Going with the grain

There has been a spurt of blog posts this week about going with or against the grain when it comes to development interventions (see Governance and Development blog and From Poverty to Power ). The basic idea is that rather than pursuing good governance ideals such as democratic participation, it may be more effective to work with existing governance structures and cultural norms to find incentives for the political elite to invest in sustainable national development. For example, in Senegal where secular state schools are unpopular, the state has worked with the Islamic community to provide new schools which teach the national curriculum but which also meet parents’ demands for the inclusion of Islamic norms.

On a local level, one of the projects which I am studying here in Burundi also follows the notion of ‘going with the grain’. The project aims to improve local governance and healthcare by forming a village network composed of representatives from different community organisations along with the elected village leaders and the Bashingantahe (local “wise men”).  An NGO provides training to this network of leaders on the subjects of health and hygiene practices, conflict resolution and how to seek external assistance. The idea is that the community representatives then pass on what they have learnt to the other members of their associations.  This should mean that the community’s health and social relations are improved through increased knowledge and collaboration between community groups.

On the one hand, it makes sense to strengthen the existing power structures by focusing the training on the current leaders because they can use their influence for the benefit of the community. The project should also make the community organisations more effective by uniting them to work on the same issues.  Interestingly, it has also been found that by bringing the elected leaders and community organisations together, the elected leaders have gained more power and recognition in the community. Before, for example, when an elected leader called a community meeting, only a few people would turn up but now, the majority of the village turns up because the leaders are better connected with the community.

However, as I discussed in an earlier post, not all the local leaders are good leaders. Some don’t show respect for women or youth or give them space to speak even when they have been chosen as community representatives. Therefore, reinforcing the position of these leaders without addressing problems of power imbalance between different social groups may mean that poverty, particularly among women continues to be reproduced. Unless women gain a voice in decision-making and a higher status in society, traditional rules which, for example, prevent women from having land rights, are unlikely to change.

So, it seems to me that “going with the grain” can be an important first step in development interventions and that it can improve the capacity of leaders to work for their community. However, if longer term changes are to occur whereby public policy is changed so that it effectively addresses the needs of the poorest, I think that problems of power imbalance in governance and community structures must still not be ignored.

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The ups and the downs

When I first arrived in Chennai, my research went very quickly, so quickly that I thought I would be finished after a month!  I spent the first five weeks concentrating on the situation in Kannagi Nagar and the social movements there.  It was very easy to talk to people since many are unemployed and so are simply at home during the day.  The NGO employees and local government staff all work in Kannagi Nagar and so all my respondents were close at hand.  In the last month however, my research has focused on government officials from various departments, academics, journalists and activists and suddenly doing research has become a slow and sometimes exasperating process.

In the last few weeks, I’ve begun to experience the frustrations which I had originally anticipated when I imagined doing fieldwork.  One day, last week, I had three interviews pre-arranged only to have them all cancelled one by one.  After a hot, noisy and crowded bus ride, having an interview cancelled when you arrive is a rather annoying experience.  At times it is hard to remind myself that people are doing me a favour by talking to me at all and that I have no right to an interview with them anyway.  Still, on days like that it’s not so easy to be tolerant of the crowded buses and the constant noise of the horns and of people staring at me.  I have to tell myself again that it was me who chose to come to Chennai and so what can I really expect?

Yet, while there have been frustrating days, I’ve also had some unexpected luck.  One day, having not been able to find the person I was looking for, I was sent to a different resettlement site to look for ‘the engineer’.  I would never have planned to speak to an engineer from the other site but he actually gave lots of valuable information and opinions as well as the phone numbers of three other colleagues.  I may not be entirely in control of my research but it has its fruitful moments all the same.  I’ve also finally been able to speak to the managing director of the slum clearance board so things are looking up.  It was an interesting interview and he was very happy to talk to me.  He gave the usual answers for the poor conditions in Kannagi Nagar, blaming the expense of providing water to individual houses and the high land prices closer to the city centre.  He seems genuinely concerned by the problems with the infrastructure in Kannagi Nagar but he’s unaware of the extent of the problems.  I had to show him on a photo that some houses do in fact have to share a toilet.  Despite being managing director, he has never been to Kannagi Nagar and I have found that in general the higher officials have no real idea of the current conditions in the resettlement site.  The slum board only has to submit reports to the state government and these reports concern only construction details, not information on the public services provided or the welfare of the resettled people.

As I see it, the slum board is basically a construction agency, consisting mainly of engineers, whose focus is to build as many resettlement houses as quickly as possible. The nationwide goal for slum-free cities drives the relocation of slum dwellers to the suburbs to make way for large infrastructure projects like a metro rail and elevated expressways.    The government claims that is simply does not own any land in the centre but, by evicting slum dwellers from its land along the river banks and other areas, it can claim back small parcels of land.  Having said this, some of the reclaimed land has been made into parks, which to me suggests that the government prioritises ‘beautifying’ the city over improving the slums in the location where they are.

Ultimately, I think that urban development in Chennai is creating a city in which commerce and expensive housing is concentrated in the centre, ghettos of resettled slum dwellers are built in the outskirts and migrants and other poor people sleep on the pavements rather than searching for work in the suburbs.  The city population is growing, the land prices are rising, the housing shortage is severe and so unless the government makes affordable housing a priority now, I think the slum clearance board will have many more slums to clear in the future.