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Are International Aid and Community Participation Inevitably at Odds? by Silvio Waisbord

Before a certain former community organizer was swept by a landslide vote into the presidency of the United States, community participation had already captured the imagination of international development. Documents of aid agencies are chock-full of hosannas to community actions. Heads of state and philanthropic organizations frequently praise communities and participation. Shimmering images of participation, elderly men having animated conversations and purple-fingered youth with beautiful smiles decorate the hallways of international agencies and NGOs. Publicity materials, report covers, and Web sites graphics are endless streams of feel-good snapshots of “communities in action.”

From humanitarian actions to bankrolling “development” projects, a wide range of aid actions are often justified on the grounds of people, communication, rights, and democracy. All these amount to the notion that communities—rather than isolated individuals—and participation—rather than passivity—should be the cornerstone of social change, the guiding star of global efforts towards social justice.

If community participation is, arguably, the glorified ideal of international aid, why do international programmes often relegate it to a minor role? Why are communities rarely involved in making decisions? Why is participation so good for waxing poetic and not for bringing it to the centre of aid programmes? Why is the aid mindset fixated on finding the next “magic bullet” to address social problems if we know that mobilised, committed citizens are essential for sustainable change?

Participatory ideals posit that communities should be the main protagonists of social change processes rather than “passive beneficiaries” of decisions made by foreign experts. These ideals place deliberation and participation in public affairs at the centre of any process of social change. They view “development” as a transformative process at both individual and social levels through which communities become empowered. They promote local forms of knowledge and action as the springboard for social change. They are rarely questioned, at least openly, in international aid.

While some observers have argued that participation is the “new tyranny,” others have argued that aid programmes incorporate a depoliticised view of participation, a watered-down version devoid of its components of power distribution and collective action.

Neither conclusion accurately captures the reality of community participation in international aid programmes. Although aid plans are packed with references to participation and other democratic goals that make communitarians proud, seldom are there real institutional expectations and pressures to make them effective. Nor are Machiavellian minds at work, manipulating participation to perpetuate “business as usual.” Sure, calls to participation often sound hollow, and smack of self-serving, window-dressing rhetoric, but such conclusions confer too much coherence and planning to a system influenced by multiple interests and contradictory ideas. It’s misleading to view community participation as a ploy to evoke sympathy or justify goals.

We need a sober assessment to understand the institutional obstacles for making community participation the cornerstone of aid programmes.

I suggest that organizational procedures, imperatives, and cultures explain the disconnection between the high presence of participation in institutional speech and the low priority in actual programmes. Three reasons account for the gap between discourse and practice. First, participation hardly fits bureaucratic procedures that prevail in the aid system. Second, participation runs contrary to the technical, experts-dominated mindset of aid agencies. Third, participation is essentially about politics, which puts aid programmes in an uncomfortable position.

The contradictions of bureaucratic rationality and participation

The aid system is organised in large bureaucracies at global, regional and national levels. Decisions about programmes, funding, actors, and other components are typically the product of complex and long negotiations involving governments, bilateral and multilateral donors, U.N. agencies, and implementing organisations. Agencies and donors wield unmatched power in defining goals, budgets, management and the overall direction of programmes. A combination of political and technical considerations determines such bureaucratic decisions as priority programmes, courses of action, goals and the like.

Bureaucratic rationality runs contrary to citizens’ participation. Prevalent incentives in the aid system have little to do with ensuring community participation in various phases of any given programme. Instead, other accomplishments are rewarded. For example, pressures to “move money” within certain timetable, raise the profile of specific units/programmes/organizations, and meet annual goals trump other considerations, including whether programmes are sufficiently rooted in the expectations and needs of communities. Bureaucratic efficiency defines expectations about “success” that are separate from participation.

Furthermore, because participation contains the possibility of unexpected occurrences, it potentially can derail bureaucratic procedures. Dialogue and negotiations may result in demands that do not match the intentions and mandates of international agencies. Participation contemplates the possibility that communities may question problem assessments produced by international agencies or governments, and/or dispute control over programmatic goals. The inherent messiness and uncertainty of participative processes clash with the bureaucratic logic of rationality and predictability that governs development agencies. Participation may interfere with the normal functioning of time-bound procedures, such as contracts, programme design, scheduling, implementation and funding.

Community participation and institutional dynamics travel separate paths. Short-term attention to institutional and individual priorities runs counter to the long duration of social change. Annual earmarks undermine long-term planning and processes. Professional incentives often determine changes in programme orientation, approaches, “targeted” communities and the selection of partnering agencies. Officers aiming to put their personal stamp on programmes during their tenure may decide to shift previous commitments on the basis that they were projects that “belonged” to their predecessors, or that specific ideas and organizations had already received sufficient support over the years.

Technical experts and lay knowledge

The predominance of institutional mindset that views “development” problems as defined by technical experts pushes participation off to the sidelines of legitimate knowledge. Aid programmes are housed in organisations whose mandate is typically to provide technical and financial assistance through various programmes. Aid agencies are staffed and headed by health, economic and agricultural experts for whom challenges require technical diagnoses and solutions rooted in their particular fields. Questions asked and solutions offered are rooted in technical expertise and specific models within their sciences. The prevalence of a biomedical model in global health programme, for example, means that medical interventions are seen as obvious solutions to tackle health challenges. The tendency to search for medical “magic bullets,” such as vaccines, drugs and procedures, reflects the domination of a technical approaches and scientific training. Even when institutions are sensitive to political and socio-economic factors explaining health problems, the default is interventions based on scientific models.

Community participation falls outside conventional technical expertise and the professional “comfort zone” of aid institutions. It is neither what defines the missions of aid agencies nor the training of programme managers. Technical objectives, rather than “participation”, define institutional mandates. Furthermore, participation is not only foreign, but it also doesn’t meet expectations of rigorous knowledge. With its defence of lay knowledge and championing of the ideas of non-experts, participation fits uneasily in institutions dominated by disciplines that embody the scientific paradigm. Participation is construed as the “nonscience,” the antithesis of the kind of technical expertise legitimised and rewarded.

At best, participation is seen as an accessory to achieve goals. Economists may expect that community participation helps ensure local buy-in and contribute to ensuring a smooth process of approval of loans and other financial mechanisms. Health officers may expect “participation” to bolster efforts to increase demand for new drugs and commodities, e.g., condoms and bed nets, change child feeding habits, and educate people about medical regimens. Such approaches offer an instrumental understanding of participation as a means to implement, rather than to promote, broad discussions abut goals and actions. Such instances reflect the incorporation of participation without actually throwing into question institutional thinking.

Non-political solutions to political problems

The third obstacle to institutionalising community participation is its deeply political perspective in anti-political agencies.

On the one hand, politics is inseparable from aid programmes. All aid is political. A mix of political and geopolitical concerns, the domestic politics of donor countries, the political preferences of private foundations and charity sentiments underpin development programmes. Also, from personal posturing to inter-agency competition, bureaucratic politics pervade the world of international aid. On the other hand, programmes carefully avoid local politics. They are typically presented as technical interventions based on scientific evidence and premised on humanitarian—read “non-political—goals. The language of science grounds programmatic prescriptions and keeps political considerations at a distance. To keep politics at bay, agencies ground their legitimacy on the rational-legal authority they represent as well as their control over technical expertise. Development programmes justify goals and actions on the basis of technical rationality rather than politics.

This schizophrenic relationship with politics presents a paradox: Technical organisations are given the task of addressing problems that are political in nature and require political solutions.

Consider, again, the case of global health. How can health systems be strengthened, the quality of services be improved, or access to healthcare be expanded without politics? How do excluded people become empowered without politics? How can health budgets be increased without reshuffling the political priorities of local and national governments?

In contexts of poverty and social exclusion, collapsed health infrastructures are one of the most formidable problems to promote health and control diseases among the world’s poor. Reasons for persistent structural problems include meagre budgets for social programmes, poor and corrupt management, the lack of political clout of rural and peri-urban people and insufficient and inadequately trained staff.

Exactly how can these conditions can be corrected, let alone overturned, without political participation of affected communities. Technical solutions are insufficient to address problems rooted in political inequalities.

Putting participation and politics at the forefront, however, is radioactive. Participation is the square peg in the round hole of institutions that are wary of facing local politics head-on. It introduces the prospect of conflicts generated by rural communities questioning programmes that benefit urban elites, women demanding power, youth rejecting decisions their elders make or communities criticising decisions that favour specific religious and ethnic groups. Avoiding getting enmeshed in local politics is mandatory to ensure that programmes run smoothly, avoid alienating local partners and prevent unwanted controversies that only bring headaches.

The best antidote to participation is sticking to technical arguments. Scientific and bureaucratic rationalisation of actions elbows out political decisions. What falls by the wayside with the prevalence of a non-political mindset is that “development” is inescapably political. It’s not merely a technical process. Rather, it’s a messy and unpredictable: Power relationships change, priorities are reshuffled and resources are redistributed.

Learn from successful participatory experiences

Insisting on the need for putting participation at the centre of international aid is commendable. But it’s not enough. Just to continue emphasising the need for communities to be real protagonists of social change is unlikely to make significant inroads in a system that rewards bureaucratic procedures, prioritise technical and scientific approaches and keep local politics at a safe distance.

Actors committed to reforming aid need to examine how local participation can be institutionalised given all these obstacles. If politics is at the heart of social change, how do we incorporate participation in institutions that prefer to keep local politics at a long arm’s distance? Is it a matter of changing institutional incentives and procedures? Does it require a substantive overturn of prevailing disciplinary mindsets? Is it inevitably “wishful thinking,” given entrenched organisational cultures and the hierarchical nature of development agencies?

These questions need to be approached from a perspective that considers how international agencies incorporate changes and shift programmatic priorities.

Making participation central to bureaucratic procedures and missions implies a radical shift. In aid agencies embedded in technical, scientific knowledge, institutionalising ideas such as participatory politics and the value of “local knowledge” is tantamount to an intellectual revolution.

Without being overly optimistic, it is possible to aim for gradual yet significant innovations within institutional constraints?

Yes, we know bureaucracies and participation is not exactly a match made in Heaven. It is important, however, to recognise the achievements of experiences in bottom-up participation even within a system with different priorities. Programmes based on local ownership and active involvement are not only viable and sustainable: They are also linked with international efforts. Globally, the recent achievements of health advocacy groups, social movements, women’s cooperatives, micro-credit initiatives, local education initiatives and others suggest that successful local participation is possible. They suggest that even when technical solutions, technological fixes and other magic bullets are commonly peddled around as the next “big ideas,” the old idea that people are the “invisible cure,” to paraphrase the title of Helen Epstein’s thoughtful book, still finds room.

Our challenge is to envision how community participation can be institutionalised in a system that rewards bureaucratic procedures, worships technical thinking and finds local politics toxic. To do that, we must shift from promoting the virtues of participation to finding ways to institutionalising in agencies oriented by a different set of bureaucratic priorities and technical approaches.

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