Few dispute the value of letting citizens have a say in development projects affecting their lives. After all, if local people participate in decision-making, contribute cash and labor to build roads, or organize neighborhood committees to resolve conflicts, they will be more in charge of their destinies and can hold governments more accountable.
Over the past two decades, development experts have focused more on boosting local participation, with the World Bank investing nearly $85 billion over the past decade on community-driven development projects and decentralization. With other donors investing billions more, today community-based organizations, such as school management committees, community health groups, water-user groups, and village councils, are widely found in the developing world.
What kind of results have these efforts produced? Has civic engagement been jumpstarted? Has this contained conflict or corruption? Has access for the poor to schools or health facilities improved? Has poverty declined?
Designing and implementing successful participatory development projects is complex and difficult, according to a new World Bank Policy Research Report, “Localizing Development: Does Participation Work?” Five years in the making, the report provides a comprehensive look at efforts by donors and governments to “induce” civic engagement in development.
The report, which draws on more than 500 studies, could help local participatory projects become more results-oriented and evidence-based. It says success, where it has come, has taken a great deal of commitment and time – from both project staff and governments – to create inclusive and accountable local institutions.
Participatory development projects have a strong record when it comes to health and education. Indeed, there are some common features among community-based programs that have done well in reaching the poor and improving services. One a responsive 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.
Many of these findings debunk popular myths about community participation in development. The most common myth is that poor and disadvantaged communities have ample “social capital,” and can therefore be quickly mobilized to act collectively in their own interest. The other is that community-driven development projects can replace or bypass state structures that are seen as sluggish at best or corrupt at worst.