Deficit Thinking

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Donnie Maclurcan:

"The shift to exploring what’s working or positive before moving on to the greater challenges is a subtle but very powerful shift when you consider the norm. We’ve been raised in a consumer society that lives and breathes ‘deficit thinking’. Vested interests constantly reinforce what we don’t have as a way of retaining power. Everywhere you look, someone is offering a financial, technological or community ‘solution’ to our problems, but there seem to remain just as many ‘problems’ as ever. Think of the latest news article you read, meeting you attended, conference in which you participated or speech you heard: the focus at the start was likely on a problem, or what’s not working.

The not-for-profit sector, where service delivery always begins with a ‘needs assessment’, epitomizes this deficit model. Text on the Junior Chamber International’s website provides a useful example: “The first step in developing projects that create positive change involves analysing the community and assessing its needs”, they suggest. When it comes to social service provision, programs are commonly framed in a deficit-based way, serving the homeless, mentally ill, alcoholic, drug-addicted, unemployed, at-risk, vulnerable, disabled or home-bound.

By focusing on the resources it doesn’t have, instead of first celebrating what it does, the not-for-profit sector perpetuates the deficit model. This approach is reflected in the 20th century model of the welfare state, which has been largely representative of needs-based approaches. It has been a recipe for creating bloated governments and philanthropy-dependent not-for-profits, holding back our abilities to see and utilize both existing and potential assets. Counter-intuitively, focusing on addressing needs actually creates massive inefficiency within a system.

Deficit model thinking is most prevalent in aid and development work – the name of the field gives it away. How different would things be if we saw the majority of the world as extremely resourceful and then focussed on issues of inequity, rather than starting with the negative framing: two thirds of the world’s population is poor? This message rings particularly true for me in light of my first experience with the asset-based approach to community development, put into action by Jerry Odhiambo in Kisumu, Kenya. By training locals to map community resources through public surveys, the project ignited incredible collaboration between previously disconnected healthcare service providers.

Deficit thinking and deficit language can extend to even the most experienced practitioners of human empowerment, capacity building or development. A former colleague of mine who had just returned from working with an Australian Indigenous community shared: “Donnie, they’ve got nothing”. I replied that everyone has something to offer when it comes to community development. “No Donnie, they’ve literally got nothing”. Now while it may be true that this community was living in extreme poverty, it has been my experience that ignoring the incredible gifts we all possess at the outset of any engagement is an extremely disempowering starting point." (http://postgrowth.org/the-power-of-asset-based-approaches/)