Community Development: Reinventing the Square Wheel?

Fish and whales both evolved remarkably similar swimming devices (in the form of their shapes and the arrangements of their fins) even though their nearest common relative could not swim. The wings of birds and bats are aerodynamically very similar although their nearest common ancestor did not have wings at all. The eye is known to have evolved separately on numerous occasions. Evolution is not only about what you can inherit from your ancestors through genes. It is also about finding optimal solutions to problems of living in, and fully exploiting, a given environment. There are very few optimal solutions to the problems of swimming, flying or seeing so it is no surprise that the same solution has been hit upon separately by a number of very different species. In evolutionary biology this phenomenon is termed convergence.

We see the same tendency in the world of manmade phenomena. It is more than likely that the wheel was invented and reinvented on numerous occasions across different societies of the prehistoric world. Nothing rolls better than something round. Even if square – or oval or triangular – wheels were sometimes invented it would only have been a matter of time before someone discovered that round wheels work better. Round wheels would always tend to replace oval, square or triangular wheels and any society faced with a haulage problem in a relatively flat environment is likely to have stumbled upon the idea of round wheels without having had to copy the example from others. This seems to be true even for the non-mechanical: writing has been invented many times during our global history, for example.

Convergence in evolutionary biology can be contrasted with the divergent shape of the tree of life which shows a spreading and ever-increasing variation in forms of life as they evolved through the ages. Convergence occurs when there is a clearly optimal solution to a problem. The dominant, divergent trend of the tree of life, however, represents life's stumbling upon and exploiting new niches within the environment.

In the seminars, conferences and workshops so beloved of development agencies one often hears development workers bemoaning the phenomenon of struggling to "reinvent the wheel", meaning having to learn how to do something by trial and error when others elsewhere have already been through the struggle and have found the answer to the problem. This phenomenon is said to be a symptom of imperfect communication between development agencies and projects – perhaps caused by information overload. Or it may be that it is a function of development practitioners' inability to abstract lessons from the experiences of others working in an environment entirely different to the one they work in.

But what about the phenomenon of development projects which "reinvent the square wheel"? There must be hundreds of thousands of development projects in the world today, but how many of them exhibit the sort of excellence which might lead to our calling them "optimal solutions"? Not very many. Projects which have achieved fame and a reputation for excellence are rarely replicated let alone stumbled upon independently by other agencies. At the same time, however, there is a convergence in many development projects upon a number of common weaknesses and failings. Even when the dangers of these are well-known, this knowledge is not enough to inhibit an accidental convergence upon them.

It sometimes seems that development projects do not converge upon optimal solutions to development problems so much as on sub-optimal non-solutions. Why? It may be because the laws of evolution – as they can be applied to the tree of life or to design problems in – cannot be applied to social development and, indeed, history teaches us that evolutionary lessons should be adopted with caution in the social sphere. However, what if the convergence upon the sub-optimal in development practice is in fact a convergence upon optimal answers to some other hidden (rather than the explicitly stated) problems?

Replicating failure

Leaving aside the problems implicit in the term "progress" it is safe to say that development projects are concerned with creating changes that are believed to be desirable. But it is commonplace that (sustainable) change is often elusive. Further, many projects that seem to be valued in their locality – and, thus, seem to work – are never implemented on the scale that would be needed to bring about a meaningful change in the overall environment. These two problems of development projects are related.

It is common amongst NGO community development projects in South Asia to find community volunteers paid a "stipend" that, while being little when compared with the money paid to salaried NGO staff, vastly exceeds the wages commonly paid for work in poor rural communities. Typically, a relatively educated local is employed (to give the practice its true name) to organise (or, to use NGO-speak, "to facilitate") community level activities that are aimed at establishing some new and needed institution. The project runs well and seems to be a success. Then, when the NGO or its donor becomes tired of the project – or, perhaps, seeks to replicate it on a wider scale (and surely there is little point in projects that cannot "go to scale" – see, for example, Rondinelli's seminal book on development planning, Development projects as policy experiments: An adaptive approach to development administration) – it is suddenly realised that there is no hope of the community taking over the running of the project because they cannot see the sense or justice or means of paying five times the local market rate for the facilitator or in doing the work that he (or occasionally she) was paid so much for.

It is also still relatively common to find projects that pay substantial parts of communities to do things (ostensibly) for themselves. Thus, a development agency might decide that toilets are a priority for a certain "backward" area and then go about paying the communities in some villages within the area to construct toilets for themselves. All goes well until it is observed that the "backward" people are even more "backward" than had been suspected – they do not use the toilets – and that neighbouring communities are looking for opportunities to be paid to build toilets (which, one suspects, they will not use either) but are extremely resistant to the idea of building them voluntarily. I have even heard a story – perhaps apocryphal – of an INGO in India which desired to promote the care of the elderly. They did so by paying incentives to families in some villages for doing what they had always done: caring for and respecting the elderly within their family structures. According to the story, things went well at first but slowly other communities started to threaten that they would eject their own elderly unless someone was willing to pay them for the care and respect they had been providing. Eventually, after several years, the INGO got tired of its project and decided to phase it out, resulting in the new (and perhaps sustainable) institution of families refusing to care for their grandfathers and grandmothers because they could not afford to. I cannot resist commenting that this story seems also to exemplify the trend of development projects reproducing essentially Western values in practices in the East!

It matters little if the last story is not true for it sums up in many ways what is all too frequently done by community development agencies. I could go on with similar stories and case studies but there is, I think, no need to. Readers will be all too familiar with the sorts of problems I am writing about. My point is not to draw attention to such problems but to ask why, when we all know about them, we keep making the same basic mistakes.

At another level I could point to another common phenomenon whereby attempts to reformulate development practice – for example, to make it more participatory or more empowering or to treat it as based upon a conception of human rights – lead only to the most superficial changes in practice. The new terms get blurred as they are brought in and come to mean all things to all people. Even the experts of the supposedly new movement or paradigm can sometimes be observed acting against the basic principles that they have helped to hammer out. (An interesting example can be found in C Jackson's article in Development in Practice, vol 7, no 3, 1997.) The new approaches or paradigms are usually presented in the context of a strong critique of previous practice and, thus, the need to move on so as to find a more effective means of promoting real change. But rather than trying out the new approach the practice quickly reverts to something resembling the old approach. Only the names are different. Again, many readers will be familiar with this phenomenon and my point is not to note it – but, rather, to ask why it keeps happening.

In South Asia – and most notably in India – there are numerous examples of successful development projects which have grown from small seeds to take on a life of their own and, thus, to bring about enormous changes. Such examples are truly inspiring and their superiority vis-à-vis the norm in community development projects is easy to demonstrate with simple data. But they are rarely replicated by other development agencies.

Two years ago I spent a couple of days looking at a remarkable project/organisation in Bombay called Pratham. Pratham was started less than a decade ago with the aim of getting "all children in school and learning" throughout the metropolitan area of Bombay. It has nearly succeeded in this aim without recourse to traditional donor funding or to traditional community development methods. By conceiving its task as a "societal mission" it has mobilised vast numbers of people from all walks of life as well as funding from Bombay's vibrant corporate sector. All this started slowly but, as people started to see that it worked, it exploded. (A brief, unpublished monograph written on the subject for Save the Children (UK) in Nepal is available with the author.) As I write, Pratham Bombay is supporting (while resisting the temptation to control) numerous citizen-owned Pratham-inspired initiatives in other Indian cities. But during my visit I became aware that many NGOs and official development agencies were tending to pooh-pooh Pratham's achievements, expressing vaguely articulated concerns and worries about the approaches taken. There were veiled and unsubstantiated references to Pratham's being "too political" or "too concerned with scale" or simply "given to hyperbole". When challenged with data and objectively verifiable facts such critics retreat a little while insisting that "something somewhere is wrong". Why this convergence on rubbishing an exciting and successful project? It is not as if Pratham's objectively verifiable achievement is so commonplace that development practitioners can afford to ignore it.

I worked for a few years in Bangladesh. Bangladesh is, of course, famous for its huge NGOs like Bangladesh Rural Action Committee (BRAC) and the Grameen Bank (to name only the two largest). These organisations have developed an orthodox approach to poverty alleviation, an approach which has attracted praise from the US president and which, having "conquered" Bangladesh, is now rapidly spreading to other countries. Few NGOs in Bangladesh these days attempt to do more than replicate this model (and most are less good than the big super-NGOs at it). This seems at last to be an example of convergence upon or replication of development success. But is it?

This is not the place to go into critiques of microfinance models. Still, we need to note that despite massive investment over the last 25 years in credit and savings projects in Bangladesh the country still has a huge proportion of its huge population living in extremes of poverty. While I am sure that many poor families in the country are much less vulnerable, and lead generally more rewarding lives, as a result of this type of project, I have never met anyone who has actually escaped from poverty – and from its stigma and its restrictions – as a result of the conquest of development in Bangladesh by the Grameen Bank model. Surely more could have been achieved with so much financial and human investment? Could it be that the convergence of all upon this seductive model represents yet again a convergence on the sub-optimal? Is the Grameen Bank also a square wheel?

Further, regardless of whether the model itself represents a less than optimal response to poverty reduction, the convergence of all upon this model is arguably a mistake. It has resulted in the vast majority of development agencies – including the smallest Community Based Organisations (CBOs) and many of the major INGOs – replicating the same model regardless of where their comparative advantage and strategic competence lies. The creativity of what could have been a vibrant NGO sector is thus being compromised.

The evolution of the sub-optimal?

Looking at the tendency of NGO projects to converge on, or replicate, mistakes (sub-optimal solutions to development problems), a biologist might question whether these "mistakes" are indeed sub-optimal. Perhaps they represent optimal solutions to different problems. A biologist might even look at the pattern I described above – whereby apparent initial success ends in a stalemate and failure which was always inevitable from the start – and wonder if some parasitic organism was not at work.

We need to differentiate here between the project (which ostensibly aims at solving some development problem) and the organisation (which ostensibly exists to conduct development projects). Projects may fail while the organisations conducting them, if not "succeeding", thrive. One of the problems of NGOs is that their thriving does not depend directly on their being successful agents of change. Rather, their thriving depends upon their success in raising money. If money supply is only loosely linked to actually succeeding in bringing about change then successful NGOs are likely to have de-prioritised successful projects so as to prioritise fund-raising (image promotion, lobbying, public relations, etc). From this viewpoint it is the donors (institutional and private) who must focus more on ensuring that the projects they fund will not reinvent square wheels. But this merely shifts the responsibility "up" a level without identifying what it is that causes the replication of the sub-optimal.

One way of looking at development problems is to see them as being concerned with a transition from a past characterised by more or less exploitative feudalism and patronage to an idealised future characterised by accountability, governance, justice and equity. Within this framework, one can describe the examples given above as being concerned with flows of money from donors to the poor beneficiaries, with NGOs unambiguously in the role of middlemen. Their task might be described as getting hold of money – by proposing to do something which a donor is interested in – and spending this on activities which aim at in some way, empowering the "poor", "needy" or "backward" community. Paying better educated community members to implement the activities may in this context be seen as an almost sinister attempt to benefit local representatives of NGO workers' own class. Or it may represent merely the attraction of easy results bought through patronage rather than through a community conviction that the work is worthwhile.

Even the great NGOs of Bangladesh can be understood as acting within a patronage framework. It is they that have grown over the years (rather than a people's movement) and the ever-growing numbers of beneficiaries who they "serve" remain dependent upon them for access to their credit services. It is known that the excellent repayment rates achieved by organisations using the Grameen Bank model is a result of their beneficiaries being keen to retain the relationship with the credit giving organisation – in the same way that a landless labourer in Bangladesh will invest respect and even money in maintaining a good relationship with a patron/employer. If a loan is lost on a failed venture it is normal for a new and bigger loan to be taken to repay it. However, as soon as the prospect of future loans is removed – for example, through the project being phased out – all beneficiary respect and compliance will be lost and the loans will not be repaid.

Note the contrast between this situation and the Pratham example. Pratham has mobilised internal resources – financial and human – and is using these for the development of the next generation of human resources. Far from dispensing patronage, Pratham requires real sacrifices from its members – but they still join in large numbers. Pratham as an organisation in the formal sense hardly exists – you will not find a Pratham office anywhere in Bombay or managers sitting in comfortable offices or driving around in fancy Pratham cars – but as a force for change it is very tangible for all that. When I introduced Pratham, above, I found it difficult to decide whether to call it a project or an organisation. Whatever it is, it seems to belong to its members.

Does it matter?

Parasites can be benign – they can provide a useful service to the creatures they live off – or more or less malign. The only thing that a parasite cannot afford to do is kill off its hosts too quickly! There are two ways of thinking about the situation I have sketched above.

Firstly, it may be that the patterns that are evolving are doing so out of recently existing social patterns – feudalism and patronage – and that they represent a more benign form of these. We may say that it is a necessary evolutionary process – and perhaps a necessarily slow one – and we might predict the slow development of increasingly effective development institutions. In this context, the buying of results may have more to do with a rather sentimental – but no less genuine – sympathy with the poor and backward. There is no reason why this should not, in time, grow into a more radical change-oriented motivation. The same seems to have happened during the evolution of social work in, for example, Britain although an analysis of this history also tends to uncover a desire to control and to normalise – as well as sympathy for – the ignorant poor (see, for example, FK Prockoska, Women and philanthropy in nineteenth century England, 1980).

Alternatively, we might suggest that development NGOs are evolving from existing social patterns which benefit elites and which represent part of the problem rather than part of the answer. Such a process, we might say, will not and cannot evolve into an effective force for social change. Rather, if we wish to see such a force we should look to the masses and encourage their participation at all levels of the development agenda. (Said Hashemi of the Grameen Trust in Bangladesh has argued along these lines on historical grounds.)

In the first scheme, the Grameen Bank and BRAC are wonderful examples of a growing force for social justice in Bangladesh, just as Pratham might be – only in a different way – for Bombay. In the alternative view the Grameen Bank and BRAC may better resemble parts of a new system for exploiting – and redistributing amongst the middle classes – aid flows intended for the poor. They are unlikely to deliver significant social change as a result of this activity. Pratham, on the other hand, might still represent an inclusive union of all for building a better society.

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Himal Southasian