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The idea of self-help is one of several distinguishing features of community development theory, practice, and ideology. Self-help is based on the premise that people can, will, and should collaborate to solve community problems. In addition to the practical problem-solving utility of this perspective, self-help builds a stronger sense of community and a foundation for future collaboration. It embodies the notion that a community can achieve greater self-determination within constraints imposed by the larger political economy in which it is embedded. Without a commitment to self-help, a community may exist as a place, an organization, or an interest group but be lacking the capacity building strategy. It is a style of planning, decision making, and problem solving which is endemic to the very idea of community, especially that of the small, face-to-face community.

Self-help is emphasized not only as a goal to be achieved in and of itself, but also as a strategy for the accomplishment of broader development objectives. Helping communities achieve a capacity for self-help is fundamental to both the theory and practice of community development. If a spirit of self-help doesn’t exist within a community as an extension of the members' dedication to common goals and mutual respect; then, from the perspective of community development or empowerment, a capacity for self-help may be instigated with the assistance of an outside community development practitioner.

"It is this idea of intervention to produce a greater capacity for self-help among residents of a place that is a cornerstone of the community development profession. In community development practice, it is rudimentary that the solution to community problems is sought first within the community, and its resources and capabilities. While the community development approach does not assume that all important social, economic, or political problems of communities can be resolved by a community's own efforts, the idea of mobilizing broad community participation is prescribed as a goal of any community development effort and most definitions of community development include self-help.

Self-help embodies two interrelated features: (1) it is expected to produce improvements of people's living conditions, facilities, and/or services)" and (2) it emphasizes that the process by which these improvements are achieved is essential to development of the community. The "developed community" is both improved and empowered as a result. Of these two features, the self-help perspective emphasizes that the process is more important in the long run than the improvements, because the collaboration that derives from a strong sense of community can be the means to continuing improvement of community services and quality of life. By contrast; if community services, facilities, or improvements are contributed by an outside agency or organization with little or no community involvement, such "improvements" are likely to be transitory, to increase community dependency,  to contribute little to a greater sense of community, and to diminish the community's future  capacity to act on its own behalf. Thus a self-help approach not only emphasizes what a community achieves, but more importantly, how it achieves it. Another way of stating this is to distinguish between development in the community (the improvements) and development of the community (how these improvements are achieved) -- Excerpts from Community Development Perspectives edited by James A. Christenson and Jerry W. Robinson, Jr. Iowa State University Press/Ames 1989