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Children at kitchenTen years ago a German organization funded the construction of a kitchen for the women of the tiny Amazonian community of Suruacá to make and sell doces (sweets) from local seasonal fruit, generating income for themselves and their families. About a year later, CEN Director Bob Bortner met with the women’s group to learn why the facility was not being used. The group explained that although they were trained on how to make a variety of doces, they were not shown how to sell them. Instead of taking the initiative to come up with a plan to turn a profit of their own or speaking with others who have had success in similar pursuits, the women of Suruacá were holding off on using the kitchen until someone with power and authority would determine how they should make and sell the treats. The impact of the project, which had initially appeared to be a success, turned out to be ineffective because it could not be sustained.

As Pulitzer Prize winner Tina Rosenberg said, "(Sustainability) is important to donors, who don't want to see their money wasted. It's important to the groups that do the work: No project is successful unless it's taken over by local people to run. And it's most crucial to villagers themselves, who grow cynical about promises after they see project after project inaugurated only to fail." Failed projects feed into the community’s sense of helplessness and powerlessness.

Poverty is powerlessness

Poverty is more than just the lack of income. It is the lack of nutritious meals. It is the lack of clean drinking water. It is the lack of adequate shelter. It is the lack of access to a doctor or medicine. It is the lack of education. It is the lack of opportunity. It is the lack of quality of life. It is the lack of a future. According to the World Bank, poverty is powerlessness, and a lack of representation and freedom.1

John Friedmann, widely regarded as among the most authoritative living planning writers on sustainable international development, argues that poverty should be seen not merely in material terms, but as social, political and psychological powerlessness. He presents the case for empowering the poor in their own communities and mobilizing them for political and economic participation on a wider scale. Unless people have an active role in directing their own destinies, long-term progress will not be achieved.2 “The poor must take part in meeting their own needs. To do so, they must acquire the means to do this.”3


“(Sustainability) is important to donors, who don’t want to see their money wasted. It’s important to the groups that do the work. No project is successful unless it’s taken over by local people to run. And it’s most crucial to villagers themselves, who grow cynical about promises after they see project after project inaugurated only to fail”

Tina Rosenberg

Pulitzer Prize winner


Learned helplessness is a mindset in which an individual has learned to believe that he or she is helpless in a particular situation — that he or she has no control over the situation and that anything he or she does will be futile. They feel powerless to control their future, so they just accept their current situation, no matter how unfavorable it happens to be.

The term "learned helplessness" suggests that a person has learned to feel helpless and think in self-defeating ways. In other words, the person has been taught that nothing he or she can do will make a difference, that he or she can do nothing right, that others know better, and that he or she has little or no power and control over either his or her own life or external events.
Unlike actual helplessness, powerlessness implies that a person does indeed have power over outcomes, but in a particular circumstance, has lost that power. Powerlessness can be overcome by building self-reliance.

Building self-reliance through strengthened soft skills and mindsets

Achieving self-reliance requires more than just overcoming the sense of powerlessness. Self-reliance also requires individuals and their communities to possess certain actual skills and mindsets that strengthen their capacity to assume responsibility for addressing the economic, social and environmental problems they face.

Higher-level skills are generally technical skills that can be taught and, most importantly, applied in a concrete way. They're measurable and are related to an area of expertise, such as bookkeeping, sewing and filing. Soft skills can be described as the ability to apply hard skills to actual situations. Mindsets, or habits of the mind, are when people adopt a deeper quality of learning and thinking. Although it's possible to learn higher-level skills without mastering basic skills, in the long run, the lack of basic skills and self-reliant mindsets catches up and interferes with the continuous practice of the higher-level skills.

For instance, a person could be very proficient in bookkeeping, but without critically thinking about what the numbers in the books mean, or without the discipline to maintain the books, he or she could be seriously inaccurate. Similarly, while an entrepreneur might learn how to establish prices, he or she won't be able to do so effectively unless he or she possesses the discipline to keep track of expenses, production levels, and sales.


Soft Skills for Self-Reliance

Accuracy/Precision/ Attention to Detail









Critical Thinking


Through our decade of work in community development, CEN has identified the 10 soft skills and mindsets (please see sidebar) that help overcome the sense of powerlessness and bolster the self-reliance of individuals and their communities. Additionally, these basic skills and mindsets strengthen the capacity of communities to address many of the economic, social and environmental problems they face, as well as form a firm foundation for applying higher-level skills that are typically addressed by development programs.

Strong basic skills, mindsets and the habits — as well as the behaviors that are associated with them — are critical for communities and their residents in addressing the economic, social and environmental problems they face. As in the case of the women’s group mentioned earlier, many community development projects worldwide have collapsed after the outside project team departed because local community members lacked the basic skills and mindsets to keep the project operating on their own. In many cases this has been because they felt dependent upon others outside their community to fix a broken pump or plug a budget shortfall, due to undeveloped critical thinking, problem-solving skills, as well as failure to believe in their own capabilities. As a result, the projects are not sustained.

If community members decide that they can't do a task, or perhaps they don't feel worthy, they may give up. While training and resources, such as money and equipment, might give the community members some additional confidence, they'll often give up when they hit an obstacle that they don't feel equipped for. On the other hand, if they are given the same situation when they have confident and disciplined mindsets, they will not be discouraged by difficult tasks and will likely arrive at several solutions.

Individuals and communities frequently have many resources available to them, but are unable to harness these resources for their own long-term benefit. Youth mentorship, microcredit, workforce and entrepreneurship development programs, for example, offer opportunities to many individuals; however, without attention to detail, discipline, persistence, problem-solving and critical thinking skills, or motivation and self-confidence, they will not derive full benefit from these opportunities.

Self-reliance is essential to long-term, sustainable development

Self-reliance is defined by independence. It is the ability to think and act without the help or influence of others, the ability to decide what you should be or do. Dependency, on the other hand, is the act of relying on others to make decisions on your behalf. Learned helplessness and the sense of powerlessness that results from dependency are learned behaviors that must be reversed before an individual can become self-reliant.

A self-reliant individual has the ability and motivation to recognize and take advantage of opportunities and solve problems without relying on others. The program in Suruacá, for example, did not progress after the women were trained to make their treats because they lacked the skills and mindsets to market their treats without outside assistance. Had the project developed greater self-reliance as well, the initiative may have had a greater lasting impact.

Self-reliance is critical for sustainable community, regional and national development. Sustainable development requires the full support of the community and the participation of ordinary people at the local level. The ability to manage resources sustainably on the local level is essential for ensuring that gains are maintained long after a project is over. A higher measure of self-reliance also allows communities and their residents greater grassroots participation, and develops the capacity to address many of the economic, social and environmental problems they face.

Furthermore, self-reliance is vital for residents to successfully govern their own lives and economies. When residents rely too heavily on outside influences, even supposedly benevolent players such as government agencies and nongovernmental organizations, they relinquish control of their resources and more importantly, their future. They allow others to make decisions that are not always in the best interest of these communities.

Empowering citizens to create and pursue opportunities, as well as overcome the obstacles they face through increased self-reliance, breaks the cycle of poverty and is essential for long-term, sustainable development.


1 Poverty. N.p., 2011. Web. 8 Mar 2012.
Friedman, John. Empowerment: The Politics of Alternative Development. Wiley-Blackwell, 1992. 102. Print.
3 Ibid
Ghai, Dharam Ghai and Jessica M. Vivian. Grassroots Environmental Action: People's Participation in Sustainable Development. Routledge, 1992. 13.

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