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Can Asset Based Community Development build wellbeing and resilience in communities?

4 Apr 2018 | Sarah Ward

In 2012, the Christie Report highlighted the need for a new approach to public service delivery in Scotland. Despite increased public expenditure, inequalities had remained largely unchanged since devolution. A time bomb of deep-rooted social problems combined with budgetary cuts threatened a breakdown in public services. A key focus of Christie’s proposal was the promotion of asset-based approaches, ‘working closely with individuals and communities to understand their needs, maximise talents and resources, support self-reliance, and build resilience’. 

Assets are sometimes defined as protective material or physical resources, but more often are described as the skills, capacity and social networks in a community, that support good health and enable resilience in times of stress. So far, so good. But we need to figure out a way to measure whether and how these skills and social networks might reduce inequalities. 

This has been the focus of my PhD research over the past three years, evaluating how Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) can improve wellbeing in disadvantaged communities, based on research with the AHEAD project in Ayrshire. I have explored how ABCD is intended to work, conducting interviews with 30 participants across two case study neighbourhoods. 

Defining wellbeing 

An important first stage for the research was to find a way of defining wellbeing that captured local activities, services and support networks, but also reflected the vital socioeconomic changes that will address inequalities. The Capabilities Approach (CA) offers a useful and robust framework of social justice, concerned with identifying the freedoms people need to live ‘a good life.’ These freedoms might include being able to enjoy positive relationships, get involved in valued activities and enjoy good health.  A set of ten capabilities together represent the core factors of a good life. These are: lifespan; health; bodily safety and security; identity, expression and self-respect; individual, family and social life; education and learning; productive and valued activities; standard of living; participation and voice; and legal protection. 

Research participants prioritised five capabilities as key to an ABCD approach:

  1. identity, expression and self-respect
  2. productive and valued activity
  3. participation and voice
  4. individual, family and social relationships
  5. health

 This highlights the need for other capabilities to be met by other types of service provision. In other words, asset-based approaches can be helpful in promoting wellbeing and resilience, but they can’t do everything. Issues around standard of living and legal security were raised repeatedly by participants, especially when it came to supporting the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. 

Asset Based Community Development – five key activities 

What does ABCD propose to do? The approach describes five key activities to bring about change:

  • identifying local skills;
  • building relationships;
  • mobilising skills by bringing people together;
  • building community association; and  
  • developing a local vision. 

The ABCD model suggests that local activity builds across the first three activities until reaching a tipping point when local people develop associations beyond the immediate scope of their own activity and begin to represent and plan for the wider community. 

Analysis of the research evidence revealed that during the three years of the project, the tipping point of ‘association’ was only being achieved in one of the two case studies (case study 2). What distinguished this community was a history of local activism, alongside a well-established community venue and comprehensive programme of activity. In other words, local context was key to the success of the ABCD approach. Both case study neighbourhoods showed that acute problems of food insecurity, poor housing, addictions and mental distress had created a group too vulnerable to engage in asset-based approaches and who need more intensive support to help them cope and resolve the urgent problems of poverty. 

Using a Capabilities Approach

A Capabilities Approach was again useful in trying to understand in more detail how Asset Based Community Development might help to address social justice concerns. Mapping of activity in the ‘participation and voice’ capability showed that residents in case study 2 understood taking local action as a political act requiring dissent, rather than a consultative act relying on consensual understanding. This appeared to have protected them against some (but not all) attempts to cut service provision. Residents had ongoing relationships with public sector representatives and felt able to express their thoughts and feelings, and this ‘ability to disagree’ had been a key factor in maintaining local resilience. 

The Capabilities’ definition of empowerment developed by Drydyk (2008) is helpful in unpacking this further. He states that empowerment that lasts is made up of three dimensions: agency, power and the capabilities goals themselves. So, being empowered depends upon on having the agency to make decisions, having the power to make decisions, and having the goals rooted in social justice concerns, which can actually tackle the causes of inequality. The term ‘empowerment’ been used more recently to mean communities simply participating in public sector consultation, for example, but the Capabilities definition brings a rigorous analysis to the critical issues of power and links the achievement of empowerment to socio-economic improvement. 

While case study 2 had evidence of strong agency and a keen awareness of social justice concerns, the neighbourhood had not expressed these concerns as a specific set of goals (or local vision, in ABCD-speak) prior to the research. Although there was some evidence of devolving power at a local level, this did not extend to budgets, and there was limited evidence of ‘power-with’ activity, where the community were supported to work closely with public sector partners. This was largely due to a lack of public sector staff resources available to work at neighbourhood level. Since the ABCD research, the Local Authority concerned has developed a participatory budgeting programme, offering communities the chance to become involved in decisions over allocating a small budget. 

So, can ABCD build wellbeing and resilience in communities? 

The answer is yes, if the right resources are in place at a neighbourhood level, and if local participants are encouraged to question the decisions that have created inequalities in the first place. A starting point for this is for public and voluntary sector partners to encourage active discussion and challenge over strategic and budgetary decisions by local activists. In other words, to support full democratic participation in our society.

Capabilities can help to establish meaningful collective goals and track progress of asset-based approaches, as well as shining a light on the role and capacity of public and voluntary sectors in helping communities to achieve wellbeing and resilience. But asset-based approaches are not a means of saving money in the short term, and the most disadvantaged in Scotland’s communities need urgent additional help in addressing the pressing problems of food poverty, poor housing and addictions.

Read more about resilience in the related blogs in our series:

Surprises at work: building resilience through recognition and appreciation

People make resilient cities

Promoting resilience in the early years through citizenship

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Surprises at work: building resilience through recognition and appreciation

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