Development jargon

Helping people to help themselves

Self-help rhetoric is popular among state-run agencies, faith-based initiatives and non-governmental organisations in general. Many agencies quote as their guiding principle that they “help people help themselves”. The phrase is applied to various programmes ranging from sponsorship of orphans or humanitarian aid to development assistance. Despite its over-use, the phrase seems to convince tax-payers and those who donate money. People have an idea of what it means, and they agree. However, it is questionable whether those who use the expression and even flaunt it on their websites always have a clear idea of what self-help is really about.

[ By Annette Benad and Uli Post ]

It is hard to find a development agency that takes the trouble to define precisely the much-quoted principle of “helping people to help themselves”. Self-help is often confused with “participation” or even “ownership”, though it is, of course, something quite different. One might conclude that self-help language is used simply to attract the general public.

Those involved in development matters know that sustainable societal and economic progress depends on the target groups. They must desire and drive change. Donors may want their target group to want progress – according to the motto “we decide, you own”. But that will never do. Development is not something to be imported like Coca Cola or tractors.

If one delves into the notion of “self-help”, one inevitably comes across Mao’s metaphor of giving a man a fish and feeding him for a day, whereas teaching him to fish will feed him for a lifetime. This catchy phrase, of course, does not deal with what to do if there are no fish, or if fishing is prohibited. The liberal creed of “every man being the architect of his own fortune” is of equally little help. Again, it holds a grain of truth, as every person is an active agent. But not everybody is able, allowed and willing to shape their own fortune – nor does everyone have the building material needed.

The principle of helping people to help themselves is based on the assumption that people have the basic need and ability to improve their circumstances and environment. This corresponds with how the Indian economist Amartya Sen defines development: as a process of expanding freedoms. People can only shape their destiny successfully if they are given appropriate social opportunities. In this sense, poverty is a lack of opportunities due to political, social and economic deprivation.

Necessary liberties

The self-help approach is thus about fundamental rights and freedoms. The objective goes far beyond increasing efficiency by “releasing human and material resources”, as the BMZ, Germany’s Development Ministry, stated in 1977. In the past, such instrumental aspects have been over-emphasised.

Deutsche Welthungerhilfe/German Agro Action (DWHH) regards “self-help” as the determination to shape one’s own existence and social environment. Intervention from outside can help people do so; they can be empowered or provided with role models. Nonetheless, self-help always presupposes personal initiative and responsibility as well as (financial) contributions on the part of those concerned.

The requirements for self-help are
– a suitable political and economic environment (individual initiative and the acceptance of responsibility must be permitted – and even desired),
– availability of resources (success requires a minimum level of labour, funds and means of production),
– skills and knowledge (not only technical expertise, but also an understanding of rights and obligations, as well as the ability to express interests and assert oneself in society) and
– awareness and motivation (self-esteem, respect, status and dignity).

Outside intervention can impact on all of these factors. Inter-state dialogue has an influence on general parameters, as does lobbying and advocacy work by NGOs. Capital can be made available through small loans, and women and minority groups can be supported in their efforts to enforce their rights. Skills and knowledge can be taught. Appropriate measures may even be effective at several levels – for example, if a savings and credit group not only provides a capital stock to a group of young women, but also instils self-esteem, boosts organisational ability and makes the members more respected in their community. In a similar sense, it also makes sense to support landless poor, who have occupied a piece of land.

What matters most in such cases is not any particular measure, but the ways and means it is implemented with. True promotion of self-help depends on initiatives the people take themselves. It also depends on their established forms of self-organisation. The principle of subsidiarity always applies. If it is possible for people to help themselves, aid should not substitute their own efforts.

Accordingly, it is also true that the state or other institutions must do their jobs wherever they can perform better than non-governmental initiatives. In such circumstances, it is absurd to set up new services – unless there are compelling reasons to bypass local or national authorities. That may be so, for instance, wherever serious conflicts of interest rage between officialdom and particular segments of the population.

Obviously, the self-help approach is based on political liberties for grassroots groups and other forms of independent organisation; but it also requires a minimum level of accountable action by governments and authorities. Self-help initiatives are in no position to assume functional roles of the state. Their sphere of successful action is therefore quite restricted in places where the state is disintegrating or absent altogether.

Prevent recipient mentality

Any strategy for helping people to self-help must define from the outset how and when the supporting agency will step back. Everyone involved must always understand who bears the ultimate responsibility. Otherwise, there is a risk of undermining the desire for self-help on the part of people and governments. Moreover, recipient mentalities are likely to develop wherever aid is disbursed without concern for results, as money keeps flowing without the target group making any efforts.

Donors’ inconsistent action creates such problems – for instance, if donor A, with an emphasis on self-help and responsibility, expects loans to be repaid in time, whereas donor B, hesitant to impose conditions, takes a more relaxed view. It is often particularly challenging to make the transition from free supply of aid after an emergency to requiring that recipients make some contributions of their own.

Any agency that is serious about the self-help principle cannot rely only on individuals. The appropriate partners are groups, agencies and networks. They can directly support those in need and, at the time, do something about the circumstances that cause poverty in the first place. These are the actors that must be given the skills to express and assert themselves in local, regional and national politics.

For this purpose, DWHH and FIAN International are carrying out a project to enable civil-society organisations to lobby on the basis of the voluntary guidelines on the human right to food. In line with these international guidelines, a monitoring tool was developed in order to assess government performance. The tool was analysed, tested and improved in cooperation with NGOs in India, Uganda, Bolivia and Colombia. DWHH and FIAN also advise partners on how to draft shadow reports on state action and the fulfilment of the right to food; and they assist them in submitting such documents to relevant offices at the UN and FAO.

Disaster relief

Self-help considerations also play a key role in humanitarian aid. As a rule, the people affected by natural disasters and other catastrophes initially provide mutual assistance to one another, and they typically make use of local networks. This was seen yet again in the aftermath of the Asian Tsunami in 2004. Aid agencies can build on such processes and structures, but must never stand in their way. At very least, they must acknowledge them. Unfortunately, that was not always done after the Tsunami.

The notion of helping people to help themselves, moreover, is incompatible with a strict interpretation of the neutrality principle of humanitarian aid. Anyone who wants people to take charge of their own interests must not bypass the organisations that serve for doing so.

Obviously, not every single partner organisation which has, for instance, specialised in resource-conserving agriculture is automatically adept at providing disaster relief. However, these organisations certainly know local survival strategies (an important form of self-help) better than do foreign aid agencies, and they are therefore relevant in emergencies.
The LRRD concept (Linking Relief, Rehabilitation and Development) provides a conceptual link between short-term disaster relief and long-term development efforts geared to self-help. However, success will always depend on external support being compatible from the outset with the survival strategies of those affected and with their attempts to win back their livelihoods through their own efforts.


There are situations in war or after natural disasters, in which there are limits to what self-help will achieve. Because of sheer scale, that was so after the Asian Tsunami. It is also the case where gruelling war has raged for years, consider the Congo. In such situations, people often find themselves unable to cope through their own initiatives and efforts, and, of course, the ability of children or the ill to help themselves must not be overestimated either.

Obviously, not every activity by a grassroots group guarantees successful self-help. Independent agencies are part of their society and are subject to its rules and customs. Cultural and religious norms sometimes impede self-help. However, this does not mean that aid provided with little or no concern for recipients could ever succeed. An “interventionist paradigm” or the rapidly increasing new “helpers’ syndrome” are no substitute for self-help.

In recent times, official development assistance (ODA) has been increasing, and so has criticism of development programmes. Development agencies of both governments and civil society are under legitimacy pressure. They would be well advised to prove that their commitment is effective, and successful support of the self-help potential in developing countries is certainly the most convincing evidence.

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The UN Sustainable Development Goals aim to transform economies in an environmentally sound manner, leaving no one behind.