When do Participatory Development Projects Work?

November 14, 2012

Washington, November 14, 2012 – Involving local communities in decisions that affect their lives is central to making development more effective, and it has the potential to transform the role that poor people play in development by giving them voice and agency. But inducing civic engagement in development is not easy, says a new World Bank report, which covers community development and decentralization projects supported by the Bank and other donors.

Localizing Development: Does Participation Work?, a new Policy Research Report analyzing participatory development efforts, shows that such projects often fail to be sensitive to complex contexts – including social, political, historical and geographical realities – and fall short in terms of monitoring and evaluation systems, which hampers learning. Citing numerous examples, the authors demonstrate that participatory projects are not a substitute for weak states, but instead require strong central support to be effective.

The report shares evidence-based lessons on the challenges donor agencies face in inducing participation, including the need for a responsive state and a strong awareness of local context, and it recommends several steps to ensure that financiers support projects effectively, such as flexible, long-term engagement and participatory monitoring.

Genuine efforts at inducing civic engagement require a sustained long-term commitment and a clear understanding of the social and political forces at all levels of society,” said Ghazala Mansuri, a lead economist in the World Bank’s Poverty Reduction and Equity Group who co-authored the book with colleague, Vijayendra Rao, lead economist in the World Bank’s Development Research Group.

“Rarely is much thought given to the possibility that it is no easy task to effectively organize groups of people to act in a way that solves market and government failures,” said Rao, “In fact, such efforts face multiple challenges, such as lack of coordination, inequality, lack of transparency, corruption, free-riding, and low capacity. Participation works best as a sandwich with bottom-up participation supported by top-down supervision.

Given that the World Bank itself invested $85 billion over the past 10 years on local participatory projects, with other donors adding billions more, Mansuri and Rao had rich material to examine when participatory projects work and when they do not. They conclude that while community participation has had some success in improving outcomes in health and education, it has been less effective in reducing poverty, or in building the capacity for collective action. 

There are some common features among community-based programs that have done well in reaching the poor and improving services. One is strong engagement by the state, as in Brazil’s Programa Saude da Famılia, which provides free health services and is managed by municipal governments under the supervision of the Brazilian Ministry of Health. Assessments of this program reveal substantial health effects, especially for newborn babies and young children. In addition, the program is cost effective, at some $30 per capita. Another key to success is significant effort in building capacity at the local level, as was the case with Ghana’s Community Health and Family Planning Project. It is also vital to pay a great deal of attention to context and to commit strongly to transparent monitoring systems, as in Indonesia’s Kecamatan Development Program.

The report points to three main lessons that emerge from distilling the evidence and thinking about the broader challenges in inducing participation:

1)     Induced participatory interventions work best when they are supported by a responsive state. The state does not necessarily have to be democratic—though being democratic helps a great deal. But in the sphere in which the intervention is being conducted—at the level of the community or the neighborhood—the state has to be responsive to community demands.

2)     Context, both local and national, is extremely important. Outcomes from interventions are highly variable across communities; local inequality, history, geography, the nature of social interactions, networks, and political systems all have a strong influence. The variability of these contexts is sometimes so large, and their effect so unpredictable, that projects that function well usually do so because they have strong built-in systems of learning and great sensitivity and adaptability to variations in context.

3)     Effective civic engagement does not develop predictably. Instead, it is likely to proceed with fits and starts where long periods of seeming quietude are followed by intense, often turbulent change. Donor-driven participatory projects often assume a far less contentious trajectory. Conditioned by bureaucratic imperatives, they often declare that clear, measurable, and usually optimistic outcomes will be delivered within a specified timeframe. There is a danger that such projects set themselves up for failure that derives not from what they achieve on the ground, but from unrealistic expectations.

The World Bank and other donor agencies need to take several steps to ensure that it supports projects with these characteristics:

  • Project structures need to change to allow for flexible, long-term engagement. Patience is a virtue.
  • Project designs and impact evaluations need to be informed by political and social analyses, in addition to economic analysis.
  • Monitoring and evaluation needs to be taken far more seriously. The use of new, more cost-effective information and communications technology (ICT)-based tools, could help enormously.
  • Clear systems of facilitator feedback as well as participatory monitoring and redress systems need to be created.
  • Most important, there needs to be room for honest feedback to facilitate learning, instead of a tendency to rush to judgment coupled with a fear of failure. The complexity of participatory development requires a high tolerance for failure and clear incentives for project managers to report evidence of it. Failure is sometimes the best way to learn about what works. Only in an environment in which failure is tolerated can innovation take place and evidence-based policy decisions be made.

This Policy Research Report (PRR) is the latest edition in a series managed by the World Bank’s research department. PRRs aim to contribute to the debate on appropriate public policies for developing economies. This year’s edition lays out a conceptual framework and empirical underpinning on participatory development.  The report is the result of an in-depth review of about 500 studies undertaken to date.


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