Thursday, June 3, 2010

What is community based development? Part I: Thoughts

At dinner with friends in Kisumu a few weeks ago, the conversation turned, as it often does, to development. Friend A, currently doing a Masters at University of Nairobi was rolling his eyes about the idea of community based development. Since I couldn’t really see a problem with the idea, I asked what he meant by community based development. Friend B answered that community based development is when an NGO comes in with an idea and then makes the community contribute to the project for free so that they are committed to its success. No, no, no, Friend A said, that’s not what community based development is. He continued, Ok, maybe that is what it is, but that’s not supposed to be what it is. It’s supposed to be when the development community supports things that are going on in the local community.

Well, that sounds great. So why the eye roll? Well, because the reality is closer to what Friend B’s definition than the textbook definition. Why is it so hard to make sure that the priorities of the development community are in line with the priorities of the beneficiaries of the program?

Ok, so in this blog I’m going to think about this abstractly, then in part two I’ll think about it using examples of community based development that I’ve seen in action to illustrate this further—I hope to look at community development gone wrong, and community development gone right (that’s us!).

There’re two ways to look at this abstractly—one is to think about development theory and one about the practical realities of operating an NGO.

Theory: Development had long been understood as economic development, even more specifically as the transition into an industrial economy. The idea that development should be based on something else—maybe on improving people’s lives, maybe on expanding people’s rights or choices—has gained credence in the past few decades, and most NGOs are dedicated to these types of outcomes rather than industrial development.

However, in any of these approaches, development is fundamentally about changing people’s traditional relationships and networks—either their relationship to labor, as in economic development, or to each other and their political system, in a rights- based approach. If this is the case, if development is about promoting widespread transition into a modern economy, political system, or even social relations, then it would seem a community-based development system is actually antithetical to the goal.

Of course, in most communities there will be community leaders who are actively engaged in promoting these same goals. Is community-based development, then, finding those individuals with whom you share ideals to work with? That’s largely how we started in Busia. Neither Ariel nor I were looking for a development project to support, but Maria inspired us, and we love libraries, so we decided to help and it grew from there. But let’s be honest: Had Maria been passionate about, I don’t know, promoting respect of ancestors (providing for ancestors came up a lot in the 1990s Voices of the Poor report, in which the World Bank tried to ascertain the priorities of those they had been trying to help), I doubt we would have been involved.

In one line, the point is this: When international actors are involved, real community based development occurs when there is a convergence of interests between the development practitioner and the local partners.

Practically (but still abstractly!):
Who are the main actors in these international projects? Well, ok, this is extremely simplified, but for most NGOs, it looks something like this:

Funders—International NGO team—Beneficiaries

In community-based development, the international NGO should sort of be considered an intermediary between the beneficiaries and the funders. Not only should the NGO interests and the beneficiaries’ interest align, they have to align with the funders, who are most likely private foundations or wealthy individuals in the Western countries. But how is that practically possible? In Busia, Maria’s Libraries has the advantage that I lived there for over a year before starting this project. If we want to move outside Busia, how can we recreate that?

I’ll revisit that tomorrow, but for now, let’s assume that the International NGO can’t be merely an intermediary between the beneficiaries and the funders—they have to be more proactive than that. They have to introduce themselves into a community and find the community members that they are interested in their idea—be it an income-generating activity, a cultural activity, a health intervention, or something like a library.

They further have to convince the international donors that the project is something they should be interested in. If the NGO is lucky, they’ll have a donor that is open to persuasion. More likely than not, though, they will have to convince the donor that the project is in line with the goals of the funder—for example, the goals have to be something that the Rockefeller family is already interested in, or priorities that Carnegie, long dead, had when he was alive. Not only do they have to convince the donor that it’s within their goals, but with the emphasis on community based development, the NGO has to convince the donor that the beneficiaries are committed to the idea. Thus, in essence, the NGO has to convince the donor that the community’s interests are in line with the donor interests. But, practically speaking, they have to do this in a context where they don’t necessarily know the community that well. If you wish to work in a lot of areas, or at a national level like Maria’s Libraries, you simply can’t know each area that well.

So, with this practical consideration, what is community based development? In a line, it is this: Community based development is getting beneficiaries to be committed to the project, in visible or measurable ways. This is fundamentally different from basing development on ideas that are generated from the community. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but how that measureable commitment is garnered needs to be designed well. More on that tomorrow.

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