The relief-development distinction is useful to describe two responses to human need that are premised on very different foundations. Relief is generally perceived as the short-term provision of physical commodities to victims of an acute crisis. Development, however, is understood as a process that enables chronically marginalized individuals, households and communities to achieve greater self-reliance in meeting human need. Self-reliance does not necessarily imply self-sufficiency, but enhanced capability through economic, social, and/or political change. This is achieved through the expansion of physical, human, and social capital, expanding economic productivity, social organization, and political power.

In one sense relief and development processes are diametric opposites. For instance, it is argued that through the physical provision of goods and services, the relief approach creates a dependency relationship between donor and recipient. This dependency relationship reinforces long-term structural constraints to development, weakening household and community self-reliance. Conversely, evidence suggests that development approaches seeking to promote self-reliance, often by-pass the poorest, favouring instead stronger, better educated groups who have some asset base to build upon. Development approaches generally attempt to build upon existing physical and human assets to achieve their results.

In another sense, of course, the distinction between relief and development becomes blurred. At their core, relief and development approaches are responses to human need. Both approaches are oriented to providing a combination of goods and services that implicitly include a welfare element. As with relief programmes, development interventions involve some type subsidy, e.g., subsidized inputs like credit or training[1]. The level of subsidy can vary considerably, depending whether the development model is process– or results-oriented (see section two). Conversely, interventions typically classified as relief can include efforts to overcome structural constraints to development, implicitly containing a development- or self-reliance element. For instance, a rural works project develops infrastructure that can enhance economic productivity in the area by increasing access to new ideas, production inputs, and markets. Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) established a programme for households receiving food rations through the World Food Programme to start small poultry rearing projects.

The thesis of this paper is that while the relief-development distinction can be a helpful means to classify interventions, it tends to blur important similarities between, and differences within, these approaches. A more helpful way to conceptualize approaches is a continuum: on one extreme the welfare element is dominant, on the other extreme the development or self-reliance element is dominant. A balanced approach to acute and chronic underdevelopment and marginalization characterized by a multiplicity of internal and external constraints requires a careful coordination of welfare and self-reliance approaches.

The organization of this paper is as follows: section two describes alternative conceptions of community development, termed facilitation and assistance. These two variations of community development are rooted in very different ideologies, illustrating the breadth of variation within the area of development. Section three of the paper then evaluates three different relief and development interventions on the basis of their poverty and gender reach, cost, direct impact, growth linkage, and institutional sustainability. Examples and comparative results are drawn largely from indigenous nongovernmental organization (NGO) efforts in Bangladesh.

Alternative Approaches to Community Development: Process Versus Results Orientation

How community participation is understood in development illustrates fundamental conceptual differences in approach. Participation of the community, or a sub-set of the community, has come to be considered a necessary condition for effective community development (Grace, Ewert, and Eberts, 1995; Oakley, 1992). In the absence of community participation, development projects are said to fail due to: not meeting community felt-needs; being captured by the local elite; plus expensive, coercive, and bureaucratic project administration. While participation is considered a necessary ingredient of development, how that participation is understood varies significantly. Peter Oakley (1992) suggests three broad interpretations of participation:

  • as contribution to a development project, whereby community voluntary contributions of labour and in-kind resources lower implementation costs,
  • as a means to build organization of previously under-organized groups, thereby expanding local social capital,
  • as a means to empower marginalized groups to press for improved access to resources and government services.

For the purpose of this paper, these three interpretations will be condensed into two, by collapsing the second and third categories together. This collapsed interpretation — the facilitation approach — sees the process of participation as critical for extending social capital either for local capacity building or broader claim-making in pursuit of community socio-political transformation (Table 1). This approach sees the principal constraint lying within the community, and therefore seeks to minimize external input in the resolution of local problems through facilitation. Activities that follow from this approach include conscientization, group formation for claim-making, and possibly cooperative projects. In Bangladesh, Association for Social Advancement (prior to 1992), Gono Shahajjo Shangsta, and Nijera Kori are NGOs that follow this approach.

The other major model of community development — termed the assistance approach — places emphasis on achieving results of socio-economic improvement in the community: participation is seen as a contribution in achieving this end[2]. Here, the principal constraint to development is considered to fall, in part, outside the community, and therefore requires technical and resource assistance from an external-to-the-community agency and technical specialists. Activities that follow from this approach include income-generation, sub-sector or multi-sector interventions, and the provision of social services. In Bangladesh, Association for Social Advancement (after 1992), Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) and Proshika Manubik Unnyan Kendra follow this approach.

Table 1. Process and Results Oriented Approaches to Community Development

Process Oriented Results Oriented
Ideology Socio-political transformation

Household or community is marginalized from mainstream society, requiring enhanced self-reliance to become more whole.

Socio-economic improvement

The physical nature of poverty is highlighted, as is the need for new resources, technologies, and services to achieve an adequate living standard.

Principal Constraint to Development Principal constraint is within the community; outside resources and technologies only reinforce dependency and dualism. Community lacks awareness as to why they are poor, or the ability to work together for solution. External resources and technologies are required to overcome poverty that results from external and internal constraints.
Attitude Towards Participation Participation is seen as the end; improved income, power, and status seen as a by-product. Participation is seen mainly as a means to the achievement of enhanced livelihoods.
Attitude Towards the Poor The community can and must be the source of their own solutions. While they are intelligent and hard-working, they are unconscious of social and political forces that constrain them. The community understands the socio-political constraints they face, are hard-working and intelligent but lack resources, organization, and power to overcome poverty.
Role of External Agent or Agency Facilitator encourages critical thought and collaborative action. Agency undertakes a number of roles including training and allocating external resources and technologies.
Types of Activities Awareness building, empowerment, social organizing for claim-making, and cooperative projects. Income generation schemes plus provision of social services, in conjunction with conscientization and social organizing.
Examples of Programmes in Bangladesh Association for Social Advancement (prior to 1992), Gono Shahajjo Shangsta, Nijera Kori Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, Grameen Bank, Proshika MUK

In part based on: Esman and Uphoff, 1983; Oakley et al., 1992; Grace, Ewert and Eberts, 1995.

The process-oriented or facilitation model minimizes the role of the external agent — whether national or expatriate — accenting community mobilization to overcome local development constraints. The results-oriented or assistance model builds partnership between the community and the development agent or agency, to overcome local, national, and international development constraints. Both models involve a welfare element, although on the surface this element is greater in the assistance model. On the welfare-development continuum, the facilitation model reaches farthest towards ‘development-‘ or ‘self-reliance-purism,’ while the assistance model falls between this and a pure welfare approach.

These alternative understandings of participation illustrate the breadth of community development approaches. At their root, the differences between these approaches are ideological. The differences in practice are arguably considerably less than the rhetoric would indicate. The facilitation model has been acclaimed by some academics (Ewert, Clark, and Eberts, 1994; Korten, 1990; Chambers, 1983) and — at least rhetorically — by prominent development agencies. Others have argued this approach grounded more in ideology, and less in practice, suggesting a role for external assistance (Krishna, Uphoff, and Esman, 1997; Esman and Uphoff, 1983; Johnston and Clark, 1982). Commenting on 18 successful development projects in the south, Krishna, Uphoff, and Esman conclude:

These were not pure bottom-up programs because initiative came from a variety of outsiders. But the outsiders knew how to enter into the conditions and outlooks of rural people, to fashion programs from the inside out, so to speak. The brought to this encounter the advantages of higher education and high-level contacts, but they knew better than to be patronizing or paternalistic. By showing deep respect for the capabilities of the people whose lives they hoped to help improve, and by being persistent as well as patient…, they helped fashion solutions to problems that mobilized and used resources of all sorts most effectively (Krishna, Uphoff, and Esman, 1997, p.294).

Development agencies with a commitment to the facilitation model — both southern- and northern-based — in practice often adopt an assistance approach. For instance, in one review of NGOs in Bangladesh, Sanyal (1991, 1370) points to income-generation as being the intervention receiving the majority support of NGO leaders[3]. Further, the three largest and best funded indigenous development agencies in Bangladesh — Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, the Grameen Bank[4], and Proshika — focus largely on income-generation and social service provision. The Grameen Bank is the most narrowly focused of these agencies, providing credit within an innovative and effective peer monitoring system. BRAC and Proshika are more broadly focused, involved in income-generation, social service provision, and social organizing.

Most NGOs in Bangladesh have given up strategies to organize the poor, sanitized their activities (if not their rhetoric), and chosen the path of delivering economic assistance…the decision by some NGOs to de-emphasize consciousness-raising signals that the government has already won the battle over accountability, since the consciousness-raising model must out of necessity pit NGOs against government agencies unless the government itself is committed to structural transformation (Hashemi 1996).

The income-generation schemes established by these organizations — particularly integrated sector interventions in areas such as agriculture and sericulture — require the agency to stress technical and managerial issues, often at the expense of social issues. An agency involved in promoting an integrated multi-sector programme requires technical and managerial expertise, which potentially involves an opportunity cost: reduction of community self-reliance. Marty Chen points to the opportunity cost of a technically oriented well-managed development agency is the ability to communicate and promote organization among the rural poor (Chen, 1983). Thus in Bangladesh, the dominant development model is assistance, where participation is seen as a contribution. Studies of NGO efforts in other regions suggest these results are not anomalous (Carroll, 1992; MacLure, 1995).

The assistance approach to community development dominates in Bangladesh. Justification for the assistance model may come from a need for short-term tangible benefits, or a perception that external development constraints dominate, but is no doubt highly influenced by external donor objectives. In her review of BRAC’s programmes, Lovell (1992) argues that both the rich and poor in Northern nations benefit from programmes of both government and nongovernmental organizations, in areas of health, education, social security, not to mention job retraining, and that this will not likely end in the near future. Indeed, she argues:

Where social and economic development is just beginning for a majority of the people, and where government services remain nonexistent or ineffective for the poorest, with no signs of major change in the near future, NGO interventions will be needed for many years to come…Organizations like BRAC, supported by a sharing of the resources of the North with the South, will be needed far into the foreseeable future (Lovell, 1992, p.188-9).

A Continuum of Responses to Human Need

This paper suggests the relief-development distinction blurs important differences within each approach — as illustrated in the previous section regarding models of development — and overstates differences between these approaches. A continuum is a more useful way of understanding various humanitarian responses: ranging from pure welfare, characterized by the free provision of material assistance for immediate need (e.g., provision of food), to material assistance for intermediate need (e.g., provision of seed), works programmes, provision of social services (e.g., primary health-care education), single component interventions (e.g., micro-credit), integrated interventions (e.g., sub-sector promotion or microenterprise credit), through pure development or self-reliance approaches that encourage local group capacity through extension of community networks and norms (i.e., building new forms of social capital).

The remainder of this paper investigates some principal characteristics of a sub-set of these interventions: rural works programmes, micro-credit, and sub-sector interventions. The characteristics discussed include: poverty and gender reach, operational cost of the programmes and direct impact on the livelihoods of participants, indirect impact on the community through growth linkage effect, and potential for institutional sustainability of the programmes.

Poverty and Gender Reach

Perhaps the most significant challenge to the self-reliance development model is its poverty reach. Development literature, particularly since the 1970s, has repeated the need for development to assist the poorest of the poor. This follows from the recognition that early efforts at development — like other processes for dynamic economic improvement — disproportionately benefit better-off members of the community. Evidence suggests that this is also a problem with community development efforts that move towards a pure self-reliance approach. In an often referenced 1982 review of NGO projects, Judith Tendler argued that as NGOs moved into income-generation, away from more welfare-oriented approaches, the poorest of the poor were dropped as participants:

The new development focus on income-earning activities [by NGOs], in sum, is a commendable transition away from the perception of the poor as fit only for charity. Just when this attempt to treat the poor as producers has resulted in the inadvertent exclusion of the poorest from the new production-oriented projects — leading full circle back to a perception of the poorest as unreachable (Tendler, 1982, p.56).

Korten (1990) has described this as a move by NGOs from limited first-generation relief and welfare approaches, to more sophisticated second-generation small-scale self-reliant development projects. However, second-generation strategies — particularly of the assistance variety — require participants to have assets to build upon. For instance, income-generation programmes generally require participants have some skill, land, or other asset through which enhanced livelihood can be stimulated. Evidence suggests that micro-credit approaches in Bangladesh have generally by-passed the landless labourer class, even though they dominate the poorest income class, in favour of households with previous experience (i.e., skills) in trading and retail (Osmani, 1989). Some sector approaches — like irrigation schemes — draw in better-off farmers to ensure sufficient political support among the elite. The result is average income levels considerably above the poorest of the poor (Buckland, 1995). Other studies indicate NGO development efforts target a relatively disadvantaged group, but not from the poorest of the poor (White, 1991; Carroll, 1992) (Table 2).

Reaching poverty groups can be a strength of a welfare-dominant approach, for instance with rural works interventions. In terms of poverty reach, the nature of a works programme promotes self-selection for involvement by the poor (Dreze and Sen, 1989), and passive exclusion by elites or non-poor (Johnston and Clark, 1982). This reflects the manual nature of the work leading those not in the habit of such work — i.e., the non-poor — to choose not to become involved.

Of course, reaching marginalized groups and overcoming structural constraints to their empowerment are separate issues. For instance, affecting improved gender balance is a highly complex and multifaceted issue. Some evidence suggests that sectoral income-generation approaches often stream women into traditional activities, thus reinforcing gender disparity (Chen, 1989; Berger, 1989). In an effort to enhance women’s situation in Bangladesh, micro-credit extended by the Grameen Bank, BRAC, and other development agencies has been increasingly directed towards women. However, control over the credit once it enters the household is generally held by the male family head as the fundamental social structure is unaffected (Goetz and Gupta, 1996). While rural works programmes can be easily targeted to women — for instance CARE’s Rural Maintenance Programme, and Saptogram Nari Swamivar Parsihad’s works programme — once again, it is not clear is household decision making is affected.

Operational Costs and Direct Impact

Studies from Bangladesh suggest that NGOs operate relatively efficient programmes. A 1988 study by the United Nations Development Programme concluded that while NGO per capita costs were higher than those of some governmental agencies, their inputs were more intensive, and the benefits for participants greater (United Nations Development Programme, 1988, p.IV-78). Studies suggest that typical agency participants experience significant improvement in their livelihood in terms of income, employment, and assets (Buckland, 1995; White, 1991; Remenyi, 1991; Bangladesh Institute for Development Studies, 1990). There is also evidence of marginal improvements in areas of class and gender empowerment (White, 1991; Goetz and Gupta, 1996).

Evidence from Bangladesh suggests the costs of operating a micro-credit scheme are lower than sub-sector programme programmes like irrigation and sericulture (Buckland, 1995). In fact Yaron (1994) has determined that a small increase in the interest rate charged borrowers of the Grameen Bank would enable it to achieve financial viability. This is not the case with sector efforts that involve considerably more agency support. Rural works programmes are likely the lowest cost approach in that staff costs, which comprise a large fraction of agency costs, are minimized as there is little need for technical specialists and management costs per worker can be kept quite low.

In terms of direct impact on participants, it is generally expected that the sector approach leads to higher benefits than the micro-credit approach, because the former approach provides previously unavailable complementary inputs — raw materials, technology, market access — together with credit, that allow participants to overcome more fundamental structural constraints through involvement in new productive activities (Lovell, 1992). However, evidence suggests that the micro-credit approach substantially improves participant living standards (Hossain, 1988; Wahid, 1994). In fact, one study found that the impact of credit was high and even, whereas sector interventions had a variable impact on participating households: households involved in micro-credit benefited as much as households involved in irrigation schemes, and benefited more than households involved in sericulture (Buckland, 1995)[5]. Rural works programmes in Bangladesh generally provide a monetary or in-kind wage slightly below the going wage rate for unskilled labour. This rate is considerably below return-to-labour for credit activities, but higher than that associated with sericulture activities found in one study (Buckland, 1995).

Indirect Community Impact Through Growth Linkages

Little effort has gone into examining the second-round impact of scaled-up responses to human need. Estimates of the second-round impact of rising agricultural income due to the introduction of modern varieties of foodgrains range from 1.2 to 1.6 (Haggblade and Liedholm, 1991). Improvement in the livelihood of scaled-up income-generation scheme participants may comprise a similar multiplier. Conversely, where there is no second-round effect, complete displacement occurs. In this case demand- or supply-constraints — e.g., nonavailability of inputs, depressed market — prevent initial output and income increases to spillover to the rest of the community. Where complete or near complete displacement occurs, a potentially perverse negative distributional impact could occur, as agency participants — through access to subsidized credit — replace non-participant marginal producers.

In general sector interventions have greater second-round or multiplier effects than do credit programmes because sector programmes attempt to overcome binding market constraints on the demand- and supply-side (Buckland, 1995). For instance, when faced with limited silkworm egg (disease free-layings) supply from the Bangladesh Sericulture Board, BRAC attempted to import the eggs from India, with the eventual plan to produce them internally. This is not so for most credit programmes, where key input constraints are unaffected by the agency. Also, generally future demand potential for products coming from sector programmes is higher, due to their higher income elasticity of demand. Credit-based activities tend to be associated with products with lower income elasticity of demand (Rahman and Hossain, 1988). Infrastructural development through rural works programmes can also alleviate important supply- and demand-side constraints to economic growth, by expanding access to urban markets and industrial-based inputs. In combination with micro-credit schemes, infrastructural expansion may alleviate some binding constraints through a process of market deepening.

Sustainability of Enhanced Livelihoods and New Institutions

In general, micro-credit recipients have greater potential for future independence from the agency as their activities are traditional in nature and involve locally available technology and knowledge. In contrast, sector interventions, like sericulture and irrigation, involve participants in new technologies and markets. Moreover, credit participants are less dependent on the agency, such that if and when the link is severed, the participant’s transition is minimized. The greater dependency on the agency in the case of sector efforts means the more difficult it will be to achieve participant self-reliance. For instance, both sericulture and irrigation sectoral efforts by BRAC and Proshika involve the agency in a variety of ways — including training (on silkworm rearing or tubewell maintenance and repair), provision of new technology (e.g., roadside mulberry plantations and shallow or deep mechanical tubewells), and access to new markets (e.g., silk garment market through BRAC’s chain of retail outlets). This means that in the event of an agency withdrawal, production could be seriously disrupted. In the event of a micro-credit agency pull-out, participant output and income levels would likely fall, but not to a great extent (Buckland, 1995). If sector programmes are to have a lasting impact, NGOs must indigenize the services they provide[6]. The institutional sustainability of rural works programmes are obviously very low.

Table 2. Comparative Strengths and Weaknesses of Rural Works Programmes, Micro-credit, and Sub-sector Interventions

Characteristic Rural Works Programme Micro-credit Intervention Sub-sector Intervention
Welfare —

Self-reliance Continuum

high welfare high self-reliance medium self-reliance
Poverty and Gender Reach excellent good fair – good
Operational Cost low medium high
Direct Impact low high low – high
Multiplier Effect moderate moderate high
Institutional Sustainability weak high low


This paper has argued that relief and development efforts are best understood to fall on a continuum, with pure welfare approaches on one end and nearly-pure self-reliance approaches on the opposite: by definition, however, relief and development approaches involve some external stimulation that contain a welfare element. Within these traditional divisions there are significantly different ideological approaches — e.g., the facilitation and assistance models of community development — indicating a gap within the divisions possibly as large as between them. In practice, most medium and large Bangladeshi NGOs have opted for a model rooted in the assistance approach, evidenced by the wide-spread acceptance of income-generation schemes, indicating the gap between development and relief approaches is lessened.

Welfare and self-reliance approaches involve a set of weaknesses and strengths, as evidenced in section three (Table 2). Development agencies concerned with the short and long term consequences of their operations need to carefully balance various programmes to meet acute and chronic physical need, but within an approach that does not create dependency, but extends indigenous social capital necessary for long-term self-reliance.


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[1]This points to an internal contradiction of development: it seeks to assist marginalized people through some type of welfare redistribution to better help themselves through enhanced self-reliance. Uma Lele (1981) has argued cooperatives face a similar internal contradiction in their dual objectives of economic growth and equitable distribution of benefits, where short-run growth can be maximized through assisting more resourceful members.

[2]Esman and Uphoff (1983) suggest two extreme positions of community development: the populist and paternalistic approaches. The populist approach, “presumes that rural people are vitally interested in change and can transform their communities if only the politicians and bureaucrats will leave them alone.” (p.16). The paternalistic approach, “assumes that rural people are passive and fatalistic, uninterested in improvement of their lives and incapable of initiative in making improvements”(p.16) These environments correspond to extreme cases for the facilitation and assistance models of community development.

[3]Sanyal (1991, 1370) points to a minority view by some NGO leaders in Bangladesh that feel income-generation is counter-productive to the process of development for the rural poor. This group argues that development can only take place through political empowerment of the poor and resulting asset redistribution.

[4]The Grameen Bank is now a quasi-government agency. BRAC and Proshika are both nongovernmental organizations.

[5]Two possible factors may account for the varied success of sub-sectoral efforts, relating to the inexperience of the NGO participants and staff, and the nature of nongovernmental organizations. Since most micro-credit based activities are almost all traditional in nature, often participants have undertaken the activity before. However, sector programmes move the participant into new activities. NGO staff as well, often lack substantial experience in these sectors. For instance, BRAC (Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, 1992) has a relatively long experience in sericulture, dating from 1976, but Proshika has been involved only since 1984 (Proshika, 1992). Proshika initiated its work in irrigation in 1980, while BRAC started work with deep tubewells in the 1980s. While this seems to imply between 10 – 15 years of experience, it must be kept in mind that both organizations have experienced fast scaling-up of their activities that has placed a serious strain on their programmes — requiring fast promotion of field staff, and rapid recruitment of new staff. The second possible explanation for the poorer performance of the sector interventions relates to the nature of nongovernmental organizations working in development. These organizations often get their first momentum from a concern for the poor, and a desire to alleviate poverty. Many development agencies have moved into income-generation following disillusionment with a more welfare-oriented approach. Sector programmes involve the agency, to a much greater extent than credit interventions, in the marketplace. The tension that results is that the agency desires to help poor people to improve their livelihood, but simultaneously must enforce the rigid discipline necessary for success in the market. With credit programmes, this enforcement is placed on the individual participant, but with sector programmes to a varying degree the enforcement must come more from the organization. For instance, BRAC purchases cocoons from silkworm rearers for their reeling units. BRAC faces a tension in that they desire their producers receive a price that guarantees them a ‘fair’ return, but must enforce quality control by paying a premium based on the quality of the cocoon.

[6]By indigenize it is meant that these services be moved into either the market, the government sector, or possibly some alternative cooperative organization with long-term funding. Alternatively, with improved local capacity, there is a potential for the local community to effectively provide these services for themselves. BRAC seems to have come the closest with its plan to turn all of its Rural Development Programme offices over to the self-supporting Rural Credit Programme (RCP) after a certain time period. However, it is not clear if the RCP will be able to provide inputs, training, and access to markets so important for the success of sector programmes. Lovell (1992) indicates that participants in BRAC’s RCP will be expected to pay for these services. It is unclear, however, what the cost will be, and whether the clients will be able to afford the services.

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One Response to From Relief and Development to Assisted Self-Reliance: Nongovernmental Organizations in Bangladesh

  1. Riyaz says:

    Your work is really admiring and helpful particullarly for those who work in developmental sector for exploring and resolution of social problems.I personal;ly wish to have your journal and the articles therein