On Social Capital and Community Assets

Over the course of the last couple weeks, we have begun to plan and implement a series of surveys in five communities around where MPI operates. But there will be something a little different about these surveys.

Instead of traditional needs assessments, we’ve decided to take a different tack on surveying our communities. To do so, we’ve combined two parallel methods: the first, called the Social Capital Assessment Tool (SOCAT), is a World Bank-developed methodology that, instead of focusing on problems and needs, asks detailed questions about social cohesion, communication, and collective action. The second methodology, asset-based community development (ABCD), grew out of Northwestern University. It also shifts attention away from the needs of a community and instead looks for the capacities and assets that a community already contains, with an eye to connecting people and strengthening institutions.

In practice, what this means is that as a result of these surveys, we may not know the prevalence of parasites in these neighborhoods, or how many people feel unsafe after 10:00 at night, or what percentage of residents consider public transportation to be inadequate. What we might know is where someone in the community can find midwife, or who might be capable of establishing a cooperative of local corn producers, or whether there may be English-proficient neighbors who can help tutor students before they go to high school.

That’s important for a number of reasons. First, it’s proactive rather than reactive – building up strengths rather than plugging up holes. Second, it focuses (positively) on the assets a community has rather than (negatively) on what it lacks. Third, it provides the community itself with a tool – a local “who’s who” of sorts – so that anyone can see where their community’s strengths lie. Fourth, it precludes outside organizations from (often vainly) assuming the mantle of responsibility for change in the community, and devolves it to the community itself, where it should be in the first place.

We’ve got our work cut out for us – but hopefully, with the end result being that we’ll help these communities cut out some work for themselves.

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