Whole Systems approach gets communities buzzing

By Bill Staples

Every Continent

One constant about ICA colleagues over the decades has been the fervent belief in the unlimited potential of every human being. The belief was tested and proven in the 5th City neighbourhood project in Chicago where jobless and restless youth started businesses, schools and lasting organizations. It was seen again in ICA’s Nava Gram Prayas in Maharashtra where hundreds of young men and women with no future prospects launched a community development movement with hundreds of visible results including schools, clinics and electrification projects. Those results stand even after thirty years. The belief was borne out again in ICA inspired city-wide renewal projects in the 80s and 90s in North America, Europe, Latin America, Africa and South East Asia. We have seen it in the beginning of this millennium in hundreds of projects and organizations using community development approaches inspired and supported by ToP facilitators on every continent. You can read about some of these at http://top-facilitators.com/serendipity and even add your own.

Recharged Battery
My own personal battery was recharged in my recent work with 13 multi-ethnic geographic communities spread throughout the City of Toronto. Each community had hired 3 full time animators who were supposed to get their neighbourhood involved in some unspecified CD efforts. The animators, along with a core of community leaders, embarked on a year-long programme using the ICA whole system community development approach. It was awesome to witness their historical scans, social process analysis, mapping and gridding and strategic plans. The implementation was amazing! Within two years, Glendower community’s strategy of “improving safety in community streets” lead to a police report saying Glendower had “a marked decrease in crime. A new standard has been set.” One strategy in the Jane-Finch community was “resident-led community action.” They turned the ICA gridding walk-about into an annual affair to ‘take back the streets.’ There are many more stories like this.

Inspiring Result
Colleagues in Il Ngwesi community in Kenya reported a dramatic increase in HIV/AIDS testing participation - from 0% to 82% of the population, as a result of the ICA community development approach. This level of success is unheard of throughout Africa, as reported by a Public Health evaluation expert from the University of Toronto who visited Il Ngwesi.
Ghoramara, a small Bangladesh community of displaced persons, has recently reported the establishment of a primary school, school building, skills development and tube wells, all as a result of the ICA whole system approach.
ICA’s collaborative 100 Valleys Project in Peru has been a recent and enormous initiative implementing self-development demonstration communities throughout the Sierras and facilitating collaboration between agencies. This has resulted in the extensive use of advanced irrigation systems to double crop harvests and youth returning to their communities after completing their advanced education, among many other visible improvements.

Whole Systems Approach
Two common elements among all these initiatives and hundreds of others has been the core belief in the unlimited potential of every human being and the practice of ICA whole system community development. The simple use of the ToP™ Consensus Workshop Method, for instance, automatically engages the population in the whole system approach. Participants end up with a consensus on initiatives and goals that represents a bigger system than any one person would have anticipated. Of course, not all ICAs use the “whole system” terminology in regular conversation but they are familiar with it and know what it means. ICA’s Brian Stanfield popularized the term “whole system community development” to help people understand the difference between ICA’s community development approach and those approaches that tend to work on a particular issue. While the ICA approach has analysis, planning, implementation and evaluation like most other approaches, it also has best practices within it that can lead to dramatic outcomes like replication, extension and expansion.


Variety of Strategies

The ICA whole system approach has the ability to evolve into many other approaches and to serve a wide variety of needs. Witness ICA’s work in Peru: its whole system approach was central to the development and organization of a nation-wide self-empowerment system for youth with physical disabilities and resulted in a string of large hospitals funded by national lotteries. The approach also was put to use in the earthquake and tsunami ravaged coastal areas of Peru in 2010.

ICA Japan which has for over a decade been a constant and great source of funding and inspiration for community development efforts around the world, has shifted the whole system approach towards massive relief efforts for the earthquake and tsunami victims in Japan in 2011. ICA Japan staff noted the unlocking of human potential which occurred when traditional Japanese emotional reserve was transformed by immediate interest and preoccupation with the well-being of one’s neighbors.

There is expertise within the ICA global network for using the ICA Whole System approach in crisis relief, material support and advocacy. Enormous experience can be found in development education, developing basic infrastructure and generating local solutions.

There are many initiatives in the past ten years in human resource development, organizational strengthening and systems development.

I am looking forward in the next year to collecting stories, approaches and other ideas that can be shared globally. Perhaps the conference in Nepal can make headway in this. All of us in ICA have a tremendous history in community development and in helping people gain confidence in using the unlimited potential which is theirs.

Bill Staples is a member of ICA-Associates, Canada.

This article first appeared in our October 2011 issue

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