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Something for Nothing?

Sabina Panth's picture

My blog posts have been highlighting the significance of empowered citizens and active civil society in driving development efforts.  But in doing so, have I been focusing solely on the voluntary spirit and good-will of the ordinary citizens? If so, is it practical to expect that the momentum will persist long enough to give the continuity and dedication required to realize the undertaking?   There is also a reoccurring theme in my blog posts about aid dependency and the project-based ethos of civil society organizations. Given the scenario, it is difficult to assess the strength and spirit of ‘naturally grown’ vs. ‘project instigated’ community activism.  As it is, community members are hard pressed to make ends meet and can barely afford to partake in community activities. And even when they do, their voluntary contribution is often directly proportional to their incentives. 

This is where the concept of social entrepreneurship (public-private partnership) comes in handy.  A comment in my earlier post describes a storyline in the book, the Gang Leader of the Day, where the residents of the Robert Taylor Housing Project in the south side of Chicago essentially use a "middle woman" to deal with the inefficient and overworked Chicago Housing Authority (CHA).  Ms. Baily, who has contacts within the CHA, profits while she helps the residents: she charges a fee for her services. The commentator describes this approach as a ‘fee-based help center.”  

The underground ‘governance’ and economy described in the book sound similar to many developing countries.  Policy makers could partner with ‘private agencies’ to set-up ‘fee-based help centers’ in remote villages and towns and charge for the help they provide.  The government can provide initial funding to establish the service-centers.  But the long term sustainability of the service-centers will depend on the quality of their performance.  Locals will pay for the services as long as they are receiving help that is to their satisfaction.  The charge for the services can be minimal. Some of it may even be paid back through manual labor or other public services. “But the essence would be that help is available.  It's just not available for free". 

The service-centers can also serve as a third-party intermediary between the government and the citizens, responsible for dissemination of information and in relaying messages, grievances and feedback to the policy makers who could be thousands of miles away.  An anonymous feedback system would allow opportunity for equal voice, with nobody dominating the message due to gender or social standing. The help-centers could be allowed to choose their own methods in reaching out to the communities but would be evaluated on efficiency and performance.

Help-centers that are permanently based in a particular village/town might develop biases that limit their effectiveness. This problem could be overcome by mobile help centers that will move from town to village as the need arises, and as projects are explored. Locals can be hired by these help-centers on a consultancy basis to deal with the particularity of the setting.

While certainly not a panacea, fee-based help centers with direct compensation based on deliverables and head-count can prove to be more efficient than salary-based or project-based funding for services provided.

 

Photo Credit: kahunapulej (Flickr)

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