How can participatory development be improved?

    Women sorting through beans for export in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Photo by: Pete Lewis / Department for International Development / CC BY-NC-SA

    By Ghazala Mansuri and Vijayendra Rao of the World Bank

    Community development projects, and interventions that attempt to improve the “demand side” of governance, are premised on the belief that public participation will necessarily solve failures in governments and markets. The problem in the design of these interventions, however, is that civic capacity is either assumed to be high rather than something to be nurtured or is developed in a manner that does not realistically deal with the challenge of encouraging participation.

    In our recent report, we conducted an extensive review of the effectiveness of local participatory development and found that elite capture in such interventions is widespread. There is no clear evidence of the sustainability of civic capacity.

    There is no question in our minds, however, that development, particularly at the local level, can be made much more effective by active public participation. Effective civic action can hold governments accountable and ensure that the decisions of government are in line with the needs of citizens. Thus, failures in government that plague most poor countries — wastage and leakage, unequal access, corruption, and poor coordination — can be potentially solved by effective public participation and civic action.

    The problem lies in the incorrect assumption that failures in government can be necessarily solved by public participation. Communities are not just faced with failures in governments and markets but also by civil society’s shortcomings — the same challenges of poor coordination, and inequalities in power, information and access that affect markets and governments. The challenge of development lies in solving the unhealthy nexus of failures in markets, government and civil society. This does not allow for easy solutions.

    When the pervasive nature of civic failures at the community level are not recognized in project design, throwing money at hastily constructed community organizations or forcing people to participate in community meetings does not result in greater empowerment or democratic governance but in wastage, elite capture and unsustainable outcomes. The problem with the design of many (but not all) participatory development projects is that they do not recognize the fundamental difference between participation that is brought about by large-scale bureaucratically driven projects, and one that is organic — the result of spontaneous action by intrinsically motivated actors.

    Projects attempt to mimic the success of organic initiatives by borrowing some elements of their designs but without the spirit of honest assessment, knowledge gained from failure, and innovation and experimentation that characterize the best organically driven initiatives.

    How can participatory projects be improved? The first change that needs to happen is to recognize that building civic capacity is not the same as building bridges or schools. Most participatory projects have unrealistic structures — three to five-year timelines, objectives that are vague and unrealistic but expressed as concrete and measurable (e.g. reducing poverty by 20 percent, building “social capital”) — and the inability to make midcourse corrections.

    Such structures may work when building a bridge — an act of engineering that can have a specific timeline with measurable, concrete objectives.

    Developing human social norms, however, is complex and has very uncertain trajectories that require a fundamentally different approach.

    First, designing participatory projects requires context — the complex combination of culture, social structures, politics and economic systems that make countries, regions and villages different from one and another. It makes little sense to assume that if a project worked wonderfully in one country, it is going to work just as well in another — an assumption that is implicit in many donor-funded interventions.

    Second, attention to context requires learning by doing. It is very difficult to accurately design a project because differences in context and civic capacity can only be understood through working within communities and learning from experience. Shifts in design and approach should, however, be informed not by ideology, hope and “gut feeling” but by honest feedback and good data — both qualitative and quantitative. This requires a keen focus on monitoring systems, process evaluations and impact evaluations — terms that are most often employed to keep donors happy rather than as serious tools for project implementation.

    Third, donor agencies and governments need to be open to the possibility of failure and learn from failure. Project implementers have every incentive to hide bad news and protect their reputations. But honesty is essential if we are to know what works and what does not.

    Fourth, developing civic capacity should be recognized as what it is: a difficult long-term process that cannot happen within limited timelines. Thus, participatory projects need to have longer time frames and the flexibility for change and adaptation.

    Finally, participation requires a sandwich approach: bottom-up initiatives must be actively supported and promoted by top-down efforts. If the state is not totally committed to civic participation — which, after all, often works against the interests state agents — the state will constantly undermine civic efforts.

    Our report, therefore, attempts to shed some light on the science of implementation in participatory projects and move away from the ideological extremes that tend to drive debate around the subject. We developed a conceptual framework for participatory development based on the key notions of “induced participation” and “civil society failure,” and conducted the most comprehensive review of evidence to date on such interventions. We drew from the conceptual framework and evidence to provide a set of guidelines that we believe will help improve the effectiveness of participatory interventions.

    We hope that the report contributes toward a constructive dialogue on how participatory development can achieve its full potential as a tool for empowerment and poverty reduction.

    Ghazala Mansuri and Vijayendra Rao both work with the World Bank’s Development Research Group, Mansuri as lead economist and Rao as lead economist for poverty reduction and equity.

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