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The Fisherman and the Royal Engineer

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

At the "Reinventing Governance" conference in Boulder, Colorado, earlier this month I learned about a participatory method that made a lot of sense to me: community-based research. In principle, this is a partnership between experts in some technical area and members of the community in which some project is supposed to be carried out. Boyd Fuller and Ora-orn Poocharoen from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy reported how members of the Phrak Nam Daeng community in Thailand took on dam building engineers and public water management and in a series of public meetings with community members, experts, and authorities found a solution for a watergate on the local river that would benefit the communities in the area while at the same time maintaining high technical standards.

Long story short, the Mae Klong River receives freshwater from the north and seawater from the south, so the locals have to adapt their livelihood according to the tides and salt level of the river. Hydro-electric power plants, a highway, and several droughts disturbed the salt- and freshwater levels the locals had learned to live with and the Royal Irrigation Department (RID) was called in to rectify the situation. The RID built a watergate - which in the eyes of some communities made the problem worse. Conflict arose between the communities over when the watergates should be opened to supply different areas along the river with either fresh- or saltwater, and how much of it. Frustrated by the long simmering conflict and its negative effects on the local industries, a local shrimp farmer, Panya Dtogthong, initiated a community-based research project. A local research team held many meetings, which brought together members of the community, dam experts, and local authorities. With "local wisdom and expert knowledge," as Fuller and Poocharoen coin it, a proposal for a new dam gate was developed that was supposed to benefit all communities in the area while also being of high technical standard. Another long process ensued, but in the end the gate was built with the approval of the experts of the RID and is now in place on the Mae Klong River.

Several lessons are relevant here. First, top-down governance alone is rarely adequate to solve very specific local problems. Second, a combination of local wisdom and expert knowledge is likely to solve those specific local problems in a responsible and community-sensitive way. Third - someone has to start the process and needs the persistence to see it through. Panya went through a process that lasted several years, dealing with different local interests, engineering problems, and government offices to ensure that the communities along the river were able to maintain their businesses and livelihood. Change agents and coalitions, dear CommGAP friends.

Picture credit: Flickr user matluckins

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As someone who has worked extensively in building the monitoring & evaluation capacity of community-based organizations in Africa, the latest trend towards rigid measurement is especially troubling when one is talking about community initiatives. This is a great example of alternatives to the belief that there are technocratic, precise ways of measuring progress in order to make consequential judgments about how to help people in the developing world. The increasing obsession with abstract metrics and experimental design, stemming from a reductive, managerial approach in development, is quite far from the intimate, difficult, and complex factors at play at the grassroots level. Imposing risk-averse behavior, evaluating every single intervention on people who are in the process of organizing at the local level can most certainly be a drain on their time and scarce resources. And what so many people on the ground have told me again and again is that abstract metrics don’t help them understand their relationship to improving the well-being of the people they serve. Yes, let’s pursue and obtain useful data from the ground, but at a scale at which information can be easily generated, utilized, and acted upon by those we are trying to serve. Evaluation implemented solely for the purpose of accountability will fail to result in improved programming and, in many cases, undermines the effectiveness of the very interventions it is trying to measure. Let’s always consider what is the appropriate cost and complexity needed for measurement (especially given the size and scope of the program) and aim for proportional expectations so we ensure it's is a tool for learning over the long-term, not policing.

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