Inside Out or Outside In?

This is another way to think about the difference between asset based community development and deficit based community development.

In asset based development the work starts from within the individual or community.  It is their aspirations and goals (both assets) that initiate the work and give it momentum.  The work starts from within and moves out  as it engages others who can help, bringing their expertise and understanding to the task.

In deficit or needs based development the direction tends to flow the other way.  The need or deficit is usually recognised by an outsider (often based on a statistical analysis and hard data rather than lived experience of the community) and development then heads towards the community and various targets within it.

So, for example, when we plan a worklessness project based on unemployment stats in a part of town and then use community development approaches to tackle it we are doing needs based community development.

If individuals in a community decide that they want to do something to improve employment prospects in their area and then start work on it then we at least have a chance of being ‘asset based’.


However there is a risk that even from within the community we start to focus too much on deficits, the things that aren’t working, poor educational attainment, few employers with fewer jobs, people not prepared to start ion low wages etc, and before we know it we are talking about all of the ways in which our glass is half empty rather than the ways in which it is half full.  The focus is on what we are missing and not on what we have got.

On Track for Asset Based Development

To keep on track for asset based development we have to focus on what is working in the community and what is positive.  Who has found work?  How did they find it? Who helped? What do they like about it?  what can we learn from this? How can we encourage more on the same path?

This is not to say that asset based development ducks problems and challenges.  Frequently in trying to make more good stuff happen we will find all sorts of barriers and blockages in the way that have to be tackled.  But the direction of travel remains from the inside out, and the barriers are only tackled when they are really in the way.

Why Does This Matter?

Deficit based community development ‘from the outside in’ in my experience seldom works.  At least, not for the community.  It may work for the funder, but it usually leaves the community even more disempowered and dependent on well meaning outsiders, what Paul Theroux calls the ‘angels of virtue’.

Asset based approaches too are hard to make work well.  They progress at a pace and in directions  established by local people (two features that many funders find hard to reconcile with their approaches to outcomes, targets and milestones).  They can be easily taken over by minority interest groups who claim to work for the community while really pursuing their own interests. They are certainly not guaranteed to succeed. But for me at least they hold much more promise than deficit based models.

The key to successful asset based development work, especially if you’re an outsider, is respect and trust.  A willingness to facilitate local knowledge and insight rather than to impose your own.  This is a hard stance to maintain.  You are often tempted to offer ‘solutions’ that you have seen work elsewhere. Often this is what the community want you to do as well. They want an expert to come in and give them answers.  It seldom works, but the promise is seductive.

If all you have done is spend money and have not inspired anyone, you can teach the sharpest lesson by turning your back and going home. – Paul Theroux

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