Pradeep Narayanan

Pradeep Narayanan of Praxis, India, is a contributor to the themed section on Community Development and Millennium Development Goals in Issue 4 of CDJ’s 50th year. He is co-editor (with Tom Thomas) of the book, Participation Pays: Pathways for post 2015, Practical Action Publishing, London, 2015.  Pradeep attended the CDJ 50th Anniversary Conference as panellist on the panel ‘International development post-2015 – what should be the contribution of community development?’. This paper combines his presentation with reflections on the conference.

Community Participation is Community development:
Lessons for Post 2015 Development Agenda

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have used desirable words, ideal language and, to a large extent, had appropriately reflected the needs of the community at that point of time. Indisputably, the MDGs were a turning point in the way the development sector approached development. The availability of global targets helped different stakeholders align their strategies against the MDGs. Having said that, MDGs, despite 15 years of existence, are not yet known to people for whom these goals have been set. “It is my life that policy makers dissect and analyse”. “MDGs were formulated for us and we were not even aware of these”. These were the views of marginalised communities. Our interactions with marginalised communities in six states of India show that these communities do not even know of, let alone own them[1]. In India, they have not become part of the political process, especially electoral politics. If one looks at election manifestoes of leading political parties in the last fifteen years, there is rarely any mention of the institution of MDGs. They were not popularly aligned with the democratic polity of the country. Simple, they were not the goals of the people.

The critics rightly say that the MDGs have been made by the North for the South. In my opinion, the MDGs have been made by the North for the North to support the South. The MDGs have been used extensively by bilateral and multilateral donors while making the resource allocations to different development projects. Some donor funded programmes from Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (education for all programme in India) and the AIDS prevention programme can, to some extent, be attributed to the MDGs. Having said that, the reality is that the world is far from achieving the said targets.

Lack of Community Participation is an important barrier: Policy-making is an impenetrable domain, privy to the political executive and bureaucrats, with some role for the academic community and lately (and rather minimalistically) civil society actors. Businesses have their own ways and means of influencing policies – a power that only business holds. An important stakeholder who is missing in the policy spaces is the vulnerable community – for whom these policies are made. The processes of “research” and “consultations” are assumed to be the ‘bridge’ between policy makers and communities. But the truth is, researches are rarely participatory. Conventionally, researches treat communities merely as respondents. Similarly policy-consultations generally have participants from civil society organisations who are perceived as communicators of community voice. Given this, sadly, the direct voices of the community in policy spaces have historically been limited.

The learnings from the Participate initiative[2] is that even in global policy making, attempts can be made to create spaces for communities to engage directly with policy makers. The UN’s High Level Panel members comprising politicians, bureaucrats, academicians and corporate representatives provided their expert recommendations. The Participate initiative formed Ground Level Panels that comprised of members whose only expertise was that they were presently living in poverty and facing exclusion. They discussed and deliberated for five days as panelists. They sought information and analysed it to make their own set of goals and targets. GLP may not be a substitute for HLPs or the consultations and researches. But the idea is to impress upon the fact that the onus is on us to be innovative and creative for creating spaces for marginalised communities not merely as respondent but to help their analyses and inferences to find space in the policy-making processes.

What should be the goals? The Ground Level Panel organised in India by Praxis[3] stated very clearly that the Sustainable Development Goals should not make the same mistake as MDGs by mentioning health, education, shelter, food, livelihood as the goals. They have been mentioned in far more detail in the Indian Constitution and different global instruments and protocols. It is time that the SDGs embrace such barriers as goals, which have prevented people from realising these goals. The barriers are “discrimination”, “traditional customs and practices rooted in patriarchy”, “corruption”, “non-responsive governance” and “absence of community participation in governance”. They strongly believe that these are the reasons why communities remain at margins and that these barriers have to be taken head-on by prioritising these goals.

The need of the hour is to institutionalise community based monitoring of implementation of the SDGs. For any development approach to be successful it needs to be owned by the people. There is a need to make communities own SDGs and their implementation framework. Our experience of creating community-based monitoring system in the large scale Avahan (HIV prevention) programme across six states shows that a community-based monitoring system[4] helps communities become aware of their rights and entitlements; they become agents of change as well as play a watchdog function. For a global monitoring framework to be based at the community-level, we need to be creative, but this is important.

A Ground Level Panel organised with farmers[5] discussed different policies and found out that in the current scenario, “economic growth” is the primary driver for the policies, while issues like climate change and sustainable development are in the periphery. If you look at the climate change action plans, the focus is again on infrastructure and energy; agriculture, which faces the brunt of climate change, gets marginalised. If one looks at the agriculture policies, farmers are no longer in the centre, they are replaced by fertiliser, pesticide and agro-business companies. Landless labourers and small farmers are not visible at all. This is because, in the power struggle, agricultural labourers have no standing. The need is to give the people on the margins a platform to comment on the SDGs and their implementation. Global recognition to such models of community involvement will help institutionalise spaces for the poor and excluded.

Nevertheless, our experience also shows that spaces like GLPs and participatory action research often end up as one-off experiments. The dilemma is that you need empowered and mobilised communities to take charge of these spaces created for their participation; otherwise they end up being tokenistic. Conversely, to evolve a mobilised community, one needs such proactive spaces, which help sustain their engagement. You need both. Enabling both these aspects – mobilising community on the ground and creating institutional spaces of community participation – are significant for transformative (and meaningful) participation. It is this challenge we are regularly facing and probably failing at. We need to be more creative and innovative. And it is here that an academic journal like the Community Development Journal (CDJ) will have a significant role. With an impactful audience the journal has and should continue to endeavour to ensure direct voices of the community reach policy makers to hear the needs and solutions to development problems. CDJ should aim to represent the pulse of the marginalised communities!

[1] World We Want: What is Development for India’s People on the Margins, Praxis, August 2014. (pending publication)