The GiveWell Blog

The challenge of local ownership

One of the consistent refrains we’ve seen in aid literature is the importance of local participation/enthusiasm/ownership for aid projects. Many programs have been criticized for being too “top-down” (i.e., imposing outsiders’ designs on local communities), with the implication that more “bottom-up” programs (i.e., getting local people to participate in the design of execution of programs) would be more likely toi create real and lasting change. For an example of this reasoning, see this USAID review of Integrated Rural Development programs (PDF).

The basic reasoning makes sense, but making a program “bottom-up” is easier said than done. For an illustration of why, see this World Bank review of “community-based development,” a term referring to “projects that actively include beneficiaries in their design and management.”

The frequent tendency for participatory projects to be dominated if not captured by local elites is highlighted by several case studies. Katz and Sara (1997), in a global review of water projects, find numerous cases of project benefits being appropriated by community leaders and little attempt to include households at any stage … even well trained staff are not always effective in overcoming entrenched norms of exclusion. In a study of community forestry projects in India and Nepal that worked reasonably well, Agarwal (2001) reports that women were systematically excluded from the participatory process because of their weak bargaining power. Rao and Ibanez (2003) find that in the participatory projects in their Jamaican case study, wealthier and better networked individuals dominated decision making. In a similar case-based evaluation of social funds in Jamaica, Malawi, Nicaragua, and Zambia, the World Bank (2002) Operations Evaluation Department concludes that the process was dominated by “prime movers.”

Abraham and Platteau (2004) present evidence on community participation processes in Sub-Saharan Africa based largely on anecdotal evidence from their work in community-based development and on secondary sources. They argue that rural African communities are often dominated by dictatorial leaders who can shape the participation process to benefit themselves because of the poor flow of information. (40-41)

These notes capture a concern of ours that applies to all aid projects: while the goal is to help those in the most need, those with the least need may be most likely to have the resources, connections and free time to get the inside track on any particularly generous aid project. This is also a major reason to be skeptical of simple evaluations comparing “project participants” to “non-participants,” as many microfinance evaluations do. Project participants may simply be better off to begin with (and some studies show that they are, such as the Coleman study referenced on the previous link).

We don’t believe that a simple and straightforward way to overcome this challenge is available. That’s why, although we agree with the basic concept that local ownership will improve a project, we don’t tend to judge projects by their formal commitment to local ownership – i.e., we don’t favor programs that work in formal community votes, meetings, etc. over programs that don’t. The former could be improving local participation or transferring more power to elites; the latter could be generating local enthusiasm simply through a good match between what people want and what they’re being offered.

It’s easy to claim that one is involving community members, but the ultimate test is in outcomes – whether the project ran well enough and generated enough local participation to accomplish its ultimate goals (improved health, incomes, etc.)