Susanne Kempel asks the question of whether the new desire for participation is really having the effect it is intended to have. (Susanne Kempel is an independent consultant and, like all posts on this Forum, this post represents her views alone and not those of any organisations that she is associated with).
In recent years 'people-centered approach' and 'bottom up planning' have taken centre-stage in government lingo within Myanmar - a welcome change after half a century of top-down hierarchical command structures and regime-imposed 'People's Desire'.
Meanwhile aptly-named 'community-driven development' projects designed to promote participation and empowerment have been drastically expanded not just by NGOs and UN agencies but also through government departments with funding from international agencies such as the Asian Development Bank and World Bank.
Many of these centre on community organizing in committees, village development plans, community block grants and small-scale infrastructure development.
Again, for Myanmar government departments few would doubt that this novel way of approaching development is an improvement over past practices - or simply filling the vast gap of the absence of the state assisting local communities in any meaningful manner.
But how much do we know about how this ‘participatory’ approach is perceived by local communities?
Is it meaningful to them to go through a long list of steps and meetings (resource mapping, committee formation, prioritisation exercise, village plan etc) to get the school roof repaired or a new well dug?
Does it create spin off effects where new forms of collective action emerge, social capital and cooperation is strengthened, marginalized voices are heard, democratic practices are honed?
Or do they just jump through the loops wasting time as they are used to with outsiders and persons of authority to perhaps get stuff done? Or are there adverse effects?
The verdict is still out in Myanmar!
But is anybody, particularly the almost half a billion USD dollar CDD projects (but also the rest of us) capturing this in our monitoring, evaluation and learning (?) systems that so often focus on everything but this aspect ..
The below reflections from an aid practitioner in Indonesia from a few years back ask some poignant questions, in a highly satirical manner. The KCP is the forerunner to the World Bank's CDD project in Indonesia which many had hailed as a great success.
PARTICIPATION MADNESS - INDONESIA
Crops fail as over-participation spreads in villages across Indonesia, participatory planning, community empowerment, conflict sensitivity, gender awareness, capacity building, public-private partnerships and multiple other initiatives are designed to eradicate poverty, support democracy and overturn years of top-down development practices synonymous with the oppressive Suharto regime. Yet, in a special report, the People's Bank looks deeper into the participation phenomenon. The results are startling: the participation virus is creating mass starvation, deprivation and confusion across the country. Is the World Bank committing genocide? "It started with bottom-up planning," said Iskandar. "The government would bring us together in a meeting, give us snacks and ask us what we wanted. We'd say we wanted a road, because we needed a road. So long as we voted Golkar, we got the road. Simple.”
His wife, Deya, picks up the story. "But then reformasi came, and suddenly it all changed. New words came in: participation, empowerment, gender sensitivity. It all sounded exciting. We found out that we were disempowered, that we weren't building mutually beneficial partnerships with the private sector or holding our leaders accountable. So, we started attending meetings - community meetings, musyawarah dusun, desa and kecamatan. We were mapped, several times. We were empowered, trained, trauma counseled, gender sensitized. And at the end of it we told them we wanted a road." "We spend so much time at these meetings, that I've forgotten how to plant crops and I've got no time to run my jamu business. I'm very empowered, but most of all I'm just hungry."
The participation scourge commenced in 1998 with the KDP virus. Doctors developing a
vaccine to combat this deadly affliction were dealt a severe setback as the virus evolved into drug-resistant strains, KDP-2 and KDP-3. Previously a rural phenomenon, urban communities were struck in 2000. The related UPP virus appeared in cities across Java, later moving into Sulawesi and Kalimantan. Yet, it is not merely at community level that this deadly family of viruses strikes. "In between being mapped, having my aspirations channeled and my capacity built, somewhere along the line I just plain forgot to plant my crops." (Iskandar, Villager, Bima, NTB Province)
Medical experts in Aceh province have recently discovered indications of a powerful and virulent new strain which takes the participation virus up to district level. Known for this week at least as the SPADA virus, it threatens the nascent reconstruction effort in the disaster-affected province.
"It was good at first. I appreciated the chance to have my say about my development needs. But how many times do I have to tell people what I need? I'm so out of aspirations I've started making them up. I mean, just how many aspirations can one person have?"
The participation virus has destroyed gotong royong, the doctrine of inter-dependency which maintains the social fabric across this vast archipelago. "Last harvest season, I asked my neighbour Unggul to help me out as he does every year. But he was being empowered that week. Then I asked Dewi, who helped us out the year before, but she was being gender-sensitized. Finally I asked Fauzi, but he couldn't help because he was having his aspirations channeled. My family in the adjoining village were being mapped and trained in their right to complain. Too bad, huh. I never harvested anything and my crops died. I'm probably next. The World Bank has killed my entire family."