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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


Submitted by Anonymous on
Oh yes, these challenges are very common in villages. You see a population closing eyes on mismanagement of funds because after all it is the project leader who was lucky to see the call for application and who used his knowledge/intelligence to write a successful proposal even if he wrote it in the name of the Community Common Initiative Group. As a result, they feel happy to contend themselves with the little he (project leader) is willing to implement in the community. It is really unfortunate. No matter how participatory we want to be in our approach, the poor/needy/underprivileged in a project and (ii) bring the latter to be fully engaged in the transparent management of funds and other resources allocated to the project.

Submitted by Darshana on
Thanks for you comment. This trend (of others in the community protecting the local leader) seems the most troubling. And it certainly throws a wrench into the Western NGO’s perceptions of what to count as “results” in this context doesn’t it? (Is a community considered to be empowered if they organize against the foreign NGO?)

Great piece highlighting how INGOs and donors need to require power asymmetries to be part of their staff’s consciousness in a more comprehensive and meaningful way, then focus on building their "soft" skill set to accompany and support whole communities, rather than overpower or co-opt them. Not all communities are created equal - time to stop romanticizing them and start engaging with them.

Exactly, Jennifer. I don't think it is our goal as INGOs to mandate a certain "balanced" membership or leadership within the community group. It's better to begin working with a community knowing that the power dynamics are unbalanced and that each community has it's own way of dealing with that inequality. I wish I knew a clear solution to this but I think it comes down to asking questions to get people thinking and get a dialog going.

Submitted by Darshana on
You both mention something that we often overlook when planning projects like this: underlying power dynamics. Understanding how individuals behave in communities seems key to knowing what can NGOs and donors can really achieve with these types of projects. Too often, we naively treat the “community” as a homogenous group of individuals (with equal access to decision-making, resources, etc.) and assume our projects will reach everyone equally too. Of course, in reality, each group can has its own hierarchy with internal pushes and pulls that drive the whole process. As a starting point, we should at least have a better grasp of these dynamics before jumping into the mix.

Submitted by Sean Bradley on
Darshana's blog reminds me of the recent work done on the Policy Research Report by WB/DEC on participation. While some feel the report has used data selectively, a good review of a wide range of relevant literature. One finding is that elite capture should not be a surprise, given what we expect from these community groups (literacy, problem analysis and project development skills, free time and contributions). worth reading about: And is it always bad? Not according to Labonne and Chase based on work in the Philippines.

Submitted by Abhilaksh Likhi on
The problem of ‘village elite’ and ‘elite capture is a critical grassroots issue. Infact, inclusive growth in rural India is a phenomenon that continues to attract tremendous public attention. For the real village community, access to relevant information and its sustained communication is a critical factor for such growth. Exclusion, either due to systemic or socio-economic reasons, directly impacts their level of participation in the communication process as also empowerment for ‘bottom up’ planning in rural development. A cross section of the real village community includes minorities, scheduled tribes, scheduled castes, women and other marginalized groups. Academicians, experts, social activists and administrators argue alike that the village community could be more effectively empowered to plan, if access, participation and ownership become key defining parameters of the various tools of communication. In context of the participatory communication paradigm, well thought out information, education and communication (IEC) activities are increasingly being envisioned as a critical component of rural development programs of the Government. The purpose is to enable such programs to achieve the objective of not simply reaching out to the village community but rather to sensitize them to be partners in the process of ensuring livelihood security. In this context, rural local self-governance bodies, the district administration, non-governmental organizations and other stakeholders are to act in cohesion to make the IEC activities a grassroots reality and hence strengthen the process of empowerment in rural areas. Flagship Government program in India such as the Total Sanitation Campaign, National Rural Health Mission and National Rural Employment Guarantee Act aim at providing to the village community the much needed social safety net. They also aim to protect them from the complexities of distress and other socio-economic imbalances in rural areas. But the crucial question is, are we able to effectively implement IEC activities prescribed for the above programs and painstakingly establish horizontal community access with the village community? Further, can community media play a vital role in widening the scope of such access and participation? In the above context, the caste system in India and its associated social hierarchy is a major factor that deeply influences the communication matrix amongst village communities and affects most aspects of an individual’s life too. The latter’s position within the social structure has implications for access to development resources of various kinds - where an inhabitant lives, the type of housing he or she enjoys, patterns of interaction with others and in fact communication of all kinds - non-mediated, i.e., inter personal, intra personal, group and mediated, i.e., mass media communication through radio, television etc. Thus, communication patterns amongst the village community follow a complex process conditioned by power, status and differential access to development resources. Besides, the information flow is also influenced by family, kinship, sex, age, religious and occupational links. Even today, due to widespread backwardness, illiteracy and ignorance opinion makers and information receivers play a critical role in the flow of information amongst rural inhabitants that usually occurs at public places such as tea stalls, petty shops and informal interactions. In fact, the entire process has implications for the implementation of any IEC strategy through various activities in a typical rural scenario. It could also have implications for the involvement of local rural self governance bodies and their delivery mechanisms for such activities. Without doubt, the above generalizations about the dynamics of rural communication in India would vary from region to region. They would be supplemented by the specific ethno-cultural milieu of village communities spread over the length and breadth of the country, which is very diverse in terms of language, cultural practices, mores and folkways. But it is certain that an individual’s position within the social structure has considerable influence on the village community’s opportunities, experiences and patterns of interaction with each other. This also impacts their outlook about how to perceive social change since their world view, like a tunnel vision, remains limited to the immediate ecology - their village, block or at the most, the district headquarters. Thus, effective sensitization to inculcate participation through IEC activities, that form a part of various rural development programs, has to trigger both behavioural and cognitive change amongst the members of the village community. First and foremost, use of traditional folk media such as street plays, puppetry, dance dramas and ballad is a necessary perquisite. Such media are more familiar, personal and credible. Since, they are a part of an oral tradition in villages for centuries, they are a very effective means of communicating social messages and empowering village communities. Start up and entry point communication activities under rural development programs often, either due to lax implementation or lack of trained NGOs, do not make use of the immense potential of participatory rural appraisal techniques (PRA). Techniques such as social mapping, transact walking, seasonality analysis etc are the most accessible means to plan the village level ‘shelf of projects’ by and for the village community themselves. In this regard, despite constraints of power politics, the lowest tier of institutions of rural local self government i.e. the ‘Gram Sabha’(village assembly) within a ‘Gram Panchayat’ (village body of elected representatives) is still the most effective forum where feedback, by the village community, can be shared about such grassroots appraisals. Messaging strategies, other than group communication, include hoardings, wall paintings, advertisements, fairs, exhibitions and public announcements. Such tools are particularly beneficial when it comes to making a visual impact about a rural development program’s basic objectives and operational elements, especially, on school children and women. Messaging material such as books, newspapers, brochures and other capacity building manuals, due to constraints of varying literacy levels, have to consciously focus more on pictorial depiction than cramped instructions in print. Besides, motivational incentives such as exposure visits of the village community to other successful pilot rural development program projects are the biggest capacity enhancer mechanisms. Ownership of a television set is limited in the village community to those who can afford it. Similarly, though the Internet and multi-media are vibrant mediums of development communication, the latter involve constraints of computer literacy amongst the village community. Nevertheless, use of multimedia tools in rural India is a critical component that needs to be factored constantly in IEC strategies of our flagship programs for purposes of global knowledge sharing, accountability and transparency. Radio broadcasts are known to be the cheapest and easiest medium to access, permitting real time communication with the community. Other than AIR (All India Radio) and private FM channels, the new Guidelines on Community Radio licensing have tremendous potential for empowering village communities in rural hinterlands. They can be a very effective tool, amongst many IEC activities, and enable broadcast of focused program content in local dialects on felt needs about program implementation in a specific geographic area. The themes that need to be the focus of engagement for IEC activities amongst the village community, in today’s development communication context, are wide and varied. These could include micro-credit management, self help groups, lack of water resources, rural housing, road connectivity, cyclical drought, female foeticide, girl’s right to education, disregard for natural environment, livelihood security opportunities, indigenous knowledge, computer literacy etc. It is thus evident that inclusive growth, in today’s context of a ‘global village’, is not just about economic aggregates. It’s more about engaging the real village community as stakeholders through IEC activities to plan for their felt needs. The programs for rural development do emphasize capacity building and communication for information dissemination but there are more synergies that need to be explored to make program implementation accessible, effective and empowering for the poorest.

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