Opinion | It Takes Consultation to Help a Village
It was — but not for the better.
Mr. Browne, a father of seven children, is one of more than three million Liberians who depend on farming for subsistence. A majority are still struggling to rebuild their lives since the nation’s brutal civil war ended one year ago. He relied on rubber trees for his family’s meager income and to pay for his older children’s schooling.
So he took a big risk when he agreed to let Buchanan Renewables clear his farm to make space for new rubber trees as part of its project, which was supported by American foreign aid. But, as is all too common in development, the project collapsed and the trees never materialized. Now Mr. Browne can no longer afford to educate his children. “The youngest three are with me now. They would go to school, but there’s no money,” he said in a recent interview, using a borrowed cellphone. “They’re not learning nothing.”
Buchanan Renewables was funded largely by the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), the United States government’s development financing agency. The project had promised to improve farmers’ livelihoods while bringing a source of renewable energy to a region where most people had no access to electricity. When it failed, OPIC was criticized for having overlooked numerous red flags.
And though there was a modest public uproar over the project’s failure, news coverage at the time largely missed the main cause: Nobody had asked people in the community what they considered most necessary to improve their lives.
This relatively simple step — consulting the people who would benefit from the project — is overlooked in a vast majority of overseas philanthropic and development projects, whether they are led by large institutions like OPIC or the World Bank or even small nonprofits. “People are well intentioned, but a little bit of good intention with a lot of money can do a lot of harm,” said Natalie Bridgeman-Fields, a human rights lawyer. Her organization, Accountability Counsel, works with communities in developing countries to file grievances in an effort to hold large institutions like OPIC accountable when their projects bring harm rather than improvement to the people to be served.
In the Liberia case, Ms. Bridgeman-Fields said, “they’d never consulted with the community about whether that positive impact was possible, what the negative consequences would be, and there was no awareness of what mitigation measures would be required to address that.”
This is the rule, not the exception. “Every single case we’ve ever handled with financing from any financial institution involves complaints about consultation,” Sarah Singh, the global communities director for Accountability Counsel, said. “There are many communities where you get the distinct impression that if that piece had been done correctly, much of the subsequent harm could have been entirely avoided.”
In this model, local people decide how to allocate whatever benefits or income are derived from the projects. Michael Buckler, the chief executive of Village X, said that projects have used income from raising goats to finance education for girls. “We never would have made that connection on our own,” he said. He pointed to another project in Malawi, in which a group of villages wants to build a bridge together because they all lose mobility during the rainy season. Communities that conceive projects themselves, and then see them come successfully to life, develop confidence and skills for further collaboration.
It’s important to begin by asking local people about how they envision a better life. When Spark MicroGrants begins working in a village, it asks locals not just to think about the future they want, but also to set specific goals along the pathway ahead. This is “different from asking about what the problems are, because you can lay out a laundry list of problems,” said Sasha Fisher, the organization’s executive director, who was also selected this spring as an inaugural Obama Foundation fellow. It seems obvious. But naming the problem — like lack of school fees — doesn’t necessarily bring you closer to a sustainable solution. Unfortunately, development organizations regularly stop at this “needs assessment” step.
“It’s negative psychology, and it’s very short-term focused,” Ms. Fisher said. “We decided to toy around with asking about the future of the village,” she said. “Community members, when we posed this question, came up with all sorts of wonderful ideas about what they want to see — and then even more ideas for how to get there.”
Ms. Fisher said that more than 90 percent of Spark-funded projects have been sustained for over two years, 94 percent of community members continue to meet on a regular basis, and nearly as many have started secondary projects. A central element of the process is that the whole community is involved, and that Spark meeting facilitators are not allowed to impose their ideas; they can only help guide the conversation.
Now, the goal-setting process guides all of Spark’s work. “There’s so much talk about the end of poverty, but how does the world look when there is no poverty?” Ms. Fisher said, adding that the communities must be able to envision the future in specific ways.
OPIC has acknowledged the problems that led to the Liberian biofuel project fiasco and conducted internal reviews to introduce more safeguards. For example, the agency stiffened its social and environmental standards by adopting the more rigorous standards set by the International Finance Corporation. And legislation that passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month could turn OPIC, along with parts of the Agency for International Development, into a new development finance institution. Ms. Bridgeman-Fields said the bill would ensure that an accountability office would be part of the new institution.
In response to my questions, OPIC said it has increased its consultation with indigenous peoples, and it has enhanced its monitoring and oversight for projects “that pose a heightened risk of adverse environmental, labor or human rights impacts.” The agency said that it also requires “more robust grievance mechanisms that enable those who may be harmed by a project to raise concerns.”
However, none of the agency’s responses addressed whether it would compensate villagers hurt by the Buchanan Renewables project. Mr. Browne said it has done nothing. Ms. Singh said the International Finance Corporation standards are an improvement, but while they call for more community consultation, in practice the process often falls short. Part of the problem is that community consultation is not easy — which is why groups like Village X and Spark MicroGrants have much to teach the big organizations.
“It’s time-consuming and it’s hard to go into a community where people may not be educated, may not have access to the internet,” Ms. Singh said. Language differences and logistics may present barriers. More important, genuine humility is required, and that’s something with which experts in development organizations have long struggled. “Consultation’s not just informing people that this is what’s going to happen,“ she said. “It’s asking, ‘What’s your opinion?’ It’s being open to listening to directly impacted people about their hopes and fears. It’s being open to changing a project’s design.”
Myson Jambo co-founded Village X with Mr. Buckler for exactly this reason. He grew up in rural Malawi, where consultation was never the norm. “You can see this huge amount of money being invested in a project. People in the community — they don’t want it,” he said.
Village X views sub-Saharan Africa as made up of micro-democracies at the village level. Village members know what is practical and feasible and don’t need help choosing projects. They need help acquiring the resources to start them — which is what Village X helps with, through a crowdfunding platform that anyone can reach online. The group works with village chiefs to choose committees that go around soliciting ideas and opinions from the community. When the community decides on a project, the committee draws up a budget. The community has to provide 5 percent of that budget in cash, which Mr. Buckler said is essential to making sure the community is invested in the project. At that point, the project goes up on the Village X website for crowdfunding.
Until that happens, communities continue to be vulnerable to calamities like the one Mr. Browne suffered. “They are all worse off than they were before Buchanan Renewables arrived,” said Francis Colee, a lawyer in Monrovia, Liberia, who served as an advocate for the farmers. He continues to see communities being ignored in the planning of projects that are supposed to be helping them. “Communities are not being properly consulted and the result is harmful to them,” he said. “It’s all over the country. It’s a common pattern. It has to change.”