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Social Work, Capacity Building in Human Services Research Paper


This paper presents a firm argument in support of the Littlejohns and Thompson’s assertion that those interventions that take in account and are founded up on the available community capacities are likely to realize the kind of change desired unlike those based up on the traditional top-down approach to community development.

It addresses concepts such as self-determination, self-reliance, resilience, empowerment and socio-ecological perspective in the context of this assertion. It supports their assertion on the basis of the multi-sectoral nature of community development and capacity building in human services.


Development is a multi-faceted human phenomenon that requires participation and input of every individual member and various communal groups like youth groups, women groups, charity groups and others.

Development in this task will be understood as positive progress made in different spheres of human life intended to raise the living standards of all members of the society regardless of their social status, race, gender, and religion, ethnic and political affiliation Somerville (2011,p.120).

It is important to note that different communities have and have had at different times unique and diverse development needs. Meaning that what is urgent in one particular region within the same country may not be a priority in another region. Consequently, development experts have put forward different approaches to community development.

The top-bottom and bottom-up approaches to community development have been in application by many communities for a considerable period of time both in the developed world as well as in the developing countries Somerville (2011, p.121).

However, proliferation and acceptance of values and ideals of liberal democracy have caused a shift to support and adoption of bottom-up, side in and third sectors approach to community development Somerville (2011, p.120).

This change of approach to community development in many societies emanated from experience and studies that found out that the top-down approach was to a large extent an impediment to an inclusive development because majority of the masses for which development is sought are locked out from taking part in development decision making process Somerville (2011, p.121).

It is worth noting that bottom-up development approach is largely informed by the principle of popular participation which is a core value of liberal democracy which many societies have been embracing in the recent past following the demise of Cold war from which capitalism and its political values reaffirmed its dominance as the ideology of the day courtesy of the Western countries led by the United States.

Somerville (2011, p.121) explains that the concept of free enterprise shows the ideas behind bottom-up community development, that is, the belief that people should be at liberty to develop socioeconomically as they wish through free trade and exchange.

The purpose of this paper is to discuss Littlejohns and Thompson’s assertion that interventions which considers and are founded up on available community capacities are bound to be more successful in bringing the kind of change wanted than those designed in an exclusively traditional top-down method.

Top-Down Approach Vs Bottom-Up Approach

As already noted above sustainable community development is a complicated process that has motivated different approaches to its management Purvis and Grainger (2004, p.140). Top-down and bottom-up are the most common and oldest approaches that various communities have used in their endeavor to attain meaningful and sustainable social-economic well being.

Top-down approach refers to community development that is determined and directed from the top by the government in conjunction with other powerful organizations, while bottom-up approach refers to independent, self-directed community development or simply a situation whereby development is governed and directed by members of community themselves (Somerville 2011, p.121; Larrison 2002, p. 56).

Therefore, top-down community development is carried out by the government to the community while in bottom-up community development is carried out by the community itself.

Pike et al. (2006,p.30) notes that in traditional top-down community development resolutions on where to implement development plans is usually taken by national –central government policymakers and developers without knowledge, approval and involvement of community members.

On the other hand, in bottom-up approach proposal for development strategies is made at the communal level by community members and therefore enjoys a strong communal support Pike et al. (2006, p. 30). Bottom-up methods endorse promotion of development in all territories through mobilization of the socio-economical capacities and competitive advantages of every locality and region.

So that in top-down approach community development is directed by the government while in bottom-up approach it is decentralized or in some countries devolved with a vertical collaboration between different levels of government and horizontal collaboration between public and private bodies Pike et al. (2006, p. 31).

Pike et al. (2006,p.31) argues that top-down community development largely assumes a single sectoral approach while bottom-up community development is multi-sectoral or territorial in approach to development and largely dependent on locality or environment endowment of a region.

Top-down development promotes development of large industrial projects that are expected in reciprocal to stimulate and support other socio-economic activities whereas bottom-up community development fosters use of development capabilities and potential of each area, so as to encourage a developmental adjustment of the local or regional economic system to the changing economic milieu Pike et al (2006,p.32).

In traditional top-down community development monetary and fiscal support, incentives and subsidies acts as the major factors of stimulating socio-economic activities while in bottom-up community development the community itself provides stimulants and key conditions for the progress of socio-economic activities Pike et al. (2006,p.32).

Boosting acquisition of skills, know-how and abilities of people and communities, especially in developing communities is a core feature of bottom-up community development. The intention is normally to help the poor defeat causes of their omission from actively and meaningfully taking part in socio-economic activities and misery.

The major principle of bottom-up approach is that development planning is done by the population itself through their own institutions. It lays emphasis on available capacities via institutional building, consensus and harmonization and offering new services. This is what is called capacity building or community building in development affairs Somerville (2011, p. 198).

Capacity building in human services

Even though a considerable number of development managers, policymakers and scholars support the traditional top-bottom community development owing to their socio-economic, political and ideological backgrounds, practical experiences have shown that bottom-up community development is more effective in delivering inclusive community development services and programs that offer the majority improved living standards.

In my view I do agree with Littlejohns and Thompson’s assertion that interventions that consider and are founded up on available community capacities are more effective with respect to social work and capacity building in human services.

For instance, Somerville (2011, p.121) argues that top-down approaches to community development lead to a number of problems for communities while bottom-up approaches are relatively different and more effective in addressing community development needs and responding to provision of social services.

Community development needs whether economic or those related to availability, affordability and accessibility of human services like health care, education, housing, leisure, recreational facilities as well as heritage all which add value to the socio-economic well being of the community are naturally unique in a given way to the locality or region in question Gboku and Lekoko (2007, p. 26).

However, different localities and regions always share a lot in terms of development needs because need for accessible clean water, good health care services and quality education, for instance, is universal. Certain factors however like geographical, demographic, and cultural features bring in uniqueness of those needs, especially in respect to approach.

And since provision of and for these services is largely dependent on availability of resources (financial and non-financial), emphasis on optimal utilization of the locally available resources is likely to make easier provision of human services Gboku and Lekoko (2007, p. 26).

Basing capacity building in human services on existing local and regional capacities enables stakeholders to deal with problems associated to policies and methods of development while taking into account capabilities, limits and development needs of the communities in question Gboku and Lekoko (2007, p. 26).

Once the capabilities, limits and development needs of the communities have been identified through active involvement of the community members, stakeholders find it easier to deal with pillars of community development, that is, social capital, socio-ecological considerations, resilience, self-reliance, empowerment, self-determination and strengths perspective Pike et al. (2006, p.32).

This fact is anchored on the premise that bottom-up community development is multi-sectoral in approach.

Unlike the top-down approach where development is done to the community by the government, which of course have its own limitations, bottom-up community development involves a combination of energies by various stakeholders including community members as individuals and groups, scholars, local authorities, ministries, non-governmental organizations, professionals among others.

Through this arrangement each group is enable to play its development roles to the best of their abilities. For example, the government and other powerful organizations provides economic infrastructure like roads, schools and hospitals, while local authorities concentrates on its role of maintaining the facilities provided.

The community provides the needed social and human capital as well as financial capital through taxes and levies on their communal income-generating activities Pike et al. (2006, p. 32).

Self-determination, Self-reliance and Empowerment

Involvement of the community members fosters self-determination and self-reliance of the members in development processes. Phillips and Pittman (2009, p. 52) argue that bottom-up community development ensures that residents of a locality or region feel that they are part of the development programs and activities initiated by insiders or outsiders of goodwill like charity groups and Non-Governmental Organizations.

In other words, they feel that they are involved in determining what is most urgent to them as opposed to the traditional top-down approach through which development programs are imposed upon the community some of which may not be of need or urgent. In other words, community members are offered an opportunity to prioritize their development needs.

That feeling of involvement and ownership of the development programs encourages communal support towards development initiatives by authorities and other organizations like NGOs Phillips and Pittman (2009, p. 52).

On the contrary, interventions that do not involve community members may be seen as a scheme to exploit their resources and capacities and thus lack their support and eventually fail to bring about kind of change its initiators intended to bring.

This involvement enables community members to identify what they feel is critical in facilitating their self-reliance, which most individuals and communities seek instead of depending on others whose help usually comes with strings attached.

OECD (1997, p.152) points out that participatory approach to community development needs enables community members to define activities which are important to them thereby increasing their self-reliance.

For example, an intervention that seeks to support health care services where herbal medicine is still in use can identify successful herbalists and support them financially to enable them carry out their activities more professionally than dissuading community members from taking herbal medicine in favor of their conventional medicine.

Extension of such support to community developers is likely to make the community to see conventional medicine introduced by other initiators as complementary to their traditional herbs not a threat to their cultural values. In a nut shell, any intervention that is seen by community members as a threat to their accepted way of life is likely to ignite opposition however good it could have been.

This fact calls for resilience and a deep understanding of the community’s cultural, political, economic and social aspects and needs on the part of the those engaged in community capacity building otherwise known capacity building organizers (Phillips & Pittman 2009, p. 52).

Social Capital and Its Relation to Community Development

Mattessich (cited in Phillips & Pittman, 2009, p. 49; Leonard & Onyx 2004, p. 56) explains that social capital or capability lies at the centre of community development. Mattessich defines social capital as interconnections or social networks among people. Mattessich asserts that those social networks are currently recognized at the individual level and community level. Social capital offers value to individuals as well as communities.

He argues that community development includes to a large extent building social capital because levels of social capacity of a given community influences the way development of a community goes forward and the speed at which its development efforts take place.

With respect to capacity building in human services social capital enables individuals through social networks to access services which would have otherwise been elusive to access individually. In turn individual participation or membership in those social networks benefits other members of the society and by extension the community (Phillips & Pittman 2009, p.49).

So that interventions that focus on improving human services and social work of a given community are likely to be more successful through intensified development of social capital among individuals. Interventions that take this fact into consideration are likely to realize their desired change faster than those that do not invest efforts in strengthening social networks.

This argument is anchored on the fact that through social connections individuals are able to put together ideas on how best they can improve their living conditions. They are also able to identify their strengths and weaknesses. This enables them to improve on their weaknesses and polish their strengths for a better life.

Social capital facilitates harmonization or coordination of initiatives in capacity building with respect to social work and human services. In practice, people and communities that have meaningful social networks are easier to work with as far as improvement of their human services is concerned. Therefore, Social capital and individual and community empowerment are closely related (Phillips & Pittman 2009, p.49)

Resilience and Socio-ecological Perspective Capacity building in Human Services

Community development needs are non-static. They keep on changing as result of environmental, political, socio-economic and cultural alterations. Consequently, flexibility on the part of the policies made in respect to capacity building in human services is significant because it determines whether interventions made can respond to changes taking place with regard to community development needs.

Paton and Johnston (2006, p. 313) argues that capacity building programs should make sure that there is an integrated progress of socio-economic livelihoods, environmental and cultural aspects of the community life, and that they should be self-preserving both in terms of their positive impacts on the environment and generation of future resources land their ability to work together with other initiatives.

Paton and Johnston (2006, p. 313)further argue that since change is inevitable in social life flexible communities and the programs on which they are founded should incorporate mechanisms for change and adaptation which include but are not limited to community discussion, supervision, appraisal and feedback.

Good capacity building organizers too need to be flexible so that they can accommodate dynamics of the community life in their attempts to intervene in the area of capacity building in human services Brooks and Goldstein (2004, p.91).


There are many factors that influence success of capacity building aimed at helping people and communities improve their living standards in a world that has extensive inequalities and social disadvantages.

Various interventions in capacity building in respect to social work and human services aims at upholding pillars of self-sustaining community development, that is, self-determination, self-reliance, resilience, empowerment, socio-ecological perspective among others.

As argued above, bottom-up community development has proven effective in achieving these objectives in comparison to top-down community development which has many shortcomings and accompanying inequalities in terms of allocation of resources and opportunities in communities.

In short, three major factors influence success of capacity building efforts in human services namely: characteristics of communities, characteristics of a community-building process and characteristics of community building organizers such as commitment, understanding and experience Mattessich (as cited in Phillips & Pittman 2009, p. 52).

Reference List

Brooks, R., & Goldstein, S., 2004, The Power of Resilience: Achieving Balance, Confidence, and Personal Strength in Your Life. New York: McGraw-Hill Professional.

Gboku, M. L. S., & Lekoko, R. N., 2007, Developing programmes for adult learners in Africa. Pretoria: Pearson South Africa.

Larrison, C. R., 2002, A comparison of top-down and bottom-up community development interventions in rural Mexico: practical and theoretical implications for community development programs. London: Edwin Mellen Press.

Leonard, R., & Onyx, J., 2004, Social capital and community building: Spinning straw into gold. London: Janus Publishing Company.

Mattessich, Paul W. et al., 1997, Community building: what makes it work: a review of factors influencing successful community building. Lexington Parkway North Saint Paul, MN: Amherst H. Wilder Foundation.

OECD., 1997, International co-operation for habitat and urban development: directory of non-governmental organizations in OECD countries. New York: OECD.

Paton, D., & Johnston, D. M., 2006, Disaster resilience: an integrated. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas Publisher.

Phillips, R., & Pittman, R. H., 2009, An Introduction to Community Development. New York: Taylor & Francis

Pike, A., 2006, Local and regional development. New York: Taylor & Francis

Purvis, M., & Grainger, A., 2004, Exploring sustainable development: geographical perspectives. London: Earthscan.

Somerville, P., 2011, Understanding Community: Politics, Policy and Practice. Bristol: The Policy Press.

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