Skip to Main Navigation
FEATURE STORY November 15, 2012

World Bank Report: Helping the poor through localized development is tough, but essential


This Policy Research Report was prepared by the Development Research Group of the World Bank by a team led by Ghazala Mansuri and Vijayendra Rao.


  • In-depth analysis of efforts to induce “bottom up” civic engagement in development reveals valuable lessons.
  • Locally-managed projects to improve services and empower poor people are a vital mode of development aid, but to be scaled up, they need state support.
  • Comprehensive review finds that community-driven projects should pay more attention to local context and put in place effective, honest learning systems.

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.

"Rarely is much thought given to how difficult it is to effectively organize groups of people to act in a way that solves market and government failures. In fact, local development faces multiple challenges, such as lack of coordination, inequality, lack of transparency, corruption, free-riding, and low capacity."
Vijayendra Rao
Lead Economist

“Rarely is much thought given to how difficult it is to effectively organize groups of people to act in a way that solves market and government failures,” said Vijayendra Rao, lead economist in the World Bank’s Development Research Group, who co-authored the book with colleague Ghazala Mansuri, who has since become a lead economist in the World Bank’s Poverty Reduction and Equity Group. “In fact, local development faces multiple challenges, such as lack of coordination, inequality, lack of transparency, corruption, free-riding, and low capacity.”

That helps explain why it is no easy job trying to induce civic engagement in development. Indeed, the report shows that, by and large, community-driven development projects, tend to deliver education and health services effectively, while reducing poverty and corruption tends to be more challenging. In some instances, development efforts could be more sensitive to complex contexts like social, political, historical or geographical realities. For example, some projects are vulnerable to being captured by local elites who may use their preferential access to allocate project benefits to themselves, their families or their social networks.

One can start to make sense of this, the authors argue, by understanding that deliberate top-down efforts to amplify grassroots citizen engagement creates challenges, which are fundamentally different from those emerging from more “organic” forms of participation, such as civic watchdog groups, environmental movements or the recent democracy movements in the Middle East.

At the heart of the problem, the authors contend, is how projects assess what it takes to engage civil society. Most poor and disadvantaged people live in societies that have longstanding hierarchies of power and privilege, and those at the bottom of the rung are severely limited in access to opportunities. This constitutes what the authors call ‘civil society failure,’ a phenomenon that can be corrected by some degree of reversal in local power relations. Such a correction requires shifts in social interactions, norms and local cultures and is far from easy.

As a result, participatory projects sometimes struggle to build cohesive, sustainable organizations. “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,” Mansuri said. “Building dams, bridges, roads, and even schools and clinics is much easier than changing social and political systems. To do this well, we need to invest a great deal more in learning about what works.”

That, Rao said, requires a real change in how donors and governments design and carry out participatory projects.

There is no quick fix for the challenges documented in Localizing Development, but it moves us toward understanding what it will take to support civic engagement for more equitable and sustainable development. By thinking through local development policy with civil society in mind, practitioners and policy makers can better understand when civic participation is likely to solve a development challenge, as well as what may be needed to successfully organize the disadvantaged to act in their own interest.

The World Bank is also constantly seeking to improve its community-driven development projects also taking steps to improve monitoring and evaluation of Bank-supported participatory efforts.

Policy Research Reports (PRRs), which are released every few years, aim to contribute to the debate on appropriate public policies for developing economies.