Forget development goals. Focus on empowering communities

A shorter version of this blog also appears here.

Some months ago, I wrote a blog post on the United Nation’s post-2015 process for Sustainable Development Goals and Millennium Development Goals, noting that the global community had not yet been able to reconcile its differences on environment and development. The blog called on the global community to start facing up to the causes of poverty and environmental degradation, rather than setting artificial goals that merely put the focus on symptoms. This, I said, was the only way to create a more effective, integrated, inclusive and trustworthy system of global governance for sustainable development.

In response, I received a request to write a follow-up blog, elaborating on solutions – how can sustainability be reconciled with development, and global governance be made more inclusive and trustworthy? It has taken me a while to comply, mainly because I had my head down in a field-based study on the challenges of adapting to climate change impacts in rural India. This turned out to be rather fortunate, because it gave me a “bottom up” view of the challenges faced by poor and marginalized communities in adapting to climate impacts – a subject of intense international debate currently, and one that urgently needs reconciliation between sustainability and development if action is to be effective.

I will, therefore, take climate change adaptation in rural India as an example to explore the two questions from the point of view of poor and vulnerable communities, and developing countries. The analysis should also apply to the post-2015 process. After all, the eventual aim of global processes on both issues is to affect change at the “local” level, where implementation is to take place.

Reconciling “sustainable” with “development”

Unless mainstream development sectors in India urgently integrate climate adaptation concerns into their activities, the rural poor, vulnerable and marginalized are unlikely to adapt in time. This much is widely acknowledged. However, inter-sectoral integration has proven to be a major challenge in India in the past, as each sector works in its own “silo”, and with its own budget. When these target-oriented, top-down policies of each sector filter down to rural villages, they arrive with earmarked funds that are neatly packaged and linked to sector-specific goals and targets, severely limiting opportunities for synergies among goals for agriculture, water, natural resource management or rural development. This has been a real problem with India’s well-known National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGA), for instance – the focus is largely on simply generating short-term employment, without realizing the opportunities provided by the scheme to generate long-term livelihoods, or infrastructure for the rural poor. Another example is the environment sector in India (now scarily in charge of climate change and hence adaptation), which has gained something of a reputation for its single-minded pursuit of increasing forest acreage, while not only ignoring the vast potential for livelihood generation through reforestation and afforestation, but in fact ruthlessly felling community livelihoods along the way.

Global goals for poverty or environmental regeneration are not going to change this state of affairs. In fact, if anything, global funding  (multilateral and bilateral) exacerbates the situation. This too, comes bound to specific projects, activities and targets, with contributors sometimes going to great lengths to draw the line between development and environment, either because the donor is obliged to report the funding in a certain way, or because the donor or institution has a particular preference or mandate.  The funding arrives in rural India not only with conditionalities attached, but also an alien and exclusivist vocabulary – “adaptation”, “mitigation”, “biodiversity”, or “desertification”, which simply does not strike a cord with community needs.

What does make sense for rural communities in India, however, is the need to protect their livelihoods – and the natural resource base that these livelihoods depend on. In a country where more than 50 percent of the population still lives in rural areas and relies mainly on natural resource-based livelihoods, “Jal, Jangal, Zameen” – water, forests and soil – are words that do make sense. That slogan, used often by the rural poor in India to articulate the rights they value most, encapsulates the integral importance of the environment to development in rural India. It is not a choice for the rural poor that their development has to be ecologically sound – it simply has to be.

This is not news. Communities across India and the world have proven again and again that when they are empowered to plan and implement for themselves, they are capable of much more integrated thinking than bureaucrats chasing a water, or agriculture, or livelihood target. But then why does the global community (including national governments) persist in putting these communities in a position where they have to bow to lesser wisdom, while eroding confidence in their own hard-earned traditional wisdom? Why, for instance, do we talk of community-based adaptation and ecosystem-based adaptation as two different approaches? Why not “community and ecosystem based approaches”? Why do we continue to talk merely of community “participation” in development? Why not Community Driven Development (CDD), or Community Driven Adaptation (CDA), where communities don’t just “participate” in activities meant to benefit them, but actually drive it by controlling the funds? This must be the ultimate goal that any global process on sustainable development must strive to: to put communities firmly in the driving seat, in control of their own futures.

Encourage, enable, empower

This is not to say that national governments and the global community must step aside and let communities get on with it. Transferring such power to the communities carries with it the obligation to ensure that communities are equipped to carry out the functions expected of them. National governments and the global community have a crucial responsibility in encouraging, empowering and enabling communities. 

India, for instance, has been in the process of devolving planning and implementation to local governments, or Panchayats, for the last two decades. It is not an easy job. There are deeply rooted vested interests along the way – institutions and individuals that have either held power or seek it, and are unwilling to let go. A lot of investment is needed at least initially, more than India currently spends, in providing rural communities with the resources they need: information, funds and capacity to develop, plan, implement and monitor solutions, and create systems for transparency and accountability to hold their elected panchayats to account.

There have been – still are – problems on India’s path to devolution.  For instance, local governments are not automatically more transparent and accountable than state, national or global governments. (I use the term global government loosely here. Of course there is no such thing – global governance is hardly participatory or representative). However, novel solutions have been found in response. Jan Sunwais, or “social audits” have been pioneered as a way to publicly account for funds, in the presence of all the villagers and an independent third party. Social audits are now required by law for NREGA funds, which are controlled by panchayats. In some states, independent bodies, beyond the influence of government, have been established to oversee the process. Funds have been recovered in cases of corruption, and wrongdoers punished. Communities are therefore able to engage more meaningfully, and implement integrated solutions.

This experience in devolution in India holds several lessons for global governance. For too long, the global community – at the insistence of developed countries – has invested in building the capacities of global intermediaries or “implementing agencies” to plan and implement globally-funded activities in developing countries. This is because they trust neither developing country governments nor local communities in these countries to act in their own best interests. The global agencies, in turn, have listened to their paymasters and promoted a divisive agenda based on top-down targets, implemented through off-the-shelf solutions. Contributors can cherry pick what they choose to fund – “development” or “environment”, with many sub-categories laid out in chocolate boxes in between, all with interchangeable labels. What is development funding today could be labeled adaptation funding tomorrow. These funds are then channeled through these intermediary agencies, which, after the investments made in them for years, provide off-the-shelf, cookie-cutter solutions in one or the other category.

In this grand scheme of things, accountability flows only one way – up. Just like communities in rural India remain ultimately accountable to petty bureaucrats who continue to hold the purse strings, they are accountable to bilateral or multilateral agencies for globally funded activities. There is no downward, reverse accountability – the agencies either have no ombudsmen or dispute resolution mechanisms in place, by which communities may question their actions. If they do, these are not immediately accessible by communities.

The result is a system of global governance for sustainable development that is ineffective, inequitable and incoherent. The inter-agency technical support team (TST), established to support the Open Working Group for the SDGs under the umbrella of the UN System Task Team, largely agrees with this analysis in its issue brief on global governance, where it finds that current arrangements have been unable to satisfactorily address development challenges; fall short on representation, with developing countries under-represented in several key decision-making bodies; and are incoherent, unable to bridge the gap between globally agreed goals and aspiration, and policies at the national level. It finds that the current mass of specialized international organizations present a challenge for integrated responses in an era of interrelated sustainable development challenges. Moreover, the TST analysis agrees that the current funding architecture incentivizes global institutions to “to advocate the relevance of their specific agendas and mandates in order to strengthen their fundraising prospects, even sometimes at the expense of a broader and more efficient inter-agency collaboration.

An agenda for post-2015

There is a lot of talk about “paradigm change” and “transformational change” these days, both in the context of climate change, and the post-2015 process.  Transformational change is defined by some as “the creation and change of a whole new form, function or structure”. It is a “change in mindset”, based on “leading with knowledge and courage”. Do we, and our governments (in both developed and developing countries), have the stomach for it?

If we are serious about addressing the concerns of poor and vulnerable communities through meaningful sustainable development, building a system of global governance that is considered effective, integrated, coherent and fair, here is what we must do.

  • Make Community Driven Development the primary goal for global development policy. The role of the global community must be purely to encourage, enable and empower communities and grassroots civil society to identify and address their own priorities and solutions.
  • Resist the temptation to set top-down targets with earmarked funds – particularly when such targets seek to alienate environment and development; promote blinkered, off-the-shelf solutions; or rely on “tick mark” activity, or data manipulation for success.
  • Design/redesign international financial institutions in a way that they are governed democratically by developed and developing country governments, and make Community Driven Development and community access of funds a priority. Let countries and communities decide how the funds are used, as long as they are used in a transparent, accountable manner and produce results. (The new Green Climate Fund is an ideal opportunity, for instance, to promote “enhanced direct access”, where decision making on the use of funds is devolved to the recipient country.) The operational principles of global sustainable development funds should underline priority access by poor, vulnerable and marginalized communities, and national civil society in developing countries should be facilitated to ensure that this happens. Make funding predictable and flexible, to allow for long-term planning and investments in long-term, enduring solutions.
  • To fund this process, first revamp the global trade and financial system to take into account the real costs of ecosystem use to fund the lifestyles of the rich – currently a subsidy for the rich from the poor. Given the poor record of rich countries in meeting their financial promises for development or climate change so far, a more “automatic” source of funding will be needed – either assessed contributions based on the wealth of a country, or an international income tax applicable to the rich in all countries. These funds could used to create a Global Poverty Fund, whose main function will be to channel funds to communities and monitor progress towards goals.
  • Build systems for “top to down” accountability, in addition to improving existing “bottom to top” accountability.  The global governance system, such as it is, must be made accountable to poor communities (even as the capacity of communities to hold their own elected governments accountable are built). Every global sustainable development process or institution must have an accessible process by which these communities can question their decisions. “Bottom to top” accountability, meanwhile, should focus on results based on independent verification, but should also take into account that communities will have to go through a learning process, and will need to build up their capacities, engagement and confidence over time.
  • In consultation with communities, identify elements that the global community can provide to enable and empower Community Driven Development, in addition to funds. Information, capacity, technology and technical expertise – make the provision of these elements much more systematic and synergistic than it currently is, focused on enabling and empowering communities. 

Once communities are firmly in the driving seat, we can significantly thin down existing international financial institutions for development, and channel those savings to building national and community capacity. For instance, this study estimates that if the Green Climate Fund operationalises “enhanced direct access” and devolves decision-making on which activities are to be funded to the country level, it will avoid the need to hire 25,000-40,000 people to process the US$ 100 billion that may flow through it. Imagine the saving that can be made in this way, and plowed into community empowerment!

This entry was posted in Climate change, Global governance, Green Climate Fund, Millenium Development Goals, Poverty, Sustainable Development Goals, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Forget development goals. Focus on empowering communities

  1. krishnan says:

    “Build systems for “top to down” accountability, in addition to improving existing “bottom to top” accountability..” But how will the governance component be in place..?


  2. Anju Sharma says:

    You point to a core issue, Krishnan. Local-level governance that is responsive to community needs is a critical element for success in implementing sustainable development. But our current model only succeeds in dealing with it in broad headlines (such as calling, quite hypocritically in my mind, for good governance), or through the tick-box activities I mention in the blog (such as providing for one-off consultations or setting up committees with no real power).

    Putting the communities in charge of funds and establishing accountability systems can help to reverse this – governance will be more responsive to communities if they hold the purse strings, and have the means to enforce “top to down” accountability (like the social audits in India).

    Of course, this change needs to take place in national and local governance systems. Communities across the developing world have been pressing for this for decades, and in many places their efforts are bearing fruit – in India, for instance. But it will still take time and investments, and there are no short cuts. The global community must stop to understand how it can support this change (some ideas are mentioned in the blog), rather than undermine it (for instance, by diverting /splitting scarce resources to address top-down priorities or pet issues).

    Thank you for your comment!


  3. Pingback: KOICA » Forget development goals. Focus on community empowerment.

  4. Pingback: Vulnerable India 1: Climate change in the world’s largest democracy | It must be said!

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