Building on Local Assets for Development

Diverse Group of People at Sunny Beach and Copy SpaceI have been commissioned by IBN in the Western Australian Pilbara Region. IBN is an Aboriginal organisation established in 2001, which provides programs and services that aim to improve the health, education and prosperity of its Beneficiaries: the Yinhawangka, Banyjima and Nyiyaparli people. The Banyjima, Milyuranpa Banyjima, Minadhu and Nyiyaparli Aboriginal Corporations own IBN.

I have been helping IBN to design an approach to local development that is based on the identification and mobilization of local assets. This is being undertaken with specific reference to what is generally known as “Asset-Based Community Development”, or ABCD. ABCD is an approach to development that draws on the principles of appreciating and mobilising individual and community talents, skills and assets, rather than focusing on problems and needs. It draws on individual and community resources and is driven by an empowered and capable community, rather than by external agencies.

In many ways, ABCD is a current representation of an approach to develop that has existed since at least the 1960s. Although, those who work in this field will often focus on how each approach differs (for example). Bottom-up, community-driven, participatory models of development have been around for sometime and have all generally focused on how communities––and the individuals and groups who comprise them––take charge of their own development and become empowered. Development is not something that is done to people, but a process through which people create or pursue new social, economic and cultural opportunities that improve their quality of life.

The local economic development literature and experience––a field I’ve been involved with for some 30 years––speaks of the process of identifying and exploiting endogenous resources within place, locality or territory so that development grows out of the opportunities, capabilities and ‘comparative and competitive advantages’ (as Michael Porter describes them) that exist. At one level, this makes obvious sense: transplanting a development strategy into a locality from elsewhere, without any recognition of or response to local conditions does not make sense. The OECD in 2014 in its report on Job Creation and Local Economic Development refers to the need for “getting the local conditions for job creation right”. However, local economic development and other bottom-up development strategies go much further than simply getting local issues “right”. These approaches argue that development requires a process through which local resources are used and built upon.

What is interesting is how conventional models of development––particularly economic development––overlook or quickly dismiss these endogenous factors. Economic geographers examine the role of place in development. They are concerned with the location, distribution and spatial organization of economic activities. Much of this work focuses on agglomeration and how firms are attracted to areas with existing networks, clusters and communities of firms. This spatial concentration––certainly an endogenous resource for those territories that contain them––affects the labour markets and stimulates specialization along with new investment and development opportunities. Here, the economists talk of the social pattern of systematic information flows and spillovers among local actors. Often, economists will also talk about the need to increase competitive forces and to open up markets. All good and important stuff. Place is treated as a factor in the overall configuration of economic dynamics, but not a central organizing principle.

In contrast, those engaged in more bottom-up approaches to development assign a greater emphasis on place and the resources that can be found locally to apply to development. This includes so-called intangible social and cultural resources. It is within this context that greater attention is given to the role of social capital and trust. Local economic development, in this context, may focus on the development of local industry clusters, but it also deals with the issues of social cohesion, community aspirations and the mobilization of local resources. None of this is considered “alternative”. Witness the growth in public discussion of “liveable cities” and the importance of getting social, economic and cultural factors right if we are to make cities a decent place to live and work, while attracting investors and skilled workers and promoting innovation, etc.

Sadly, economic policy makers and development practitioners often overlook these issues and relegate them as “soft” issues. Hard issues focus on infrastructure and facilities –– roads, transport, incubators, industrial parks, etc. These also come with big budgets and prestige. Soft issues are often seen as welfare issues –– dealing with those who are unemployed, or in flagging industries or somehow excluded from the mainstream. These issues are left to social workers and community workers.

To return to where I began, it is clear that Aboriginal development in Australia––indeed, indigenous development around the world––is seen as a soft issue. The Pilbara is Australia’s wealthiest region. While there have been recent declines, the growth in investment and output in the mining sector have driven development and graphically display the process of economic agglomeration, specialisation and diversification in a competitive global market. Yet, despite this, the Aboriginal are disadvantaged and excluded. Aboriginal development policies and programmes typically treat communities as passive recipients of resources. External support services provided by government or the mining sector are not based on mutual cooperation agreements and are paternalistic and undermine the path toward a truly sustainable model of development.

Within this context, the demand for a more asset-based approach to development is understandable. Aboriginal communities may be highly disadvantaged and excluded from the mainstream, but they also contain social, economic and cultural assets that can be drawn on and used for their own development. This requires a new way of working with as well as within communities.

External support agencies need to recognise the damage they can do through programmes that fragment or undermine communities that are already vulnerable. Development support needs to be configured around the principles of local ownership, responsibility and partnerships.

Ultimately, development––if it is to be sustainable and meaningful––requires a combination of hard and soft issues. Soft issues won’t replace hard ones: economic development needs more than intangibles. But infrastructure and facilities won’t be enough to ignite development if there is no corresponding attention given to the cohesion and aspirations of the local community.

Throughout my work, I tried to combine the use of hard and soft approaches at both policy and programme levels. There is a need for careful economic analysis to understand and respond to the structure and dynamics of local industry and markets. This should be combined with an understanding of the social, political and culture dynamics that undermine development––fragmenting communities, creating elites and perverse incentives––and stimulate local ownership and the sustainable management of resources. Government policy should respond to global trends and national development goals, while connecting to community processes and building partnerships.