After writing about how many NGOs' focus on an effectively romanticised view of smallholder agriculture might actually be holding the sector back last week, I stumbled across two more articles that also look critically at the so popular grassroots development:
First, the Economist reported that no, it actually doesn't take a village: Providing aid funding to local decision makers sounds like a great idea in principle - you know, empower local communities, bringing the funds to the grassroots, letting The People decide what they want -, but evidence doesn't entirely bear this out.
Citing a report by the World Bank on 'Localising Development', the Economist writes that 'Entrenched elites, bribery and fraud are as much of a problem in village life as they are in big emerging-market bureaucracies.'
Poor Uganda, already in the news with a corruption issue or five at the moment, gets singled out again: 'The scale of theft and fraud is shocking. In one education project in Uganda, local politicians stole 87 per cent of the aid money.'
Providing cash to help local communities manage natural resources can also be tricky. The one area where the research is a little more optimistic are projects that boost local oversight of services.
These findings, the Economist writes, will come as 'a shock to many'. I, for one, am not so very shocked. This reminded me of a friend's rant about 'civil society' just a few days ago. Civil society is often held up as the forces of good against the big bad boys in government and business, but that's of course not true:
Civil society isn't automatically progressive and equitable and well intended, mostly because it's actually everyone. You and me and the rest of the lot. Chauvinistic tossers, the corrupt ones, the lovely engaged people, those old people with useful indigenous wisdom as much as those old people whose indigenous wisdom includes mutilating women's genitals.
That's civil society - and of course there's a whole industry of NGOs that has turned it into a business (if I ever get tired of my lovely ancient Merc and want a weighty new 4WD, I think I'll move into either religion or set up an NGO. Maybe both?).
I found this argument particularly interesting in the context of Kenya's impending devolution: What happens if you devolve power to the local level?
Does everyone automatically get a better say?
Or do you reinforce existing divisions - will those who are already powerful (and possibly corrupt?)
on the local level grab more power and resources?
If you have very few meritocratic, efficient institutions at the central government level, then how will that government be able to create those at county level?
Or if you devolve government to a level where two different tribes are at each others' neck with AK47s over water and land already?
Is the promise of a local government enough to get them to sit around the table together, or is it an additional incentive to make sure the others are chased away (minus their cattle)?
And more grassroots development over the Guardian. The newspapers has long supported the Katine Community Partnerships Project (KCPP), a development initiative in Soroti, Eastern Uganda, to help people return from the long years of being displaced by the LRA.
It is implemented by Amref, and funded by Barclays and Guardian readers. The Guardian just published an article by Richard Kavuma reviewing Katine's progress after five years.
Katine is all about empowerment and grassroots: the project helped construct boreholes, health and school facilities, and trained both staff and volunteers. The project itself had only been set up as a three-year project, but was extended for two years as a 'community structure strengthening project'.
There is cautious cause for optimism, Kavuma reports: after teething problems, including a manager fired for incompetence, the Katine Joint Farmers Co-operative (Kajofaco) was starting to make a bit of money. When Amref leave Katine, then bodies like the farmers co-operative and also, for example, a local water association are intended to take over the NGO's function.
And this may well be one of the difficulties as the community itself is now often reluctant to do so - possibly because the NGO no longer provides transport allowances and refreshments.
Kavuma also writes: 'In the words of Moses Eroju, the elected chairman of the sub-county council, people who are poor and barely literate may not appreciate something like "structure strengthening".
But they do appreciate a tangible borehole that gives them clean water or a classroom.' Most likely, yes - but without a mechanism for maintenance, those investments won't last very long.
Amref will now extend its support a bit further, but even then it is doubtful if the progress can be sustained: 'But certain truths will be hard to ignore: people in villages, like those in Katine, need to be mobilised for development with economic incentives taken care of.
For the past five years, that mobilisation has been led by Amref (...). As that phase comes to an end over the next year, either local authorities, which are chronically underfunded, or some other NGO initiative will be needed (...) Short of that, progress could be slow - and stagnation a possibility.'