Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Breaking Down the ABCDs, Part I

The E-CARE Foundation (standing for Episcopal Community Action for Relief and Renewal) is an economic development organization breaking the mold of traditional development models with the Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) framework in mobilizing Filipino communities to harness their existing strengths to improve their economic livelihoods.

Episcopal Church Of the Philippines Development History
When the Episcopal Church established itself in the Northern Philippines in the early 1900s, it provided impoverished, indigenous communities with free food and education that instilled a sense of dependency and the idea that the Church is “a rich institution from which material benefits could be derived.” While education helped individuals enhance their skillset to improve their economic livelihood, community development remained minimal. Those educated moved to cities or abroad for higher compensation for their work, instead of reinvesting themselves in their communities; thus, the “brain drain.”

What resulted from the introduction of the Church into these once self-sustaining communities was a sense of dependency. The American Church model, along with its “costs of the structures and operates that sustained mission work or, further, the ‘cravings, desires and necessities of western civilization,’” was applied without much regard to the Philippine context. These communities couldn’t financially sustain such operations, so an annual grant subsidy from the Episcopal Church in the USA (ECUSA) began, which remained the main source of support for the Philippine Episcopal Church (ECP) for 100+ years.

Amidst the political and economic turmoil, rising unemployment and widespread hunger of the Philippines in the 1970s and 80s, the ECP remained financially well-off through this annual grant. However, realizing that it must act to address the country’s socio-economic challenges, the ECP began to build its capacity to financially self-support and created a Development Program that housed income-generating projects, such as poultry and rice farms, a hotel, a cinema and transport lines. Most projects failed “due to technical problems, lack of management skills, poor feasibility planning, and, most significantly, the lukewarm support for these ventures from general membership.”

For one, the Church’s image as a wealthy institution lead to its projects’ demise. While most people were living in poverty, they didn’t see the need to devote time and energy to support an already-rich institution. Secondly, the development projects were seen as ends in themselves, not as a means of social transformation in overcoming dependency mindset.

From these failures (and one success - the organization of cooperatives which acted as credit unions), it learned the following lessons for grassroots economic development:
  1. Social projects need the full support of the people to succeed 
  2. Full support is given only if the people have ownership of the project 
  3. People’s sense of ownership over the project arises only if they are directly impacted by the project’s gains and losses 

In applying these lessons, the church shifted to community-based projects that catered to needs of the people, especially in areas with “massive economic marginalization.” The program grew to work with 200+ communities across the country on potable water and sanitation systems, agricultural support projects, irrigation systems, a cargo tram line, micro-hydro power projects and more.

Lessons Learned
Two strengths of the ECP’s development program is that it lives within the context it works and it incorporates lessons learned through experience into practice. While most development models’ only metric of success is financial which has “tended to weaken positive values and brought about self-centeredness” in this context, the ECP’s development program stresses that projects must “contribute towards the formation or strengthening of systems and relationships that embody the values of the Kingdom of God.” The program emphasizes building a loving and just community through the values of cooperation and enabling everyone to reach his or her full potential.

Another learning was that households in impoverished communities ranged in their amount of assets and that development projects tended to help those who already had some assets to access opportunities that micro-enterprise projects, water projects or coops provided. To address this, the development program pursued projects designed to help the poorest of the poor, those who could not otherwise avail of a development project’s benefits, while also supporting the entrepreneurial poor through credit and vital services.

Traditional Development Models
Many conventional development theories are needs-based, looking at what a community lacks and giving it to them. This may be large grants or providing them with water systems, schools, agricultural infrastructure, etc. The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t value the community’s capacity to improve its own economic well being. Being the ever-recipient of handouts builds the mentality that one is incapable of helping oneself and must rely on a benefactor to provide for his needs.

On the other hand, Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD), developed in the early 1990s, focuses on a community’s existing strengths and resources, to leverage them to improve their livelihood. It’s also applied in the Diocese of Louisiana, which has created an asset map in the region. This model contrasts this traditional “needs-based” approach, which focuses on what a community lacks, and champions upon what a community already has to build upon that.

The Church Learns ABCD
ABCD isn’t just a model from a book that this development program haphazardly adopted; it’s been the M.O. of the Church since it boldly discovered firsthand that ABCD works.

While the Philippine Episcopal Church became independent from the Episcopal Church in the USA in 1990, 60% of its budget was still covered by the annual grant subsidy from the US. Wanting to truly achieve independence, the ECP created a plan to gradually reduce the subsidy until it reached $0 in 2007.

Initially, budget deficits grew, programs were frozen and salaries were delayed. In 2004, the annual grant subsidy still covered 14% of the budget. Parish priests felt they had exhausted all income-generating efforts, and most believed the ECP couldn’t reach the 2007 target. The ECP contemplated requesting a 3 year extension from the ECUSA. Instead, the Episcopal Church of the Philippines made a bold decision. It did the complete opposite and resolved to end grant support, not by 2007, in 3 years, but by the end of that same year.

Diocesan leaders and members were outraged, but leadership ‘bit the bullet.’ Many prepared for the worst (deficits, salary delays, etc), but none of these came to be. In fact, for the first time in 20 years, the ECP ended the fiscal year with a budget surplus of 3,000,000 pesos (about $55,000)!

“The Church learned that it is only when it stops looking towards others and instead starts to fully look into itself that it realizes what it has and what it can achieve with it…. It did not just read about, analyze and conclude that ABCD was an effective tool - it actually lived it out and proved it to be the correct approach to development.”

From this experience, the ECP officially adopted ABCD as the mode to pursue community development work.

Stay tuned till next week when we’ll explore how the development program now applies the ABCD framework when working with communities in the Philippines!

Quotes and stories here are taken from the E-CARE Foundation Manual of Operations.