Strengths-based practice: more than being positive

In strengths-based approaches to (local and international) community development work we focus on strengths, aspirations, and potential rather than problems, needs and deficits by, amongst other things:

  • Consciously looking for the strengths and potential of the people and communities we work alongside
  • Adopting a positive, optimistic outlook (focusing on the “half-full part of the glass”)
  • Understanding that lived expertise of community members as equal to thematic specialists

This does NOT mean looking at the world through rose-coloured glasses and ignoring problems, needs and deficits.

In a Participatory Action Research Water, Sanitation and Hygiene project I was leading in Indonesia, I firstly undertook a great deal of research of the WASH issues in the geographic area I would be working in. Based on my desk-based research by ‘global north experts’, the most important WASH issue I identified for the population was access to water. The community annually has droughts (and rainy seasons), and households experiencing low socio-economic positions often had no constant access to water in their homes, many households-built pipes from bamboo to drip water into their homes from wells and other open water sources when they had water. Due to the water access issues, it also became apparent that people used open water sources as a toilet. Obviously, a serious WASH issue for the community.  

When I went to the communities and discussed the project with them, I undertook some participatory activities with the various under-represented groups to unpack what water, sanitation and hygiene was, and to better understand how WASH impacted them. Once that was complete, I asked the individual groups I was working with, what WASH issues they think we together should work on. 

To use the women’s group as an example; they chose sanitation systems. Not access to drinkable water. When I asked the women’s group why they wanted to work on sanitation issues they explained the following:

The community has lots of plastic waste. In the rainy season, the rain washes the plastic waste into the town open drains. As the rain continues, the plastic waste blocks the drains which leads to water stagnation, and an increase in mosquitos. The kids play in the water, which increases their risk of mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria. The women explained that they didn’t have the resources reduce or avoid mosquito risks, nor did they have the funds to access to medical services. 

As the rains continue, with the build-up of water in the open drains, spilling out into the roads and pathways, it would eventually push the water and waste onto the rice paddy fields.  The plastic, the oil and other waste caught up and pushed into the fields, kills the fish growing in the rice paddy fields, destroying one of the few sources of affordable protein, and reduces the rice cultivation.  Rather than rice paddy fields being a food and income source, often there is not enough rice and fish for the families growing it. Instead they have to buy more, in the context of having very little if any money. Over the following four years, the community continued to use their lived experience expertise, and connections in community to co-design, co-implement and evaluate the WASH project, in often creative and unconventional ways. This led to many successes, but also learnings of what didn’t work and what to do differently. Within the context of being supported, and having my full confidence, there was no failings, just learnings of what to do differently in the next iteration of the project. By the end of the four years, the women had developed the skills to continue the project without me. 

Before starting this project, there was no research on the impact of waste in this specific community, especially to poor community members who have historically little access to representation or participation in such projects.  By not only acknowledging and supporting the women to build on their strengths but working alongside them in ways that were authentically strengths-based, the women now lead their own communities development. 

Strengths-based practice needs to involve more than being positive, encouraging and hoping for the best. We need to be willing to explore difficult issues, ask challenging questions and do more than working on global north ‘expertise’. This involves developing a range of skill, practicing difficult conversations and critically reflecting on our work.

To find out more about the project, you can view this paper I gave at the Australasian Aid Conference in 2019.