As a youth leader in my church, I used to talk to young people about their life choices and how they should seek wisdom from God in making these choices. During one such occasion, one boy walked up to me and asked; “If the bible says that whosoever knows so much will be asked much; is it not wise to know so little or nothing about God so that on judgment day, there is little to ask of me? I believe this is the surest way of getting to heaven!” I could hardly get an answer to suit but nevertheless found his interpretation of the scriptures amusing.
I kept contemplating upon applying the same standard to communities to hold them accountable to the use of the so much local knowledge that they possess to inform the design and implementation of initiatives geared towards getting them to a better life that they envision. Luckily, an opportunity to serve at the International Accountability Project (IAP) provided the opportunity to share in the struggles surrounding communities’ participation in development through interacting with frontline activists with experience in dealing with the community perspective in development.
Through its Global Advocacy Initiative, IAP engaged human rights activists advocating for communities’ engagement in the implementation of development projects to document their experiences and propose recommendations. The Global Advocacy Team (GAT) consisted of eight activists from eight countries with different contexts including farmers and rural communities in Burma, Pakistan and Zimbabwe, urban neighborhoods in Cambodia and the Philippines and indigenous groups in Egypt, Mongolia and Panama. These are individuals working with community based organizations formed to empower their communities to meaningfully engage with their national governments and investors through consultations and project monitoring.
From their findings, 89% of the respondents in affected communities indicated that they had not participated in the consultations held prior to the implementation of projects within their communities yet it was a requirement especially for bank financed projects. This was the first pointer to the exclusion of communities in the development process, a resource that I believe would be valuable at all stages of project delivery. As a consequence, the research shows that later stages of project implementation were characterized by community resistance to projects’ implementation prompting use of threats and force to silence community dissent. There were cases of award of little or no compensation and without a defined resettlement plan and some communities had filed complaints to funding banks’ grievance mechanisms. I strongly believe that these actions have gone on to affect the projects through losing out on implementation time and resources to address the crises all of which would have been mitigated.
But as the adage goes, every cloud has a silver lining, this standoff of conflicting interests presents an opportunity to step back and address development from the position of the beneficiaries (communities). I believe that if development is meant to raise the living standards of poor people, then they are best placed to inform the design of such development initiatives. I contend that it is not about the narrow scope of benefits from a project (compensation, royalties, and employment opportunities as laborers) but the communities’ ability to influence project activities at all levels. They should play a central role in decision making because they understand best what works in their setting and in the long run, sustainability of the gains can be assured.
If energies and resources could be committed to harnessing the capacity of communities to meaningfully engage based on their felt needs and not derived needs (by experts), then it would be a start to having investors and national governments re-think their strategies in the face of an empowered citizenry. Instead of using aggression, investors would instead utilize the human resource within communities to gain community acceptance and cooperation while also reducing incidence of conflict. I strongly believe that the space to engage with communities is wide open; what we wait to see is the will from the banks and investors to utilize this space.