Developing Healthy Communities

By Stephanie Barlow.   As a young university student studying International Relations (among other things) I was deeply moved by the injustices and hardship that so many of the world’s people suffer. I felt a deep stirring in my heart to work towards changing the circumstances of the vast majority of the citizens of this planet. Along with this deep desire, however, I experienced a profound sense of overwhelm and helplessness; the problems are so vast and my own abilities so small. To make matters worse, researching many NGOs, International Aid Agencies and community initiatives lead me to discover that not only are the original problems so vast, but there are all too often stories of well-meaning organisations running a project and, although they helped in a particular area, leaving a community worse off overall than when they arrived. IMG_0540This heartbreaking reality is, in my opinion, often due to a lack of awareness of the necessity and inevitability of community development in any kind of social venture, social enterprise of charity initiative. To put this discussion into perspective, One Health Organisation and its Collaborative Partners together run a wide range of holistic health care and preventative health care projects in Australia and abroad. Although this work is generally cast in the light of “aid”, where immediate assistance is provided to disadvantaged and marginalised people, we believe that the deepest value of this work is the ways in which these projects help to foster community development. What is Community Development? Community development is essentially working with a community to effect positive change. Development can be understood as positive change in the key areas of community capital, defined by Jim Cavaye as: physical, financial, human, social and environmental. It involves establishing and/or deepening the flexibility and resilience of a community, whilst improving its wealth in the real terms of sustainability, wellbeing, social relationships, health and adaptability, as well as economy.
Community development has as its core intention the idea of working with people in an empowering way to effect change and improvement, while at the same time enabling the community’s own potential to deal with change, stress, disaster and new issues as they arise without assistance from the outside.
Allowing Development to Unfold Naturally In reality, a project’s actual service delivery aspect (eg massage) may or may not foster community development, but the unfolding of the project with all its consultations, bureaucratic processes and clarification of needs and desires, invariably does foster development. Community development is often what takes place when you think you are doing the unimportant things: meeting groups to plan the project, having lunch with the locals, getting and responding to feedback, asking the neighbours if you can use the nature strip. This is when community development is definitely taking place! This principle was beautifully illustrated by OHO’s CEO Jimi Wollumbin when he told me recently about his experiences on OHO’s second ever project: OASIS. This project was run with the Salvation Army, providing fresh fruit and vegetable juices and free mini-consultations with naturopaths at the drop-in centre for Youth In Crisis. (link) Although he originally thought the main offering of this project was to improve the nutritional profiles of these disadvantages teens, mainly on the streets due to drugs or violence in the home, he quickly found out that the real gift of our work there was something quite different.
“These kids were not nutritionally deficient because of poverty or lack of vitamins; what was really going on was that somewhere along the way they had gotten the message that they were worthless, that they were not worth caring for. This meant that if they had health problems, they didn’t even bother to approach us to talk about. They didn’t know how to have that kind of interaction with other people; how to ask for help.” Jimi Wollumbin.
The real success of the juice bar, healthy living workshops and naturopathic consultations that this project offered was not the improved nutrient intake of vulnerable youth living on the Sydney streets; the real magic was the increased sense these kids received that their wellbeing was important, that it was important to take care of themselves and ask for help when they needed it. Although there are many organisations and projects around the world that are specifically engaged in community development, there are also many projects, charities and social enterprises who do not perceive their work as occupying this space. In many cases, ‘development’ will not be a specific aim of a holistic health project (or other kind of project) such as OHO and our partners run; however it is our opinion when we get involved in any community we trigger shifts and changes that can often have unintended consequences. If those working in the community sector manage to keep one arm around the concepts of community development while unrolling these projects, we make it more likely for those unintended consequences to be positive ones, encouraging the development of community resilience, not undermining their existing infrastructure.
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