My ABCD experience and learning – for Thought and Discussion - By Brian Nugent

user image 2018-01-23
By: Brian Nugent
Posted in: Reflections and Ideas

I have worked in international aid and development for a long time and about 10 years ago I started using the ABCD approach along with other such methods to engage and work with communities.  Since then I have applied this approach in a number of developing countries, especially in Africa. 

I am just back from Nigeria where I worked for a few months in areas of Kano State.  Although I fully appreciate the impact the ABCD method can have, I was nevertheless amazed at the results gained in such a short time.  They included:-

  • 15,000 people were engaged by 12 trained community organizers
  • 141 Associations worked with – of these 69 were revived having been dormant and 72 were newly established. Total number of association members 13,950 of which close to 5,000 are women.
  • Income generating activities include – Clothes making and selling; food production and selling; production of metal goods – e.g. knives, hair pins; furniture making; production of leather goods for retail; and much more
  • 48 savings and loans schemes commenced – loans given by local small loans agency for expanding food production businesses and buying livestock
  • 657 people linked with local financial institutions of which 210 have received loans
  • Construction of classrooms by communities
  • Employment of 4 teachers – paid by community
  • Contribution of 2 shops by local community members – used as retail outlets for animal feed
  • Women making clothes opened a retail shop
  • School furniture repaired by local carpenters without payment
  • 6 young people trained in carpentry through contributions made by the community

This all took place with 14 weeks!  It got me thinking that while the tangible results are impressive, what was the motivation behind the success?   Why was it embraced so wholeheartedly?   I came to the following conclusions: -

  1. I have found that all too often ABCD as an approach is not always adopted due to fear and scepticism. Many International NGOs for example, are very wary of adopting such an approach which would require a fundamental change to the way they do things.  Many NGO staff have stated that if communities did so much more for themselves, they would be out of jobs!  My response is always, ‘ABCD does not necessarily do away with NGOs, but it does require them to work in a different way.’ 

In the Nigerian example, the company I was contracted by, the donor, the local government and the communities all took it on in full.  The freedom to express the approach makes the process so much easier for everyone.  So, it is important before embarking on community engagement through ABCD that you know who is on board and who is not.

  1. My main starting point when conducting training programs is to ascertain what the mindset of communities is.  Are they expecting free ‘hand-outs’ through direct aid?  Are they assuming the ‘outsider’ knows more and are therefore reluctant to take responsibility?  Have they received aid for years to a point that their hitherto independence has been replaced by apathy and dependence on others?

Mindsets require serious tweaking in most instances and there are a number of ways to do this, which I won’t describe here, but once this is done, the energy and interest of people shifts extensively.

  1. Training, engagement, planning and communication must always be done in a positive manner. Positivity is crucial because it is infectious, the more you are positive the more people adopt the same demeanour.  This makes progress all the easier and faster.  There are training modules available for this to ensure it takes place and I would recommend people approach communities or/and training programs with these in mind.
  2. Listening and really hearing what people are saying is also essential if you want serious and lasting impact. All too often you see people from agencies, governments, donors etc. lecturing to communities about what they MUST do, in order to achieve x and y.  Listening is a skill, the purpose of your engagement with communities is to learn and learning is done through listening. Hearing and learning are influenced by how you set the conversation, which is another key element of engagement. 


My time with communities in Nigeria was a fantastic learning experience for all concerned, including me!   A previous experience in Ethiopia with a UN agency and Government Department was like pushing an elephant up a hill!  Their apparent view of change, losing control and more independent communities was an anathema to their ways of operating.  And, while communities responded really well to ABCD their successes where short lived, as things reverted back to the ‘old ways’ of working with such communities.  


01/27/18 12:55:28PM @bergdall:

Very interesting, Brian. I'm particularly interested in thoughts about "mindsets." My own experience in Africa (I lived and work there for 18 years) is that to put ABCD into practice requires a change in self-images ... who people see themselves and their involvement in the world. Here's a link to a paper I wrote that touches upon this subject: Outsider.pdf

Brian Nugent
01/29/18 04:54:46AM @brian-nugent:

Thank you Terry.  Your paper is a good read with lots of accumulated knowledge over the years.  Some very valid points on catalysts.  It's so important for people who wish to act as catalysts know how that role should be played out and unfortunately in my experience many get it wrong due to how they engage, rushing the process and assessing community priorities.  

I feel it would be great if a number of people with (for example) African experience, could somehow link together to try to persuade and influence NGOs and other agencies to look at a very different way of engaging and operating.  Let's see where we can go with this! Brian

Jana Carp
01/29/18 01:10:12PM @jana-carp:

Thank you so much for this line of conversation.  I am working as a "outsider" right now and was recently eloquently appreciated by a community member for my catalytic role -- to my relief.  And now here is this great paper, Terry, following on Brian's impressive outcome. 

One of my questions about how institutions/organizations respond to the ABCD approach concerns a seeming suspicion of it as a "brand".  If I start with something like "I do ABCD", it goes nowhere.  I'm just another program-pusher.  If I start with just "doing" ABCD --identifying assets and reflecting them to individual community members with suggestions about connecting -- I have had some great results, even though my client wants to rush.  On the other hand, organizations who see the success I am having do not have the staff resources to spend the time necessary for relationship-building.  Unfortunately they sometimes see "me" as the difference, not the ABCD approach.  And so they don't necessarily see it as something they could learn and implement.

I am agreeing with every point both of you have made; I am experiencing it all in this one project in the States.  I am working in rural northern California (USA).

Brian Nugent
01/30/18 03:52:28AM @brian-nugent:

Hi Jana and thank you for your positive comments.   

If I am training small groups to be community organizers/facilitators I will explain what the 'brand' is about.  But in my years of working with communities on this approach I have never referred to ABCD as such.  I usually focus on community strengths, abilities, resources and skills.  Keeping in mind that it's a conversation you are having with the community you are working with, there is generally no need to get too academic about it. Plus, keep doing what is working!

On your other point re organizations' reaction! Again, not unusual.  As I mentioned in my piece, organizations really need to start doing things differently from before, if they want to have successful and sustainable projects or actions.  Staff using the time  necessary for 'relationship-building', is essential and it is more effective than acting according to time-lines.  So, for what it is worth, it seems to me that you have an inherent gift for reading what is necessary and therefore I suggest you follow your gut feeling!!

04/07/18 07:44:54AM @bergdall:

Jana, I confess that I am still learning about "ABCD In Action" and ways to make it an effective too. I just now saw you comment. Having spent most of my life serving as an "outsider" in community building, I now find myself in a new life phase where I'm spending more and more time engaged as an "insider." Primarily this is with the Uptown coastal initiative with folks in my neighborhood and the "Chicago Sustainability Leaders Network" (CSLN) with people across the city. I'm glad to be acquainted with you and Brian through "ABCD In Action." Maybe we can figure out how to make this site an even more effective learning community. Terry  

Brian Nugent
04/08/18 11:17:28PM @brian-nugent:

Hi Terry and Jana, I hope all is going well with you both. By the nature of the way I work Terry I am an 'outsider'.  I am writing to you from an area near the Caucus Mountains in Eastern Europe.  This came after Nigeria and I am discussing working in Central America in the coming months.  So I am an outsider trying to influence the strength and building of insiders!  Training only goes so far and if you don't have committed insiders to the 'cause' well, it can be completely wasted.  So what I try to do is train teams of community organizers, visit them from time to time to see how they are getting on, try to motivate and encourage them and ensure there are tangible actions they can see and build on.  I have put together a programme that has ABCD as its core, but is supported by life skills, motivational skills and other inputs which strengthen people's confidence and sense of responsibility.  Regarding your comment about building a more effective learning community - I love that idea, as presently I get the impression there are many many people doing great work but often in isolation.  Real support or assistance would be amazing, maybe through webinars and such like.  For you guys in the US I would have thought there would be great opportunities to visit different projects and share information etc.  I'm sure it is done but maybe can be increased.  Talk soon.  Brian

Jana Carp
04/09/18 02:41:07PM @jana-carp:

Hi Terry and Brian, it's so good to hear back from both of you and I learned from your comments.  (Wow, Terry, I got my urban planning degrees at UIC in Chicago so it's fun to think about Uptown and green infrastructure and urban sustainability again!)  I don't remember to check this website very often so I'm glad I did today, to find your notes.  Hmmm ... I find this website a bit clunky but don't know of an alternative.  I do wish I had a "community of practice" with whom to discuss practitioner-based learning, like this insider/outsider theme, and the importance of using your "gut" to sense what to do.  I'm also interested in talking about working with community members outside of organizations (yes, funding problem right there) -- with people who don't formally organize and who are suspicious of programs and bureaucracy, but who show up for each other when needed.  I'm developing a theory on how such a community becomes proactive in terms of its well-being, but my experience is too circumscribed for my lone theorizing to be helpful ... So I agree, Brian, that "people are doing great work but often in isolation."  It occurs to me that my current client is a learning network, but extensive and successful enough to support a core team and to share administrative staff with an NGO.  Still, they had to start somewhere and it was likely small and doable .... Think about it and write to me at if you would like to communicate more directly or with quicker response than this website will allow.  Best wishes!  Jana

Leah Wandera
11/28/18 02:04:25AM @leah-wandera:

Hello Terry, Brian and Jana.

Thank you so much for sharing your experiences and discussions around ABCD in Action. My name is Leah Wandera. I am a Project Manager by profession. As a community development project's implementer, I have had a chance to experience what it feels like to implement projects that are needs- based and not form ABCD approach; especially in a developing environment(Kenya, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Cambodia)  This experience has therefore led me here. Am a Learner of ABCD too and am already helping our NGO and community embrace it. I therefore thank you for sharing this as I get more insights reading through.

Hope to read more from you and share my experiences too. 

Brian Nugent