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«1 Rushing to Help the Poor Through Participation May Be Self-Defeating by Jean-Philippe Platteau Centre for Research on the Economics of Development ...»

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Rushing to Help the Poor Through Participation May Be



Jean-Philippe Platteau

Centre for Research on the Economics of Development (CRED)

Faculty of Economics

Rempart de la Vierge, 8

B-5000 Namur


July 2002

1. General considerations

A key problem today arises from the fact that most donor agencies, including

governments from developed countries, are rushing to adopt with a lot of

enthusiasm the so-called participatory approach to development. In order to persuade their constituencies or supporters that the new strategy works well, they need rapid and visible results. Moreover, they have sizeable financial resources at their command that they want to disburse within a short time period.

The temptation is great to spread them widely so as to reach as large a number of village communities as possible. Such a rush is problematic in so far as communities need to evolve and be institutionally strengthened if they are to achieve the objectives of the participatory approach: economic growth, democratic governance, sustainability, equity and protection of the poor. The risk is then high that the decentralization approach will be subverted and deflected from its intended purpose.

Confronted with such a hard dilemma, donor agencies have the tendency to maintain their ‘diluted’ approach, which implies that they downplay the task, and minimize the cost, of institutional support to target communities. It is revealing, for example, that lack of capacity-building, especially the building of organizational skills at community level, and lack of ‘ownership’ of the projects by the beneficiary groups, are among the main limitations of the World Bank’s social funds program. As a consequence, the program remains too much driven by a supply-led approach rather than being responsive to the needs of rural people as a participatory approach should be (Narayan and Ebbe, 1997).

Underlying this situation lies the aforementioned dilemma. As pointed out by Tendler, indeed, enhancing ‘demand orientation’ and community participation in social funds’ programs would require a significant increase of the social funds’ agency presence in the countryside in terms of time, personnel, resources and effort. Such a change would nevertheless compromise some of the social funds’ “most acclaimed strengths −their ‘leanness’ and low administrative costs” (Tendler, 2000: 16-17). Moreover, a heavy presence in the countryside of the separate agency that administers social funds is unlikely to be the right solution to the problem of ‘ownership’ of projects and community participation.

In addition, when strong local communities or organizations do not exist or when the required leadership is not available, there is a big temptation to ask communities or specific groups within them to ‘elect’ leaders. For a reason well explained by Esman and Uphoff (1984), however, such a solution is bound to

produce perverse results and to be self-defeating :

“The most prominent members are invariably selected and then given training and control over resources for the community, without any detailed and extended communication with the other members about objectives, rights, or duties. Creating the groups through these leaders, in effect, establishes a power relationship that is open to abuse. The agency has little or no communication with the community except through these leaders. The more training and resources they are given, the more distance is created between leaders and members. The shortcut of trying to mobilize rural people from outside through leaders, rather than taking the time to gain direct understanding and support from members, is likely to be unproductive or even counterproductive, entrenching a privileged minority and discrediting the idea of group action for self- improvement” (Esman and Uphoff, 1984 : 249).

If acting through local leaders enables outside agencies to channel considerable amounts of resources towards rural communities in a short span of time, it increases the probability of misuse of these resources by local elites which stand reinforced in the process. In lineage-based societies, local chiefs and elders from dominant lineages are ideally positioned to thus ‘capture’ the benefits of decentralized development programs or projects. Instead of ‘father figures’ clinging to their traditional duties of guaranteeing people’s livelihoods, redistributing wealth and settling conflicts in such a way as to maintain the existing social order, the erstwhile elite become greedy individuals who show all the less restraint in enriching themselves at the expense of their community as they are actually legitimated by outside actors 1. By virtue of their dominant position, they can thus manipulate participatory methods by subtly representing their own interests as community concerns expressed in the light of project deliverables (Mosse, 2001). In Senegal (in the Petite Côte and Casamance, in particular), for example, municipal bodies or rural councils used the new prerogratives accorded them under the decentralization scheme to get involved in dubious dealings such as sales of rural lands to touristic and other business interests without consulting the communities concerned as they should have done.

The traditional elite are not the only category of persons to benefit from the newly channeled resources since they are frequently involved in tactical alliances with educated persons and politicians operating outside the village domain. Thus, in SubSaharan Africa, it is a frequent practice for chiefs to coopt new elites in their village ‘associations’, for example by creating neo-traditional titles that are then sold to the new rich eager to acquire a political base in the countryside (Geschiere, 1994: 110; Bayart, 1989).

In the other way around, the urban, rather than the rural elite may be responsible for initiating the process that deflects the participatory development program from its intended purpose. Witness to it is the rapid multiplication of national NGOs that are created at the initiative of educated unemployed individuals, politicians, or state employees who may have been laid off as a result of structural adjustment measures. These people, acting as ‘development brokers’, have been quick to understand that the creation of an NGO has become one of the best means of procuring funds from the international community In some areas, they have been accustomed to just doing that since colonial or pre-colonial (slavery) times (see Bayart, 1989).

(Bierschenk, de Sardan, and Chauveau, 2000). It is thus ironical that budget cuts in the public sector at the behest of international multilateral organizations may be made good for through the capture of resources intended for the grassroots, possibly by the same organizations 2. As pointed out in the context of non-African countries, NGOs often constitute “an opportunistic response of downsized bureaucrats, with no real participation or local empowerment” and, inevitably, program officers themselves become involved in the creation of community institutions (Conning and Kevane, 1999: 20; see also Meyer, 1995;

Bebbington, 1997).

That the above difficulties ought not to be underestimated is evident from the story below. In the late nineties, a Western European development NGO (whose identity is not disclosed for the sake of discretion) established a relationship with a village association in a Sahelian country. This association, which is a federation of several peasant unions, had been initiated by a young and dynamic school teacher, the son of a local chief. The NGO decided to follow a gradual participatory approach consisting of strengthening the association institutionally before channeling financial resources to it. This decision was the outcome of a carefully worked out diagnosis. It brought to light important weaknesses of the partner association that had to be corrected before genuine collaboration could take place: proclivity to view aid agencies as purveyors of money which can be tapped simultaneously, lack of analysis of local problems and of strategic vision for future action, loose and undemocratic character of the association (ill-defined objectives, ill-defined roles and responsibilities of the office bearers, absence of internal rules and reporting procedures, etc.).

After two years during which institutional support was provided in the form of guidance to improve the internal functioning of the partner association and to help define development priorities and the best means to achieve them, funds were made available for different types of investment. Within the limits of the budget set for each priority line of investment, the association could choose the project deemed most useful. A special committee was established to prepare rules regarding the use of the budget and enforce the abidance of such rules by different projects. In this way, the group could hopefully appropriate the process of decision-making, preparation of project proposals and programming of the activities involved (all aspects traditionally undertaken by the foreign donor agencies). Continued support at different levels (technical, administrative, organizational, and methodological) was found necessary to help in the effective implementation of the projects.

In spite of all these efforts to strengthen the partner association institutionally, things turned out badly. Thanks to the collaboration of two Whereas, before, state assets were often put to private use by state officials, the same officials can now manipulate local NGOs or other types of associations to get access to cars, computers, telephones, foreign travels, and various perks.

active members of the General Assembly (actually two animators) and the local accountant, the foreign NGO discovered serious financial and other malpractices that were committed by the main leader of the African association: falsifying of accounts and invoice over-reporting, under-performance by contractors using low-quality materials, etc. It reacted by calling on the local committee to sanction these manifest violations of the rules, yet at its great surprise no punishment was meted out and the general assembly even re-elected their leader in open defiance of its request. The two dissident animators were blamed for being driven by jealousy and envy, while the accountant was fired. Here is a clear illustration of the support that poor people are inclined to give to an elite member on the ground that they have benefited from his leadership efforts. That he appropriated to himself a disproportionate share of the benefits of the aid program is considered legitimate by most of them. They indeed think that without his efforts their own situation would not have improved at all. In particular, he created the village association which had to be formed in order to be eligible for external assistance.

In a context where the ability to deal with external sources of funding is concentrated in a small elite group, the bargaining strength of common people is inevitably limited, hence their ready acceptance of highly asymmetric patterns of distribution of programs’ benefits. If the intervention of the elite results in an improvement of the predicament of the poor, however small is the improvement, the latter tend to be thankful to their leader(s): the new outcome represents a Pareto improvement over the previous situation and this is what matters after all.

In the above example, it is thus revealing that the ordinary members of the association defended their leader on the ground that “everybody around him benefited from the project and, if he benefited [much] more than the others, it is understandable because he is the leader”. They think it is highly unfair on the part of the foreign NGO to have withdrawn their support to the existing team and to have “humiliated their leader” by depriving him of all the logistical means (jeep, scooters, etc) previously put at his disposal.

As for the leader himself, he openly admitted (during a conciliatory meeting organized by the high commissioner of the province) to have used a significant portion of the money entrusted to him for his own personal benefit.

Yet, he did not express any regret since it was his perceived right to appropriate a large share of the funds. Did he not devote considerable energies to the setting up of the local organization and the mobilization of the local resources as required by the foreign NGO? By attempting to curb his power to allocate funds in the way he deemed fit, the latter exercised an intolerable measure of neocolonialist pressure. This criticism was voiced in spite of the fact that the NGO paid him a comfortable salary to reward his organizing efforts.

2. A mechanism to discipline local leaders

Let us consider the following three-agent decision framework. At the top is an altruistically motivated donor agency (labelled A below) which wants to disburse a given amount of funds. At the bottom are the grassroots (labelled G) who are the intended beneficiaries of this aid effort. And between the two is a local leader (labelled L) who tries to organize the grassroots into a group or association for the sake of securing the funds on offer. As a matter of fact, the participatory character of the program makes it mandatory that beneficiaries are organized into a collective to be eligible for funds. In other words, the donor agency will not disburse funds unless it has received evidence that a cohesive group of intended beneficiaries exists through which these funds can be channelled. Yet, at the same time, it is ill-informed about what is happening at the level of the grassroots and this information gap is exploited by the local leader for his own benefit. More precisely, the latter can lie to the donor agency about the manner in which the funds are being disposed of, pretending that they have safely reached the grassroots while they have been largely misappropriated.

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