In my last post on structuring collective action, I was commenting on the debate around cooperation and collective action among the many different stakeholders involved in the development sector. My stand was that while it is very important to foster collaboration among the many participating organizations in this domain, it is useless to sit around and debate on it. Collaboration will not magically come about because of especially touching rhetoric. Further, there are always going to be groups of organizations that will collaborate and work together because their partnerships are structured such that these organizations have the incentive to collaborate.
- Suddenly making a big deal about "collective action" is annoying because organizations, people and even politicians are always acting collectively, even if on a small scale. There is a long history of research that looks into the whats and hows of social organization and collective action. Why not take a look at that?
- Inaccurately calling this collective "impact" when impact is uncertain is also annoying because it presumes that if we all sit around in a circle, problems will evaporate and "impact" will occur. Ummm...humans do not inevitably tend to organize their social systems as one big circle and it will always be problematic to make us do so. There is a lot of research on this as well.
What might be more interesting and fruitful would be to understand how collaboration can be incentivized in a given ecosystem of organizations. I can't provide a universally applicable answer, but I can try to structure the problem itself.
By the way, this problem has been tackled in a number of areas. My own thesis advisor - Dr. Elinor Ostrom - built her entire body of scholarship on this question in the natural resource management sector. Here is her book on Governing for Collective Action.
In the area of social enterprises and development, this question has been voiced in many ways. Here is one only slightly paraphrased (from a Forbes article on the Challenges of Communication for Large-scale Collective Action):
"Five conditions of collective success - a common agenda, a shared measurement system, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication among stakeholders, and a backbone organization to support the effort. But even when these partnerships are well organized, collective action on a global scale is simply much harder than in a local or national context. Why is that?"
Almost every development agency, nonprofit or government today has plans for 'participatory' project implementation that involves a lot of partnership building with diverse stakeholders. Different sectors or policy issue areas will have different actors, beneficiaries and stakeholders. But one can usefully pick out at least 3 broad sets of actors in the development (social and economic) sector of work:
- funders (governments, foundations, individual philanthropists, international or domestic development agencies)
- nonprofits or other implementing agencies (also includes government agencies) .... i.e. intermediaries in the funding chain
- target beneficiaries (communities, households meeting some eligibility criteria, or individuals)
In the schematic diagram below, I have tried to point out the relative strengths - and hence ideal roles - of each of these sets of actors. The details of this division of labour can be debated and further refined, but the more difficult problem is that of creating an incentive structure that motivates these actors to make decisions according to their strengths and arrive upon socially (or at least, mutually) beneficial courses of action. In this post I will start to tease out elements of this puzzle.
This post starts with a discussion of participatory approaches to problem solving, and the tole of target beneficiaries. It then moves into a discussion of the nonprofit intermediaries, and problematic conflicts of interest.
The idea of participatory problem-solving has been around for a long time. As I indicate in the diagram above, local communities have an excellent understanding of the problems they face and a good idea of what solutions may not be appropriate for their local context. This makes it efficient to involve them in the planning and implementation process.
Even back in the 1980s, development agencies were starting to experiment with "bottom up" project design rather than "top down" project imposition (at least on paper). Governments all over the developing world have joined the decentralization bandwagon (again.... at least on paper), made "empowerment of local communities" their mantra, and tried to create numerous local-level governance institutions (councils, local governments, village-level collectives).
The concept keeps getting revamped periodically and getting trendier names.
- The US social sector is currently seeing the trend of Human Centered Design, an approach that is being developed and used by consultancy firms such as IDEO which tackle both private and public sector challenges.
- This is a label that makes intuitive sense to a culture and a generation which ponders social engineering far more explicitly than previous generations, likely because of its comfort with letting technology-based engineering "design" all aspects of personal life. Essentially this is a millennial version, a Version 2.0 if you will, of participatory approaches to development projects.
- The idea common to all these specific models - usually implemented by individuals and organizations from developed countries - is that the most feasible and effective solutions can only emerge if the target beneficiaries (the ones who are actually facing the problems) are a direct partner in the problem solving process.
- The thing is, meaningful participation can be very difficult to achieve and mean very different things in different contexts, depending upon the target beneficiaries. For a short discussion of how complex it is to facilitate real public sector participation by marginalized communities using government institutions, see my blog post here.
- There are many things that act as a barrier to meaningful participation by communities: lack of education, lack of knowledge about the solutions that are already being implemented elsewhere, lack of exposure to similar problems and problem-solving conversations occurring across the globe, lack of confidence in ability to change one's social condition, lack of trust in implementing agencies especially governments, lack of trust in each other and hence the difficulties of collective action in making solutions work.... and on and on.
Conclusions & Caveats
I think there would be unequivocal agreement on the appropriateness of a participatory approach. My concern is that this is a great idea on paper, but when it comes to on-ground implementation, there is rarely a clear, unified picture of what "participation" by a target community entails.
- A more productive trend in my opinion is to start developing concrete and creative methods to ensure meaningful participation, and to have some means of creating a standardized approach to participation.
- Further, barriers to meaningful participation MUST be considered. Absolutely.
- Without supplementary projects that increase access to education, the quality and coverage of these participatory approaches cannot be enhanced over time. Here, I am NOT talking about of basic literacy programs but of comprehensive, sophisticated education about the specific public problems at hand.
The damning point : Participation or Autonomy?
Here is the conundrum that many in the social sector themselves acknowledge:
The goal of community participation or empowerment should be to ultimately remove the need for intervention by nonprofit organizations, but nonprofit organizations would need to be inhumanly altruistic to spend immense resources on establishing institutions that end up putting them out of business.
This is a very significant problem.
- In the schematic diagram I provided above, the role of the target beneficiaries was to provide insightful information about the problems that they are facing, solutions that may not have worked in the past, and specific factors (social / cultural / economic) that may act as implementation barriers to theoretically ideal solutions.
- In turn, the role of the intermediaries was to construct solutions from these highly accurate representations of the existing problem and explore opportunities for getting these solutions funded through foundation grants, government budgets, private donations, impact investments, or conditional loans.
Conflicts of Interest
The individual roles of community and intermediaries are quite well encapsulated in the human-centric designs to solving development challenges that I referred to earlier in this post. Just last week I had the opportunity to attend the conference on social markets - SOCAP 2012. Here I listened to some very innovative ideas for maximizing the success of solutions by fine-tuning the solutions according to the needs of a community or a household, and doing this fine-tuning by really engaging in an in-depth manner with the individuals that face these problems.
As I see it, one problem has to do with the cost-effectiveness of this approach and hence its sustainability. The bigger problem is one it shares with most non-domestic development approaches: how to slowly reduce the dependence upon external intervention?
- While this participation-intensive approach (such as that used by IDE Cambodia) can yield very effective results, it is also a resource intensive approach. This means that it will be very difficult to employ this approach in every small town, local community, or remote village.
- However, this approach becomes cheaper to implement IF local communities themselves are trained to think like the designers using this model and learn to analyze and work together on problems as they arise.
- My take on this : In other words, if these second-generation development nonprofits helped solve problems while simultaneously teaching communities to solve their own problems in creative ways over time, then dependence on outside intervention could be reduced to some extent over time. This would make the target communities self-reliant and empowered in a truer sense of the word.
- This is not different from the current strategy of the American military in Afghanistan for example: the American military trains the Afghani military, Afghani troops start replacing American troops, the American troops continue this process of substitution till they are all pulled out.
But this brings about the basic conflict of interest that I pointed out above. Are nonprofits going to be ready to allow the communities to participate so fully in the development process that the need for the nonprofits themselves is diminished? What I am suggesting is that strategically train their beneficiaries to take over their own tasks. But the bigger a business development becomes, the more difficult this becomes to accomplish. Structuring optimal collaborations between nonprofits and communities becomes difficult when the former have an incentive to lengthen their stay while the latter would be better off by having stronger institutions that allow them to solve their own problems.
A legitimate question is to ask why this dependence on external intervention needs to cease at all....
If you think about it from a local perspective, then regulation or welfare or any other aspect of governance by a regional or a national government is also "external intervention". Indeed this is a common sentiment expressed in American politics. Government intervention being seldom of the good or effective kind, such can also often be the prevailing sentiment in a developing country such as India.
Further, the theme of the day is "public-private" partnerships: a combination of state-led and market-based solutions to problems of public goods and services. If private organizations are going to be part of the public service provision and delivery chain, then why not adopt a more liberal approach and allow foreign organizations to become a part of national systems? After all, from public health to agriculture, large businesses work hand-in-hand with governments around the world to create goods and services that are used in the public sector. These are not "interventions", these are collaborations, or public supply chains. Why should development be any different?
That being said, I think that the biggest argument lies in efficiency.
Especially when nonprofits are funded by taxpayers' money (whether domestic nonprofits or foreign ones), one doesn't want to have to perpetually pay nonprofits. One wants them to do a job, get paid, then move out. Intermediaries always add costs, whether in healthcare systems or in the microfinance sector.
Look, we already have a decentralized government structure in most democratic countries. It may be debatable but is also reasonable to say that reforming these existing structures to better provide for citizens is more efficient than creating an entire parallel structure at the global scale to help the poor, feed the hungry, and educate the less literate.
- We need all these third party organizations to act as a safety net for those that slip through cracks in existing welfare systems and we also need these organizations to innovate and show alternative means of achieving the same goals.
- It is very important to have diversity of approach when it comes to solving social problems, because the problems themselves are so diverse and highly contextual.
But in all of this, especially when funds are scarce, we need a way to have nonprofits come up with solutions and then learn to transfer this ability to local communities and governments so that the solutions can be sustainably implemented in the long run, and also adapted to meet future challenges.