By Davi Johnson

Though the federal government frequently has good intentions for the American people, approaches to improve communities from the top rarely have the power to produce the desired result within the target communities.

Here’s why:

Needs and solutions vary from community to community

Since 1986, a private group called the Carter Foundation has been attempting to eradicate a horrible parasite called guinea worm from eastern African countries. The group used tactics such as prizes and trainings to encourage critical water-filtering habits. These techniques, though frequently successful in the United States, had almost no lasting impact on these communities.

The solution that has now diminished the disease by 99.9 percent was a simple one: The local women used their skirts to strain the larvae from the drinking water. This solution came from within a community struggling with it themselves, and now the solution has spread far enough to almost completely eradicate the disease.

No matter how good the outsider’s intention, communities almost always know best how to implement positive changes. They know the unique needs of their community and what will create sustainable change.

There is no ownership in a policy from strangers.

Millions of dollars have been wasted on wells, computers and electricity generation aimed at alleviating poverty in developing countries. Many communities never saw benefits from these technologies because the people didn’t feel like the solutions were their own and left them unused.

Currently, there is a growing frustration among teachers because educators feel little ownership of education policy. For instance, they are beholden to requirements rather than individual learning. This is because faraway legislators – many of whom are strangers to the classroom – decided they knew how to help students learn.

A person rarely feels ownership over something they didn’t have a hand in creating, no matter how good the idea is. And if a person feels no ownership in the policy, it cannot be adopted as desired.

Innovation, not legislation, brings solutions

The Other Side Academy, located in Salt Lake City, is a transformative live-in school that teaches business and life skills as an alternative to a jail sentence or homelessness. Students work full time in self-started businesses, paying their own rent, board and training, all while remaining drug free. Already this is proving to be more effective than any government program or criminal justice institution at helping people build new lives.

This is an example of what individuals and communities are capable of creating when allowed the room to innovate. Joseph Grenny, the founder of The Other Side Academy, saw a problem in his community, and decided to take steps to solve it. This solution had nothing to do with a government program and everything to do with a passionate, innovative individual. Humans are innately wired with problem-solving abilities. We should trust individuals to create innovations that help their communities.

When proffered solutions form without the community’s voice, they are at best not effective, and at worst destructive. The best thing government can do for communities is to give individuals with the most insight and investment the opportunity to drive true change.


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