Box Common Critiques of Communitybased Development

Scope. Many projects were conceived on a narrow basis, such as helping communities build schools or increase food production.These may respond well to an NGO's particular expertise, a congressional earmark, a bureaucratic priority, or the demand for straightforward quantifiable "results," but they do not reflect the real world of individuals and communities whose problems and challenges are complex and interrelated. Integrated rural development programs in the 1970s and 1980s attempted to combine social and economic needs, but they proved unsustainable and gave little room for local voice. More recent area development programs have had greater success.

Scale. Community-based projects were too small and localized to make much of a difference, given the scale of the problems faced. Despite success, replication "a village at a time"' was not feasible. In addition, many supporters of these projects assumed that eventually someone else—the government, a donor agency—would do the work of replication.

Sustainability. Community-based projects too often failed the "walk-away test" and essentially collapsed or were abandoned by communities when the funding ran out and a sponsoring NGO or aid agency left. There may have been community involvement, but not true community ownership. Communities learned to use outside resources for a one-time effort, not how to seek out, create, and manage partnerships. Structural change. The obstacle to resolving many community problems lies outside the community in institutions and political and social structures. Community-based projects that dealt exclusively with the local, no matter how participatory, would never achieve fundamental transformation. Until development is understood as an inherently political process of people claiming basic rights, people will never ultimately reshape the structural forces in society that are responsible for the deprivation, discrimination, exclusion, vulnerability, and violence that mark the lives of the poor.

Sources: See endnote 12.

Mobilizing Human Energy tional leaders" and "community participation" as a means of exerting social control. In a reprise of this role, NGOs and private contractors, who were increasingly the conduits of official foreign aid, were driven by donor-mandated results and timetables rather than community needs, capabilities, agency, and vision. Many of these "participatory development" projects weren't all that participatory from the perspective of the poor. Captured by elite interests or simply involving information sharing or consultation but no real control or influence, these were a far cry from the liberating process of local initiative and social movement that their advocates claimed.13

Many of these projects also idealized communities in ways that undermined their potential. First, they imagined communities as homogenous and harmonious entities when often they were far more complex units within which needs and interests were mediated by power, caste, ethnicity, age, religion, or gender. Second, many NGOs who supported these projects were ideologically or otherwise antagonistic toward working with government or the private sector. Their efforts at times isolated communities or promoted the naive notion that bottom-up mobilization alone would overcome the powerful and entrenched forces arrayed against them. As a result, many community activities remained essentially local projects and failed to affect or engage wider social and political structures that were driving poverty, environmental degradation, and social injustice.14

These criticisms were one helpful reminder of the inherently political nature of poverty. The poor are poor because the rich and powerful have created institutions to serve their interests. The landmark Voices of the Poor study, which gathered the views of 60,000 poor men and women from 60 countries, confirmed that the poor saw their humanity devalued by the world around them. Sustainable routes out of poverty would have to involve the poor not only by building their assets and capabilities but by engaging with the institutions and structures of governance and markets. Engaging this governance agenda involves communities participating in public budgeting decisions, scrutinizing public and private development projects, giving "report cards" to government ministries, and campaigning for greater access to public information.15

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