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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Power relations and community organisations

It’s a quiet week for me in Gitega as every village in the province is taking part in a vaccination programme so my field visits are write-off. Still, it’s a chance to catch up and reflect on what I’ve learnt so far.

During the last couple of weeks, I’ve been doing lots of focus group discussions with community-based organisations in different parts of the province. I’m using participatory methods to encourage the groups to discuss what their strengths are and how they can overcome problems in their community. It has been really interesting to see how some groups are more effective than others in changing their community and some of the results are quite inspirational. At the centre of it all is the question of social structures and power relations. While some groups really include people from the most marginalised social groups, such as widows and repatriated people, others groups are dominated by the local leaders and offer little hope for raising the status of the most vulnerable people.

The groups which include people from a range of social positions and which have been well-trained in advocacy and conflict resolution have shown that they really raise the voices of their members. Women, who said they never used to speak out, now say that they challenge injustice and that local leaders are afraid of them because they know that they speak the truth. Such community groups have managed to reduce the elite’s monopoly on power and have increased their own power through their collective action which has gained them greater respect from the community too. Other groups, however, are led by the existing male leaders who do not give the women and young people in the group a chance to speak. Despite being encouraged to respect women’s rights and advocate for the most vulnerable, I saw the leaders ridiculing women as they tried to participate in discussions. It’s hugely frustrating to see this but it underlines the importance of recognising the power structures in a community and making sure that any intervention addresses the imbalance of power which is reproducing inequalities in the community.

Changing power relations and social structures is, of course, not an easy thing to do or something that is easily measured and documented but I’m convinced that this is essential for reducing poverty and increasing social justice.