The Second Principle of Community-Based International Development


“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]

Receive new posts in your in-box by subscribing today. Just click on the “Sign me up!” button to the right.

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.

About these ads

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Categories: Development Principals, Service Ethics

Subscribe

Subscribe to our RSS feed and social profiles to receive updates.

11 Comments on “The Second Principle of Community-Based International Development”

  1. August 6, 2010 at 2:44 pm #

    A friend of mine in Guatemala forwarded me the info for this blog and I’ve very much enjoyed reading the postings. This one is particularly relevant for anyone doing “development” work be it from a secular NGO approach or from a FBO approach. After the Alma Ata declaration of 1978 was made public there was a lot of hope that by the year 2000 we would see the majority of the worlds poor have adequate access to basic health related services. But in many cases just the opposite happened. I believe the major problem that no one knew how to address was how do those with the material resources that could help this vision become a reality, actually connect with the poor (materially speaking) so as to maximize the effort? This is a monumental challenge since those with the resources are used to saying how those resources are utilized. We have not given those we seek to help enough credit for being just a creative, and some cases more creative, as we are and much better equipped to make plans that will have the maximum impact. I see some movement starting to develop along these lines but its going to take a long time and a persistent effort to get things moving in the right direction. A good read on this subject is “White Man’s Burden” by Easterly and “Walking With the Poor” by Meyers.

    • August 6, 2010 at 3:14 pm #

      Mike,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I think sometimes donors confuse accountability with control and as a result fear decentralizing decision-rights over program design and empowering local communities with discretion over resource allocation. This leads to over-centralized planning processes that over-emphasize pre-implementation decision setting. Keep an eye out for a future blogs on “The Myth of the Plan” and “Facipulation” that will touch on this more.

      Both of the books you mentioned are good. I’ve had the chance to meet and talk with both authors. If you like Easterly, I would recommend following the blog Aid Watch which is principally written by him and checking out his older (2001) book: The Elusive Quest for Growth.

  2. August 13, 2010 at 7:59 am #

    These are all issues of course, that hinge on the issue of trust between partners. Without trust we will make very little if any “progress” in our efforts to help the non-rich. You may enjoy the blog, http://sailingfriends.wordpress.com/, which I think helps westerners understand how they need to re-think how they are involved in development efforts.

  3. August 23, 2010 at 10:50 pm #

    Here’s a great example of why process matters! (From a fellow blogger in Malawi)

    http://barefooteconomics.ca/2010/08/18/the-playpump-a-review-from-teachers/

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The First Principle of Community-Based International Development | Staying for Tea - August 22, 2010

    [...] new introduction. As I post each section, the following links will become active: [1: Stay for Tea] [2: Process Matters] [3: Focus on Values] [4: Check Your Filter] [5: Cultivate a Servant's Heart] [6: Conclusion] If you [...]

  2. The Third Principle of Community-Based International Development | Staying for Tea - August 23, 2010

    [...] 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: [...]

  3. The Fourth Principle of Community-Based International Development | Staying for Tea - September 2, 2010

    [...] 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: [...]

  4. How Matters /  Spotting Community Ownership - September 13, 2010

    [...] Whether on a site visit or reading through a stack of proposals, a person can be so concerned with what is happening on the ground that how can be overlooked or ignored. Yet the processes of decision-making within local relationships and power dynamics are often the make-or-break factor in development projects. (See a great post on this at Staying for Tea.) [...]

  5. The Fifth Principle of Community-Based International Development | Staying for Tea - July 4, 2011

    [...] 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: [...]

  6. Staying for Tea – Conclusion | Staying for Tea - July 11, 2011

    [...] 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 yourFilter] [5: Cultivate a Servant's Heart] [6: [...]

  7. Elina Hill - June 11, 2013

    […] Well Foundation has done lots of great work helping people build water facilities. The Foundation works closely with local groups, supporting them as they establish best practices for building, using and maintaining water […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,513 other followers

%d bloggers like this: