A Lesson on “Community Development” from Cambodia: A 10-Year, Bottom-up Approach

When we come into a situation of great need, such as that found
in Phnom Penh, and we want to see deep and abiding change for
the better, the first thing we should do is seek a few good people.

After more than ten years of living with Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor among the urban poor in Cambodia, and praying and working to see the lives of the poor and their communities transformed, I have learned some key lessons about “development.” The most important being: “good plans follow good people, and good money follows good people with good plans.”

What I mean is this: when we come into a situation of great need, and want to see deep and abiding change for the better, the first thing we should do is seek a few good men and women. In those few (maybe only one or two) lie the seeds of change and renewal. Maybe this is what Jesus was talking about when he commanded the disciples to “search for some worthy person” (Matthew 10:11) as they launched out into mission.

Identifying and Encouraging Good People
By good people, I do not mean “highly moral” people; instead, I mean those whose hearts are moved by the things that move God (sickness, hunger, suffering, death, violence, abuse, addictions, etc.), who love those around them, and who are prepared to get their hands dirty and do something about injustice. These will be people of compassion and action, people who are already trying to help those in need.

As you gather together with these kinds of people, you can help nurture them. The mustard seeds of goodness and compassion that are within them will grow. There are several actions steps you can take to encourage these types of people:

  1. Pray that God’s kingdom might begin to come where they are (Matthew 6:10).
  2. Encourage them to dream their dreams, for almost certainly those dreams come from God. These will be “kingdom dreams”: dreams of healing, new life, and overcoming evil (Matthew 10:8).
  3. Start to plan and plot together how you can let God’s compassion flow through you to make a difference where you are.
  4. Dream a dream and build a team. If plans are owned by local people and earthed in the local situation, good plans will emerge. Perhaps this is what Filipino theologian/activist Melba Maggay means when she urges us in her commentary on survival strategies to “nurture a strategic minority”:

“Students of social change tell us that it is better to aim at consensus within a strategic minority rather than to waste time and breath at soliciting the conformity of the majority. Since a movement for change involves vision and sacrifice, it is not possible to start with the many. Very few people can see ten steps ahead of them. Most are too enclosed in the realities of the present to be able to imagine an alternative future. It takes a lot of imagination to believe that with the coming of Christ, a new order has come into being.”


The Provision of God
Once good people have come together and made good plans—plans that have flowed from the heart of God and are moved by the brokenness of people’s pain and need—all the necessary resources will follow. Many will be found within the group itself. The resources may have been long buried and ignored, but they will emerge as people pray, dream, and share about their experiences and previous efforts.

But if more resources are needed, these also will come. The community itself will see what is happening, and resources buried in it will begin to emerge. If more resources are required, these too will come. If God is involved in the process, he will provide what is needed, no matter how much that may be. I believe this strategy holds true whether we are trying to foster community development, initiate a public health program, or plant a church.

Turning Things Upside-down
Nothing I have said so far sounds particularly startling, does it? In fact, it sounds perfectly reasonable, perhaps even obvious.

Yet the majority of “development” (and even “mission”) organizations tend to work the other way around (and the bigger they are, the more true this is). First, they assemble their money—often, quite a bit of it—to back up their master plan, their awesome strategy that will “blow those communities problems clean away.” Then they come, attract, and recruit “highly qualified staff” with their big payrolls and train them to implement the master plan. Usually, the results are disappointing, and well below what was hoped for, given the amount of money spent.

Many big organizations try to “do development” (or “do mission”) this way:

  1. Assemble good money,
  2. come up with a good plan, and
  3. attract good people (staff).

But it’s all back to front. Real community development, and real kingdom mission, happens the other way around, from the bottom-up.

  1. Find good people,
  2. come up with a good plan together (call it a program if you must), and
  3. trust that whatever resources are needed will follow.

Good money follows good people with good plans. It always does.

For incarnational missions like Servants that live and minister with the poor, this is our natural way of working. By living at the local neighbourhood level, we are in a great position to “seek out those worthy people” whom Jesus was talking about, those gems whom bigger groups probably will never notice. In fact, we may struggle to notice them at first as well—they will usually be poor, uneducated, and needy themselves (1 Corinthians 1:26-28). However, we must ask God for the eyes to see them and for the providential circumstances in which to meet them.

Replacing Short-term Goals with Long-term Vision
It takes time and patience to develop these kinds of eyes, eyes that can look beyond broken, rough exteriors and see the treasure buried there. Indeed, it takes years. And this presents a great problem for both “short-term missions” and for “development agencies” who so often work on 3-year funding cycles (meaning they will fund a project for up to three years, and then pull the plug if it is not successful).

To use a horticultural metaphor, three years might be long enough to grow flowers or shrubs, but it is not long enough to grow trees, and growing trees is what we are after in genuine community development. Flowers look pretty, but they are surface-level stuff. What the poor need are not cosmetic changes, but deeply rooted local agents of transformation living among them, those who bear the kind of fruit that reproduces over and over (check out the oaks of righteousness mentioned in Isaiah 61:1-4, and where they have come from). A 10-year time frame would be much more realistic if we want to be a part of genuine community development.

This patient, incarnational approach to development requires us to be prayerful and attentive in all that we do, looking to see where God is at work in our communities and in the lives of those around us. As we live our lives for Christ and seek to see his kingdom come in our communities, we will be a watchful people, a listening people, a waiting people. Christ calls us not so much to be leaders as to be followers and joiners—those who hear where the Spirit is already going and follow; those who see what the Spirit is already doing and join in. We are called to be waiters. We are called to be servants.

Kristen Jack is the Asia coordinator for Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor. He and his wife have been living among the urban poor in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, for over thirteen years. He leads the Servants team in Cambodia, which works to bring health, wholeness, and justice to the urban poor.