“The world is littered with community development projects gone wrong. More often than not the source of failure was an overemphasis on output and underemphasis on process.”
This is the second post of a 6-part series republishing the original Staying for Tea (Five Principles for Community Development) article from The Global Citizen journal (2005). You can link to the other posts in this series here: [1: Stay for Tea] [2: Process Matters] [3: Focus on Values] [4: Check your Filter] [5: Cultivate a Servant’s Heart] [6: Conclusion]
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Principle #2: Process Matters
The world is littered with community development projects gone wrong. More often than not the source of failure was an overemphasis on output and underemphasis on process. Take, for example, the ubiquitous latrine project. When project success is measured by output, most latrine projects are successful. After all, most such projects do, indeed, get latrines built. But if you go back in a few years and look for the outcomes that these latrines were supposed to generate – fewer diseases, cleaner water, etc. – there seem to be far more failures. In fact, most latrines that I’ve seen in the developing world aren’t even used, at least not as latrines!
Part of the problem is that planners don’t map out logic models that take people and their incentives into account. Logic models are maps of interventions. They are intended to show a complete, coherent causal chain from inputs through activities to outputs, and then to short-, medium- and long-term outcomes. But often there are unexamined, yet critical, assumptions made about how people are going to behave – assumptions that create weak or broken links in the chain. For example, just because you estimate that 300 families need latrines doesn’t mean that 300 families will use them in the ways you intend them to if you build them. You have to ask, “What would motivate this behavior?”
It’s important to understand that simply getting buy-in for the project often isn’t enough. There are many reasons other then your outcome intentions that could result in superficial buy-in leading to successful outputs with failed outcomes. The community may have supported the project because having you operate one in their community brings it or its leaders status; perhaps they liked the social component of working together on something – on anything, perhaps they really wanted a place to store potato seeds, but you weren’t offering to build silos, and as soon as you blow out of town they’ll convert the latrine into a storage shed. When logic models forget to examine the behavioral assumptions in the links between intervention and outcome, it amounts to forgetting that people are at the center of the development process.
But how can we as outsiders know what a community is thinking? Well, we can’t, which is why many people have begun to rethink the whole process of planning and implementing projects. Increasingly, practitioners are focusing on empowering communities to manage their own development processes, from identifying their own objectives to creating their own plan to managing the activities that realize the plan. The community, after all, is far better positioned to assess its own needs, strengths, resources, intentions, and incentives than any outsider. Too often, projects have been an outsider’s solution to problems only the outsider can see. A problem may be real, but unless the community both prioritizes the problem and has ownership and a stake in its solution, the members’ incentives will not be aligned with your logic model. Latrines are a classic example. An outsider can come into a community, test the water, assess the need, build the solution, and move on without ever acknowledging the community of people living there. An outsider can totally miss the fact that the community has a unique set of cultural lenses, economic incentives, and social structures that may run orthogonal to one’s neat logic model.
There are also other benefits to community members having a stake in naming and solving their problems. When a community walks through this process of identifying objectives, creating a plan and managing the activities, its members are building capacity that can be applied to other development issues as well. Communities face multiple development issues that no single project can address. But a community that knows how to self-organize, prioritize objectives, think critically, calculate costs, mobilize resources, leverage assets, manage conflict, and self-evaluate is going to be far better equipped for the development challenge than a community that simply agrees to allow outsiders to haphazardly bring projects to town.
As a volunteer [or employee], you will generally be bounded by the institutional culture and norms of the church or organization that sent you. Radically altering the way they work simply is not possible unless you are in a position of authority. Nevertheless, try where you can to move away from a project-centered approach to community development. Don’t volunteer for work where you are set up to “educate” the community about its problems, work in which you generate plans and then get “buy-in” from the community, in which your performance is measured by deliverables and timetables, in which the priority is the development product (latrines, health center, church building) rather than the people, in which you bring in the capacity rather than help build it. If you are already inside such an organization, do what you can to help colleagues realize that development is an ongoing, endogenous process. It doesn’t simply lurch along dependent on outsiders arriving with solutions and resources. In fact, this kind of “help” is likely to stunt development because it tends to create dependency, conflict and feelings of helplessness.