Footsteps magazine issues on a wooden desk.

From: Footsteps 64

How to empower people and plan for the long term

by Karim Sahyoun.

The idea of development is to bring about positive, sustainable change. Development should not be seen as something new to a community, brought in by outside organisations. Rather, it is an ongoing process which may lead to improvements in physical, emotional and spiritual well-being and which gives people encouragement and confidence to realise their potential.

Communities and their environment are constantly changing through:

Without constantly adapting to change, communities would not survive. God has created us in his image, allowing individuals and communities to be creative and adaptable.

What is sustainability?

There are different ways of understanding sustainability. It can mean the ability of a community to continue to use and maintain a new idea, such as a credit scheme, water supply, health facility, grain mill or improved variety of maize. The focus is on maintaining something. Another way to understand sustainability is when a community has an increased capacity to cope with change. For example, the community may grow an improved variety of maize but then, if soil fertility decreases or there is less rain, the community is able either to adapt their way of farming or find another, more appropriate variety. The focus is on the potential of the community to adapt.

Outside help

Many communities want to strengthen or speed up their development. Outside help is not essential. Community members can meet and talk about their dreams for the community. They can discuss the skills and resources they have available and decide what action is needed. Development plans based on their own resources and capacities will be more sustainable. If outside help is available, they may use it to achieve their plans within a shorter time.

Help from outside is usually only available for a limited time. Sometimes it can damage a community’s development process by making them dependent. For change to be sustainable, the community must have the capacity to take over the work of any outside helpers.

Attitudes of dependency

The picture below shows what can happen in the relationship between helper (such as an NGO) and beneficiary (such as a community). Both have strengths and weaknesses. An outside helper may see only the weaknesses of the beneficiary and think they can use their own strengths to help. The beneficiary shows their weaknesses and may hide their strengths to get more help. Helpers may believe that communities need them and so take over work that community members could do themselves. Although communities often have the capacity and resources to bring about sustainable change themselves, they may start to believe they need outside help or that development work should be done for them. This pattern is called dependency.

Planning for change should always avoid dependency. Participatory tools such as SWOT analysis (see Footsteps 42) can be used to identify local strengths. Talking about previous community success can be a helpful starting point to identify local capacity and resources. It will help people gain confidence that they can bring about changes themselves.

An NGO working with a community should discuss the issue of dependency from the start in order to agree this is not the best form of relationship. The adapted role play, ‘Crossing the river’ (see below) can provide a good way of starting this discussion.

Transfer of responsibilities

When outsiders get involved in a community’s development process they often take on certain responsibilities. These can include organising training, providing funds, seeds and transport, book-keeping and networking with other organisations. But how long will outside help last? It usually depends on availability of funds and organisational policies. Often, it is only when outsiders leave that the vital roles they play are realised. There should be careful planning to ensure all these responsibilities are taken over by someone in the community before the outside helper leaves. This transfer of responsibilities should be considered and agreed at the beginning. Community members know their own capacity and resources best. They should agree on who will be responsible for taking over this work in the future. They should consider:

A helpful tool is the Transfer of Responsibilities chart

Activities for transferring responsibility:

Capacities that need to be built:

This sample chart shows two areas of responsibility - the annual report and the budget - that will be transferred. The crosses show that the NGO does all the work in 2005, but will gradually hand over responsibility during the following years. Similar charts could be made for all responsibilities currently run by outsiders, that may include organising training, fund raising, provision of transport and networking. More columns can be added for additional years. The chart can also be used to help with monitoring and evaluation. 

Capacity development

Realistic capacity development is a long-term process. It should begin right from the start of any development project. It is helpful to understand the difference between capacity and skill:

When an individual community member is the only person able to facilitate meetings, this is a skill. It will be lost if that individual moves away. But when several different members have this skill, then the community has the capacity. Meetings can still be facilitated, even if one or two skilled members leave.

People with skills should be trained as trainers so that they can pass their skills on to others. This will develop the capacity of their community or even neighbouring communities. For example, in Tanzania a community that had received training in using contour mounds to reduce soil erosion (see Footsteps 15) was invited by a neighbouring community to teach them this new skill.

Links with other communities, institutions or organisations that can provide help in skills training and developing capacity can contribute to sustainable development.


Networking and cooperation can increase the capacity of community groups. Groups can join together to form networks or regional associations. Government institutions and politicians are more likely to respond to requests from larger associations. This networking also means that groups with different skills and capacities can help each other.

Knowing one’s rights

One of the many reasons why some communities are poor and marginalised is that they are ignorant of their rights. For example, they may have rights to certain services, education or land. Knowing and claiming these rights will increase the capacities and resources of a community. Associations can be very effective in claiming these rights for their members.

In conclusion, a community’s development process does not need to depend on outside help, but it can make a positive contribution. However, it is important to plan for sustainability. The community needs to participate, and to make sure that there are clear commitments and a time frame for taking over responsibilities and developing capacity, so that development will not create dependency.

Karim Sahyoun is at the Humbolt University of Berlin writing a PhD on the topic of ‘Phasing out external aid’. This article comes from his research. He organises an annual Christian Community Development Conference (


‘Crossing the river’ – role-play

This is an adapted version of a widely used role-play, which helps to focus on the topic of dependency. It encourages communities to see the need to develop their capacity and not rely on outsiders. Allow participants time to prepare the role-play.

Role-play one

Samuel wants to cross a river but doesn’t know how. John comes along and offers to help. He takes Samuel on his back and carries him across. Soon, Samuel needs to go back and cross the river again. He looks for John who agrees to carry him back. They repeat this a third time. One day, John says that he cannot help anymore because he is moving away. Samuel gets very upset. How will he manage alone? He is left crying and complaining about his situation.

Role-play two

Esther wants to cross the river and doesn’t know how. James comes along and offers to help. He takes Esther by the hand and shows how to cross using hidden stones. Later, Esther wants to go back across the river. She tries to remember but is not really sure how to do it. This time James still gives a little help, but less than before. The next time Esther wants to cross she does it without any help. When James moves away, Esther is sad but she will remember his kind help, and now she can manage by herself. Later, Esther meets Moses wanting to cross the river. Moses does not know how to cross. So Esther helps him in the same way that James has helped her.

After each role-play, ask people what they have seen to make sure everyone has understood. At the end, divide everyone into groups to discuss these questions:

This role-play was adapted by staff of the Diocese of Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania.

Case study: Dependency on outside help

A new chicken breed is introduced that produces better eggs and meat than local chickens. However, the new breed needs vaccination to resist diseases. The vaccine has to be kept at low temperature and is only available in a town, eight hours drive away. The NGO development worker takes on this responsibility. No-one in the community has transport or a fridge and cool box, so no-one will be able to take over this responsibility from him. Families relying on income from the new breed will be in trouble as soon as the development worker leaves. The community members are dependent on the development worker, so this development is not sustainable.

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