Sunday, February 17, 2013

The challenge with participatory development initiatives

I am inclined to agree with Ghazala Mansuri and Vijayendra Rao's controversial scepticism about the effective scalability of community participation based development programs. However, this should not be taken as a rejection of this approach to delivering development. Instead, it should form an important plank of any development program. But we need to be cautious against the enthusiastic and unqualified optimism that accompanies much of the support for programs that revolve around this strategy. 

The most important features of such programs are community-based project identification, design, implementation, and audit, apart from direct transfer of funds to the local community. Its attraction lies in the unexceptionable logic that community participation - by ushering in transparency, stakeholder participation, and accountability - is likely to increase targeting efficiency, program governance, and its delivery effectiveness. Its success is built on rigorous efforts to develop capacity in the local community on project design and supervision, and financial management. Most often, this has turned out to be its Achilles heel in scaled up implementation.  

My concern arises from the fact that scalability introduces a dynamics that often runs contrary to the requirements of such tightly knit, bottom-up, quality-focused programs. The success of a small-scale implementation is enormously facilitated by the focus and intensity of guidance and supervision of the program's committed leadership. But once scaled up, a more conventional bureaucratic guidance and monitoring, which cannot adequately capture the qualitative aspect of the program, becomes inevitable. 

Furthermore, the scale-up of any such program, by assuming its universal take-up, invariably ends up diluting the critical demand-driven dimension of the program. There are inherent limitations to the effective transfer of information and instructions across multiple levels and over large geographical jurisdictions. The nuances of a qualitative program are most often lost in the quantitative norms and components that characterize scaled up implementation of any government program. Finally, we need to keep in mind that this ambitious agenda has to be implemented through the same seriously flawed administrative system of the state governments. 

So here is the formidable challenge with the scale up of a participatory development program. Any sustainable development intervention, especially one which revolves around qualitative improvements, has to be demand-driven. But the dynamics of any reasonably short time-frame scale-up runs contrary to the requirements of a demand-driven bottom-up program. Much the same challenge applies to other qualitative programs like improvement in student learning outcome. 

In the circumstances, second-best models of community participatory development, with a realistic agenda and a longer time frame, may be a more appropriate alternative. A decentralized implementation strategy that allows for local initiative and control and simultaneously builds local capacity in planning and monitoring, all within a broad guiding framework coupled with strong top-down monitoring, may be the most practically effective strategy for the implementation of such programs. The challenge though will be with getting the details of the program design and its implementation strategy right. 

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