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#3 from 2012: The Stubborn Problem of The "Village Elite"

Darshana Patel's picture

Our Top Ten Blog Posts by Readership in 2012

Originally published on August 28, 2012

Donor agency X has had a long history of working in Country A. Since the 1970s, the donor agency adapted its projects to be more participatory and has never looked back. Before starting a new project in the country, a project officer from the donor agency researched into international best practices, organized consultations in the country, and put together an action plan with the indicators to measure results.  The project is now ready to be launched.

The donor agency works through a national NGO to organize the first community meeting in village B to start the project. The village is selected because it is close enough to the capital city but far away enough to be considered rural.  (It turns out that this village is often selected for pilot projects.) The community is invited to a meeting in one of the village’s schools.  On the day of the meeting, the room is filled with some familiar faces. The party leader, a local landowner, the school head teacher and even the factory boss are in attendance. The room looks fairly full, the discussion is active for the most part, and promises are made by all to keep the momentum going for the 3-year span of the project.

Perhaps the project officer is pleased with the turnout. Or he may ask himself, “where was the real community? The poorest of the poor? The youth? The women?”  He may worry that the meeting did not include those in the community stand to benefit the most from the project. This scenario and the project officer’s ensuing dilemma is so common that it is typical fodder for this cynical but extremely funny aid workers blog. In fact, when development workers attempt to include the participation of the community into their projects, expectations of what the project and the community can jointly achieve are usually sky high. But in the long run, do these types of projects lead to empowered communities and less poverty or is it just a downward cycle that leads to a dead-end (until of course another similar project comes along).

The trend of community-level elites usurping control over development projects is a stubborn problem for projects that rely on community participation. Tanzania’s community-driven Social Action Fund program (TASAF) required communities to first fill out an application to have access to the program.  This initial step immediately drew applicants that were “substantially wealthier and better educated than the national average.” Those who were politically well-connected benefitted the most from the program.

But when we investigate how the community feels about the elite that access these programs, the story is not so straightforward.  In a case study from West Africa, a European NGO started working with a village association.  After a period of working with the association to build its capacity in developing a better reporting standards, internal rules, clear objectives, etc.; the foreign NGO began the second phase of the project and disbursed funds to the association to start small community-driven projects. Despite these efforts, the NGO soon found that the leader of the association was taking large amounts of the money for his personal use. When the NGO withdrew support for the association, other association members defended the leader: ‘everybody around him benefited from the project and, if he benefited [much] more than the others, it is understandable because he is the leader’. The leader’s ability to gain access to these NGO funds on behalf of the community was much more important than the fact that the leader was cheating the larger community of resources that were meant for everyone.

Another example from India on community-based natural resource management tells an interesting story and provides some hope. A study on a village India found that while there was elite capture in the initial stages of a forestry project, it was eventually suppressed and led to some positive outcomes for the community. It is worth noting that the study spanned a period of 10 years, well-beyond typical project cycles.  

In this case, the project heavily invested in creating durable, democratic local institutions from the onset. Forest protection committees, which included 2 members of each household from the village nominated members for the forest management committee. These committees established relationships with local government forestry agencies in order to sustainably manage the forest and allow the community to meet their livelihood needs at the same time. The forest management committee was mandated to have representation of socially marginalized groups and could only serve 3-year terms.

Elite capture and small acts of resistance: In the first three-year term, the elected committee chair was a man from the highest caste in the village and women who were elected to the committee sent their husbands to participate on their behalf.  Based on rules created by the committee, the poorest villagers ended up paying an unequal amount of fines to the committee. However, those who were considered members of the lowest class of the community purposefully broke the rules that they deemed to be unfair.

Elite capture at its strongest: In the second three-year term, more people expressed interest in becoming the committee chairperson. The village leader nominated someone from his own political party and many were forced to obligingly support this candidate.  Even though 2 of the 15 committee members boycotted this election process, the party-backed chairman was elected anyway. The second chairperson was not as transparent as the first and frequently bent the rules for his own party members. The number of women in the committee increased from two to eight from the first and second terms but their positions were still weak. The members from the lowest castes were not informed of meetings and could not participate regularly. The chair and other higher-caste members dominated decision-making.

Resistance grows and some breakthroughs: In the third term, the village leader again attempted to nominate someone from his party but community members who were not affiliated with his party organized against him and the election process was delayed for 6 months. Eventually, a local NGO mediated a process that led to elections and resulted in women and members of the lower castes to occupy leadership positions.

Many in the community were encouraged by these new shifts in power. But even at this stage and after a hard-won victory, the female chairperson still deferred to her husband as the de facto chairperson. Proving once again that one of the most stubborn problems in development remains in the realm of gender.

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Photo Credit: Flickr user katepc