top of page
Anchor 1

The Problem With Problem Analysis

October 2017

Tobias Roberts

One of the most important aspects of being involved in quality development work is the process of helping people and communities reflect on the problems and challenges that their community faces and discover innovative solutions to those problems. An NGO that comes into an area offering certain projects and development pathways without ever reflecting together with the community on the real needs and hardships that the community wants to overcome is simply adding to the colonialist dynamic of assistance and dependence.


Finding the humility and patience to put aside our development agenda in order to truly hear and take notice of the real and perceived needs of a community is the first essential step in good development work. In this short article, we will reflect on how the lack of effective problem analysis is ultimately damaging to the communities where we work.


The Dilemma of Problem Analysis


A number of years ago, I accompanied a small NGO into a rural community where they were planning on working. The community development promoter had organized a meeting with the recognized leadership from the community and wanted to carry out a brief analysis of some of the main problems the community faced. During the relatively informal conversation that followed, the community mentioned over and over again that the main problem they faced was related to drought and lack of potable water during the dry season.


The community development promoter took note of this, but asked several times about whether there were problems with gender equity in the community. While the community did recognize that there had been issues with some gender based violence, they were adamant that their main, and most urgent problem, was related to water issues.


In the car on the way back from the community, I asked the promoter why she had pressed the community so much on the theme of gender issues. “Well,” she admitted, “the truth is that we only have grant money right now for gender based projects, so I was trying to get the community to acknowledge that need.”


In the NGO and development world, the work that we do in communities is too often dictated by the funds that we have accessed. Instead of starting from the vantage point of the expressed needs of communities, we start from the reality of the objectives as guidelines defined by the issuers of the grant money for specific projects that we are implementing. In this context, problem analysis is often times either blatantly omitted or reduced to trying to convince the community that they “need” what we have to offer.


At the same time, many development organizations, derive their community development interventions from a conceptual, theoretical, and somewhat abstract platform that doesn’t necessarily correspond to the felt needs of communities. For example, from our perspective of development, not having running water in your home might be considered a sign of abject poverty.


In one community in the Mayan highlands of Guatemala, a faith-based NGO spent thousands of dollars to develop and implement a domestic water project to help communities “overcome” the perceived poverty associated with having to walk to the nearby spring for their household water. Several years after the project had finished, however, I was asked to evaluate the effects of the project on community dynamics.


Several women in the community admitted to me that while it was nice to have water in their homes, they also missed going to the nearby spring to wash their clothes and gather water. They told me that they sometimes felt lonely in their homes and missed the company that the community springs brought to their lives. The spring was essentially a community gathering place, especially for women; a place they could go to socialize and share their problems and joys with other women. The collective governance of the springs also strengthened community cohesion and with the implementation of household water spigots, the community lost one of the “commons” that bound the community together.


The privilege that comes with defining what constitutes poverty is one that most NGO´s never recognize nor reflect on. Helping communities overcome poverty is considered to be a universal “good”, though we often don´t take the necessary time to reflect on what poverty truly entails. While we might think of not having household water a sign of dismal scarceness, a small community in Guatemala might find that community sources of water are actually preferable in the overall scheme of things. With this complex reality, how can we go about helping communities to reflect on their true needs and problems?


What Would Participative Problem Analysis Entail?


Making the time to truly involve communities in an analysis of the problems they face requires us to change many of the essential dynamics that come with how NGO´s function. It requires us to move away from writing and conceptualizing projects from in an office and behind a desk and take time to intimately know and understand the communities where we plan to work.


Most NGO´s, always caught up in the daily rat race of trying to keep up with the demands of several projects, feel that they don´t have the ability to devote time to involving communities in a participative process of problem analysis. Ideally, we would begin by asking to be allowed to listen in on community meetings; not meetings convened by us as a NGO, but spaces where communities come together to share their needs, struggles and visions.


Once we have learned to listen and to begin to understand the needs and the reality of the communities where we plan to work, we might ask for permission to facilitate a workshop wherein we introduce new methodologies that help to stimulate further reflection on the problems the community faces. While the first, and most important part of problem analysis is learning to listen to the community as they share from their own reality, there is also a space for NGO´s to stimulate further contemplation and analysis that follows from an outsider perspective.


When to Start Participative Problem Analysis?


This process of listening and participating in the life of the community and then facilitating spaces to help communities consider other aspects of the problems they face should occur well before we start searching for grants.


Instead of applying for grants and then advising the communities of the projects that are available, the grants that we apply for should be determined by the expressed needs and visions of the communities themselves. While this strategy does require dedicating more time and effort prior to the grant writing process, it also will most certainly lead towards more successful projects in the long run.


Questions for Analysis


What are some of the problems associated with not allowing communities to define their own problems?


Do you think it is possible for NGO´s to change the way they function to open up more space for community participation in the definition of problems and/or projects? What would need to change for this to be possible?


What strategies and methodologies do you know of to help communities analyze the problems they face?

About the Author

Tobias has worked with a variety of community development organizations throughout Central America during the past 11 years. He currently works as a freelance consultant and writer while also managing his family´s agroecology farm in El Salvador and participating in a community eco-tourism cooperative.

Discover the power of local community development

A place to learn about grassroots development in action



3 OF 9

This article is part of our free participatory development course for local nonprofits




  • White Instagram Icon
  • White YouTube Icon
  • White Twitter Icon
  • White Facebook Icon




Innovative strategies to help you put yourself in the shoes of beneficiaries


Learn how to use this creative tool at your next community workshop


Discover the tools you need to stimulate participatory  workshops

bottom of page