Climbing the ladder

2013-05-17 00:00

IN a poor community, who gets to help drive the development bus when it arrives? Community representative structures and project steering committees have become synonymous with development projects, dominating the landscape of rural infrastructure projects. But how these institutions are established and composed leaves much to be desired in terms of representing the many voices in the community.

Social exclusion is inherent in communities and only the voices of the powerful are heard. The many voices of the poorest, most vulnerable households are never audible beyond the periphery.

All community structures show traces of social exclusion. While a few poor households successfully climb the economic ladder, they often become corrupted during their transformation and turn against their peers who are still languishing at the bottom of the pile. The dominant views in the social system tend to reinforce the many accidental consequences of success — where the poor applaud the success of their own and hope that their rewards will be enjoyed by many. As a consequence, poor households see these “graduates” as their vanguard and elect them into positions of power to represent the interest of the majority poor. But over time, their voices fade.

How does this happen? Elements of inferiority complex play out negatively during the election of project committees. Households that have an unclear history of economic success or social status are automatically denied access to positions of power by their own, which is self-exclusion.

But self-exclusion should not be confused with personal development. It is natural for a person who graduates from poverty to adopt the behaviours and identities of a higher social class. It must also be accepted that association with members of the former class will decline as this change happens. However, the pressures associated with personal development also tend to cause a person to lose the perspectives of the poor they once associated with. These are people who get elected onto these many committees.

Many claims have been made about how poor households have greater access to technology. While it’s true that ownership of cellphones and access to affordable airtime products have improved, this does not suggest that communication between poor households and development workers has got better. Some poor households may be participating on fast-paced media platforms, but many do not have access to the technology that dominates the communication space. Is it realistic to expect them to have e-mail on their cellphones? Again, the result is exclusion from making decisions about development.

There are some cases where members of poor households make it onto these project committees, but the common view suggests that financial responsibilities and other voluntary work expectations drive members away from them. The service delivery and development sector should start appreciating that poor households spend most of their time just trying to put food on the table, and project committees tend to compete with these priorities. Unfortunately, some development practitioners equate this with a lack of commitment. A lack of experience and/or education have been cited as other hindrances to participation on project committees and some have been convinced that capacity-building and training are the answer to all these woes.

There are many known consequences of this exclusion. Claims of a lack of project ownership have been made. Many poverty-alleviation projects that have been designed for poor households have failed. Some projects have been stalled by internal conflicts. While some have been very successful, what can be done differently to achieve improved results? The list of solutions includes preparing people for participation in projects by instilling the values of ownership and helping meet the priorities of the intended beneficiaries. This should help achieve a balanced representation of social classes in the community. Further investments should be made for structured mentorship that allows these institutions to explore and make mistakes, so that they can start being innovative in trying to find appropriate solutions for their livelihoods in the future. Where external development experts try to avoid risk by not allowing committees to make minor mistakes, this can be costly as people tend to disown projects where critical decisions are imposed.

Project time frames and compliance targets should be guided by the capacities of the project committee members and should be made flexible to blend with local dynamics in seeking solutions to identified challenges. For instance, projects that are designed to help poor people should never overlook the fact that they will transform and become the largest customer base when the project is finished. The more flexibility one allows the beneficiaries to appreciate and lead the project, the better the chances of it being sustained.

Lastly, development practitioners should appreciate the cues for development that are demonstrated by vulnerable households. We should take time to understand the many ways used to defeat poverty and graduate up the social ladder. Without poverty, there would be no rich families.

• Nqe Dlamini is a rural development consultant.

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