Community Development


Breadth-Based and Depth-Based Development

Understanding the development approaches


Breadth-Based Development


Breadth-based initiatives fall under two primary categories: humanitarian aid and development aid. Both categories represent externally-generated, time-limited, and typically, narrowly-focused efforts. While humanitarian aid intervention is often spurred through the identification of a crisis (imminent threats to life, health, subsistence or security), traditional development aid seeks to improve structures or systems deemed insufficient to satisfy human need. It may concern the provision of physical needs, such as access to clean water, food or healthcare, or provision of social needs, such as basic rights, protections, or accountability. These forms of development aid may be delivered through bilateral or multilateral government efforts, and are also the focus of many international, national, and local non-government organizations.


Generally, humanitarian aid strives to save individual human lives, while development aid seeks to reduce the many physical and social manifestations of poverty. In both cases, the aim is specific, with individual actors highlight a particular set of issues or problems.


Main Advantages:

Both humanitarian and traditional development efforts are scalable in nature. While humanitarian aid seeks to provide basic provisions to as many individuals as possible in a crisis, traditional development often manifests in mass efforts to address severe global problems, such as global food insecurity and exposure to disease. As these efforts are often single-issue and time limited, they are well-defined, allowing for precise output-based evaluation.

Main Disadvantages:

Neither humanitarian aid nor traditional development efforts foster sustainable change. These efforts often require externally-imposed implementation processes that can distort local systems and provoke resistance among local actors. Further, as tangible targets must be reached within a specific timeframe, these methods lack holistic consideration of the often deeply-rooted and intrinsically-related problems facing target communities. In some situations, the distinction between humanitarian assistance and development is blurred—aid fulfills a basic welfare function, providing services in cases where prospects for state-support or locally-generated development are non-existent. These cases make it difficult to determine the appropriate scale and duration of assistance needed, often resulting in the adoption of short-term outlooks.


Depth-Based Development


Depth-based development involves deep, long-term, and holistic commitment to a specific city or neighborhood. These efforts involve providing multiple services, from basic nutrition or healthcare to education or training to advocacy. All programs reflect an understanding of community-specific needs and seek to break community-specific cycles of poverty and oppression. Additionally, depth-based development seeks to foster trust within the community and provide opportunities for community members to be involved with priority-setting and solution-building. As a result, depth-based efforts are further characterized by continuous learning and evaluation. Organizations consistently create, eliminate, and otherwise change their efforts to increase effectiveness and tailor approach to a community’s specific and evolving needs.


Depth-based development seeks to break cyclical poverty and oppression on the individual, family, neighborhood, or societal level. This may manifest in different ways, including improving the well-being of children and families, enhancing education or healthcare, or spurring economic or civic development.

Main Advantages:

Depth-based efforts analyze community problems holistically, and attempt to create comprehensive approaches to local development. As issue areas such as safety, health, and education are intricately connected in a manner specific to local conditions, depth-based development can more effectively tackle deeply-rooted systemic issues. Further, by tailoring their approach to specific community conditions and involving community actors in a long-term and continuous process of learning, evaluation, and evolution, these efforts create more sustainable pathways to change. Most depth-based organizations can show improvements in the well-being of individuals who participated in programs, and some have produced physical, social or economic change in their target neighborhoods. A few (in locations with functioning governments) can also demonstrate accomplishments in policy and systems reform.

Image Courtesy of Ubuntu Pathways.

Image Courtesy of Ubuntu Pathways.

Main Disadvantages:

No precise model or definition exists for depth-based development. Each organization pursuing this strategy develops through long-term commitment and expert knowledge of their target community, and thus takes a different form and function to best address that community’s needs.

As a result, depth-based efforts are inherently unscalable. The individual, holistic nature of each program can also present conceptual and technical challenges for evaluation, as well as for gathering and using data to inform strategy and resource decisions in real time. It may be difficult to precisely define goals, or these goals may exist in constant flux. Further, attribution problems exist, making it difficult to draw causal connections between depth-based investments and specific outcomes. This provides a temptation to capture easily-measured indicators of progress that have little real significance on long-term outcomes (however, while setting specific goals and capturing outcome-based indicators to provide meaningful evaluation is difficult, it is not impossible). Finally, organizations have been unable to produce population-level impact (such as reduced poverty) in their target communities, and thus their non-traditional approach has met been met with skepticism by traditional development donors.


The Breadth-BASED and Depth-Based Approaches

Key Takeaways


Breadth-Base Approach

  • Large scale and Non-context specific

  • Often short or limited time frames

  • Outputs driven

  • Single-issue

  • Minimum input for maximum output

  • Goal: Immediate amelioration of specific issues

Depth-based approach

  • Context specific/non-formulaic

  • Longer time frames

  • Outcomes driven

  • Highly-personalized

  • Higher spending per person

  • Holistic approach

  • Goal: Long term impact/breaking cycles of poverty or oppression


Bridging the Divide

While breadth-based development can often be too data-driven and dehumanizing, mass aid is needed to provide disaster relief, and to tackle issues such as global access to vaccinations and other forms of proper healthcare. Alternatively, while depth-based development may be difficult to scale, and present challenges for evaluation, its focus on community-driven outcomes, rather than outputs, provides a more sustainable path to change. Thus, development efforts should adopt this model when possible—that is external organizations should not impose depth-based models, but rather provide support to individuals with intricate knowledge of specific community issues.

Further, as both breadth- and depth- based approaches have inherent advantages and disadvantages, most viable development strategies with possess aspects of both. Humanitarian need, poverty, and systemic oppression are often interrelated and coexistent. Ideological or institutional barriers should not prevent the most effective delivery of development assistance possible—Situation-specific economic, social and political factors will dictate appropriate strategic mixes to best address immediate needs of a population, as well as long-term development. In this way, a depth-based holistic and context-specific mindset should prevail, though it may occasionally manifest in breath-based strategies.