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?


Ian Thorpe said...

I think part of the problem here might be whether the participatory aspects of the programmes are really designed to be instrumental to the success of the project, or whether they are done by aid agencies wanting to demonstrate that they are following "best practice" without regard to whether it really helps.

Some of the current focus on participation is no doubt an (over)reaction to past aid and government programmes that didn't ask for people's inputs yet clearly didn't meet their needs in ways that would have been obvious if they had taken the trouble to speak to their intended beneficiaries.

At the same time, I can see from my own experience living in the US suburbs with a strong tradition of public participation e.g. in the education system that the effect of such parental involvement is generally very positive (while not being problem-free) in terms of the relevance and quality of what is being provided. It's also clear that some citizens are much moire involved than others, and that those who are involved more either through greater motivation or having more time are those who are often better off, and that they also potentially benefit more that those who participate less, but at the same time the benefits of citizen involvement accrue to all, and all have at least some opportunity to contribute.

For me I don't have any doubt about the value of participation, but I do think we always need to look at whether the methods we use are effective in terms of the result and whether or not they impose too onerous or unequal a burden on beneficiaries.

Steve said...

Good post. I read the first part of Duflo's speech, which made me think. A lot. Ouch. Overall, I'd have to respond to you by saying I think I do not support inching up paternalism for the poor.

There's a high potential cost to getting it wrong, or going too far. So, I agree with your potholes example, but what about size of streets, then how to lay out a grid, then how mass transit should be applied, and so on and so on until you start getting outcomes, poor ones, that were not expected and no one understands how it got to that point. So a "diminishing capacity to get back on track driven by path dependency" (???). When does a matter pass from good default to active choice? I argue the more good defaults you accept, the harder it becomes to know the difference. And that's why in North America you have whiny teenagers who, when the lights go out, yell "Dad, turn the internet back on!" (and they don't even say please!)... you could even extend it to credit regulations...

Long and short of it is, much of this is completely context dependent in my eyes. The poor are constantly lied to, and have every right to be skeptical. And whether you are rich or poor, if you want something in this world you are going to have to work for it.

J. said...

yep. "Good process" doesn't have to necessarily mean "every pregnant and/or lactating woman in the district has to attend every meeting." Both your post and the linked lecture say better what I tried to rant at here ("resistance is futile..."): http://talesfromethehood.com/2009/09/22/im-in-the-midst-of-a-trauma-leave-a-message-ill-call-you-back/

Kim Siegal said...

Not sure. Seems like it depends on what aspects of the program are getting local input, like you mention in your last paragraph. But it I would be careful about making assumptions about how much attention span or energy people have to contribute simply because they are poor and thus taxed mentally, physically and emotionally. Aren't we often surprised by what people can become passionate about - especially if there is a perceived unfairness?

And I read the "it's their program let them decide how to do it" as a fair statement but still seems somewhat like a failure. If it was the gov't's program fine, because there are some (theoretical) accountability mechanisms (assuming a democracy). If it's a private sector program there's also some accountability in that if the local people are buying, they are no longer viable. But if it's a big NGO and the local population is disinterested, than the prospects for long term success might be diminished.

Not every person need care about every detail, and, it's true, local people don't always have the time, effort and expertise to provide meaningful input. However, I think if the pendulum swings the other way in development circles and we have more justification for ignoring the voice of local people, it's a huge risk. I think I'd prefer to err the other direction.

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