9 April 2013

Africa: Is the Bank's Attitude Towards Participatory Development Changing?

The recently launched World Bank Policy Research Report titled 'Localizing Development: Does Participation Work?' by Ghazala Mansuri and Vijayendra Rao (who also gave a Sussex Development Lecture on the same topic a few weeks back) is both unusual and groundbreaking.

Looking at quantitative evaluations of various participatory development projects (both within and outside the Bank) that are touted to help reduce poverty and inequalities, improve service delivery and build capacity for collective community action, Mansuri and Rao not only push the World Bank to accept what is not working in their approach and admit mistakes, but also bring to the fore key challenges and possible solutions.

In their report, Mansuri and Rao distinguish between "induced" and "organic" participation, where one is driven by external agents (by pumping in money/resources), while the other occurs 'naturally' (arising out of the needs and initiative of the community).

Recognition of this difference is important, given that the World Bank alone has invested over $85 billion on development assistance for participation.

For such induced participation to be effective and sustainable, the World Bank and other external agents need to change their approach to development- to one that is long-term, context sensitive, accepts failure and learns from mistakes. The reasons behind this are:

1. Participatory projects often fail to be truly inclusive.

The wealthier, more educated, higher social status, politically connected, and generally male, tend to benefit. This is where local and national 'context' (geography, political system, local power dynamics, etc.) plays an important role in determining outcomes of development projects, as these factors determine who decides, how and for whom.

Projects funded by the World Bank also often adopt strikingly similar project designs across regions and projects. This undermines the very fact that the needs and requirements of every community are different, and for projects to work and reach intended beneficiaries, one needs to tailor-make them to fit the context.

2. Participatory projects are often unsustainable.

During the course of the project, cash or other material incentives may induce people to participate and build networks, but when these are withdrawn the whole system collapses. This calls for a need for capacity building, where communities are equipped with the skills and resources to sustain systems beyond the life of the project.

The World Bank and other donor agencies are also known for focusing on short-term, more tangible goals that can be measured and funded as per schedule, rather than long-term, more qualitative goals of changing socio-political systems and attitudes, that may or may not be possible to measure.

3. Participatory projects are often unaccountable to the beneficiaries.

There are no clear mechanisms for downward accountability. Incentives are directed at improving upward accountability, rather than increasing discretionary powers at the lower levels.

Planning and reporting requirements are also so complex that they're beyond the capacity of local field staff often leading to too much time spent doing unnecessary paperwork and delays in decision-making.

Project facilitators are also often told what the community think they want to hear, and aren't always given the exact picture, which makes it hard to assess the impact of the project. This usually happens when project staff fear failure or negative feedback, without realizing that it is only the knowledge of their shortcomings that can lead to improvement.

4. Participatory projects seldom recognise monitoring and evaluation systems as vital to the project, with poor incentives for honest, comprehensive and regular monitoring and evaluation.

New, cost-effective and innovative mechanisms are needed in this regard, with adequate importance and priority given by senior management, such that projects can constantly be monitored and improved upon.

5. Most importantly, participatory projects don't have a predictable trajectory and it is often difficult and unrealistic to expect clear, measurable outcomes within a given timeframe. While planning is important, it should allow enough scope for experimentation and 'learning by doing'.

In order to have a lasting impact, participatory projects need to be flexible enough to adapt to local contexts and reflect 'real' needs of community rather than 'perceived' needs.

Mansuri and Rao also point out that for innovation and evidence-based policy decisions to take place, one needs to create an environment where failure is acknowledged, accepted, and instrumental in leading the way for developing innovative solutions to development problems.

While the message itself is not new, it is heartening to see this recognition and acknowledgement coming from within the World Bank. The real test is whether these lessons will be reflected in changes in incentives, programming and monitoring. Will the rest of the Bank adopt this latest thinking and lead by example?

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