general we need to be mindful that a community cannot know what it needs until they first know what they have. Ironically therefore any needs analysis worth a grain of salt must logically start with an internal asset inventory.

The secondary gain for a community using this approach is that in discovering what they need in this way they also discover their own power to meet those needs, and the skill to leverage in external supports, to address needs through co-production or vis a vis system responses.

This is why it is vital that communities themselves discover their own issues and the internal resources they are going to use to address them, and thereafter proceed collectively to leverage in external supports as required. In this way people move from being clients of services, to being citizens at the centre of democracy.

One of our greatest contributions as development workers is when we confront citizens with the power of their own liberty and freedom and invite them into an accountable conversation with each other about what they could do if they become more present to the future they want, than to the past they fear……

Every generation offers us certain seductions which draw us away from the inherent challenge of living a good life, a central part of which is meeting our own and each others needs wherever we can.

From Church to Government to the Free Market, generation after generation have had to learn that ultimately systems can’t do our living for us, at best they can do for us what we can’t do for ourselves, but as citizens we are at liberty to define so much more of our lives than we currently realise. I can’t remember who it was who joked that this generation expects of Government, what people in the 50’s expected of God, the comment points toward an expectation among the citizenry which at times veers towards unhealthy levels of dependency, yet paradoxically in so many ways Government has become exceedingly peripheral to people’s lives.

Indeed a survey of 1,000 people in the Republic of Ireland aged over 16 which was conducted by NFP Synergy in 2009 on behalf The Wheel reveals that 68% of the public now believe that charities significantly influence their personal values, compared to the church (38%) and the government (8%). So ironically the grouping with the least influence on the citizenry also ‘enjoys’ the highest level of expectation when it comes to addressing need. The irony speaks for itself, and this is a trend I see throughout the so called developed world.
If we step aside for a moment from the left versus right argument, of big government versus small government, and start the debate deeper down, we might reasonably ask what, regardless of the size question, have been the consequences of allowing liberal democracy to become the prevailing governmental paradigm? All too often we critique democracy within far too narrow a frame, if for example we had cultivated a civic republic with the values of the commons and communitarianism at the heart of democracy as against the prevailing cult of the self and society post the French and American Revolutions, if we had listened closer to ancient Greek wisdom as against the sagacity of Locke and Hobbes might we not have a very different understanding of needs and who is responsible for addressing them?

Indeed if we lived in a civic republic the distinctions made above would be self evident and we would likely willingly accede to a culture of ‘I am my brother’s/sisters/planet’s keeper’. In the absence of a shift in paradigm, instead we await ‘natural disasters’ to reconnect us with that deeper wisdom. Perhaps the challenges of climate change will do more than change our landscape, in reality though I suspect that the most effective way to respond to climate change is to first create an enabling democratic environment from grassroots up where behaviours among citizens become reconnected with their consequences on others and the environment.
This is not to say that Governments should be left off the hook as it were, but rather that Governments are more limited than any one person may know, and citizens individually and collectively are more powerful than most proclaim. In the final analysis then democracy is not about casting a vote, which in fact is the act of handing ones power over to another, but about stepping up and taking a powerful place in a community with the audacity to reinvent democracy on the terms of those with little or no franchise within representative structures…..true freedom is always a little subversive but nonetheless one of our more fundamental needs.

Cormac Russell, ABCD Institute

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