30 January 2011

The Limits of Community Driven Development

People in development love to talk about the importance of community involvement with and government buy-in to development plans. The idea is that international donors shouldn’t just wing into a country and demand a certain development agenda according to a cookie cutter formula. It’s largely a good sentiment, and a very necessary response to disastrous international plans like structural adjustment. At its best, community-driven development ensures that local priorities are realized, previously disenfranchised voices are heard and indigenous customs preserved. What happens though, when the community gets it wrong (or at least, doesn’t get it all right)?

Let me start with an example. A few years ago, Liberia adopted a Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS), which was a three year plan to guide government and donor priorities for development investments. It included things like professionalizing the military, rebuilding schools and constructing roads. The process of developing the PRS included extensive public consultations, with a road show into the counties to get input from rural populations and traditional leaders. The PRS is complemented at the local level by the County Development Agendas, which prioritize local projects within the national framework (which schools, which roads, etc.). The whole process has been widely lauded for its inclusiveness and focus on community needs.

While the process was good, the content leaves some relatively glaring omissions. Specifically, the national plan and every county in the country chose to ignore Liberia’s most vulnerable populations. In 16 total plans, there is no mention of social protection, welfare or safety nets for the vulnerable who can’t fend for themselves. This isn’t a small oversight: though the data are a few years old now, the last estimate was that Liberia has at least 50,000 households living in extreme poverty without a single adult available for work. With an average household size of just over 5 people, this translates into roughly 250,000 Liberians, or about 7% of the population.

Part of this is obviously a problem of voice, as extremely poor, work constrained households are unlikely to have the opportunity or means to participate in community dialogues, no matter how beneficial that participation might ultimately be. Assume though, that we can somehow solve the problem of voice. What happens when 7% of every community in the country shows up and asks for social safety nets and is turned down in favor of roads and power grids? Liberia and many similarly situated countries have to make difficult decisions about resource allocation all the time. Is it right to put those decisions to a majoritarian test?

This problem certainly isn’t unique to development contexts. They happen in government budget fights all across the world and even the best intentioned forms of participation can lead to distorted outcomes. I’m thinking now of a case study from Oregon that I read years ago in a policy class. The details are a bit foggy now, but I believe the gist of it was this: Oregon didn’t have enough money to fund all the Medicaid services it wanted to provide, so it established community fora to allow citizens to prioritize the services to be covered. Participants eventually settled on some sort of wellbeing-for-the-buck formula, and things like tooth capping (relatively cheap) ended up rated more highly than simple but more expensive life-saving treatments like appendectomies. The priorities were eventually tweaked, and the courts stepped in to assure that some basic minimum services were guaranteed.

This brings me back to Liberia and the question of who has the right to tweak development priorities. In the Oregon case, the federal government and courts were able to step in because most of the program funding was coming from Washington. For the foreseeable future, a huge chunk of Liberia’s development funding will come from outside sources, but the governments and multi-lateral organizations providing that funding are committed to nationally-directed development, and are none-too-keen to delve in to rewrite local priorities.

In a positive-rights-protective democracy, there should be two easy checks for this problem. First, positive rights to things like a safety net would be enshrined in an enforceable legal code, with viable means of redress for violations thereof. Second, in a representative (as opposed to direct) democracy, elected officials would enact policies with an eye toward the protection of minority rights, in this case, an economic minority. The delegated democratic authority vested in the legislature could provide justification for altering the plans while still claiming broad representativeness.

Liberia is painfully far from realizing either of these two solutions, which brings us back again to the democratic appropriateness of external meddling in development priorities. There isn’t a neat answer to this question, but my substantive-over-procedural democracy bias inclines me toward saying that outside intervention is both necessary and appropriate. Without assuring a minimal baseline for living standards, promises of substantive democratic participation are relatively meaningless. I’m thinking of it along the lines of a political version of Maslow’s hierarchy – without accounting for base needs, higher order values like democratic participation are unattainable.

All this leads me to the conclusion that, while increasing country ownership is an important improvement in development policy, there are some pretty serious limits to allowing communities too-free a hand in setting policy prerogatives. Donors should certainly seek coordination with governments, but should be prepared to fill the gaps that majoritarian policymaking will inevitably leave.*

* This also provides two other benefits which I’ll just mention briefly here, though perhaps write about in more detail later. Pragmatically, donors have the benefit of experience with successes and failures around the world, and throwing this experience out the door for the sake of country ownership is, at the very least, counterproductive. Ownership doesn’t have to mean reinventing the wheel in every developing country. Politically, a higher level of donor participation in decision-making addresses the other side of the democracy question – the extent to which citizens of donor nations deserve a voice in the allocation of their tax dollars. While the concept of democratic voice is stretched awfully thin by the time that it gets to USAID funding decisions in West Africa, it’s not entirely unreasonable to say that unrestricted grants for aid represent a diminution of what little voice citizens once had.


  1. Em- A very thoughtful assessment of a very complicated situation. As you say,there are no easy answers, but here's a really simplistic thought: X % off the top of the aid amt to baseline services, before anything else. Then X % (the lion's share) to recipient country's priority choice and X % saved for donor's discretion according to specific country issues. I know it's just a formula, but you've got to start somewhere...

  2. Interesting post, and one that could apply to all democratic decision-making. Years ago I debated in favor of the notion that citizens could be made to understand highly technological matters (in this case, nuclear power) and make the right choice.

    However, years later, I'm not so sure. As you're experiencing, sometimes poverty isn't high enough on the radar screen of people who participate in community affairs.

    The question to ask yourself is how much should the values of the country in question be maximized, compared to the values of other countries? One of the reasons that the U.S. is a great idea in the history of ideas is because of our emphasis on equality. Many other nations don't believe in the value of one citizen, one vote.

    So your question comes back to the basic one: how much can one nation impose its community development values on another? Or how much can one aid worker impose her values on others?

    Keep up the good thought process.