18 July 2012

Whither participation?

Esther Duflo's recent Tanner Lecture (download it here, really, go and read it now) offers a provocative attack on the dogma of community participation in NGO development projects. The lecture builds on ideas expressed here and here and drawing from the recent behavioural economics literature on limited attention. Sometimes a bit of paternalism is good for us. Good defaults are good. You don't need to worry about most services in England because everything just works.

I asked people in Masisi a few weeks ago whether they had been consulted enough by the big international NGO running the programme in their town. Some were happy, but some were a little nonplussed - "it's their [BINGO] programme - let them decide how to do it". One guy who had not been selected for assistance (through a very participatory community ranking exercise) suggested that if big international NGO wasn't going to pick him, then maybe they should be doing the work of selection and not asking him to spend half a day doing it (note this is in no way a criticism of BINGO, they exemplars of best practice. It is a tentative criticism of that best practice, which is widely supported). 
Many social programs insist on beneficiary participation in management, claiming that it is valuable and instrumental for program success. 
Perhaps, for rich parents who have the luxury of being able to spend time worrying about their children’s educations, participating in the Village Education Committee and being given a voice to obtain more resources for their schools is indeed empowering. Poor parents may care just as much about education, but may have no energy left to figure out exactly how to work the system or to figure out what they might be able to accomplish when they are given vaguely defined powers ... perhaps, finding ways to make schools actually work without the community having to worry about it at all would be even more empowering.
Back in England, I can't imagine anything worse than having to meet all of my neighbours after work to figure out how we are going to run the rubbish collection or fix the potholes in the road. That stuff just gets done. Services get delivered without me having to think about it at all. All I need is a mechanism to complain if things don't work, but don't ask me to help you plan how to fix it. 

There is a great quote from the earlier paper "Mandated Empowerment" (HT: @thrh)
Both examples raise concerns about committing ourselves entirely to antipoverty strategies that rely on the poor doing a lot of the work.
When you put it like that, it sounds pretty sensible. The implication of which is not I think "don't consult people," quite the opposite - provide an open platform for suggestions, comments, and complaints. Just consider how much work you are asking from your "beneficiaries."

Your thoughts?

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