Community-Driven Development Makes People More Important than Capital

The Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) had as one of its core principles the idea of “people-driven development.” This is all about the “social ownership of decision making,” which imagines new ways of development with and for poor communities.

People-driven development is, however, contested with a myriad of meanings attached to it. In its most romantic version, people-driven development would see the return of street committees – used so effectively to organise against the apartheid government. In its most statist vision, the government – run by the ANC – would embody the will of the people, and focus on the rapid rollout of outputs to meet RDP targets. 

However, sitting in the background behind all of this were really powerful actors tweaking ambiguity into the RDP, especially around macroeconomic policy, so that later they could claim legitimacy for fiscal policy, which became increasingly technocratic. During the tenure of President Mbeki, the idea of people driven development was a secondary concern to increasing the efficiency of government delivery and managing fiscal policy. 

A welcome sign over the last year has been the return of the concept of people-driven development. In fact, in several programmes, government has budgeted for projects that support the concept of people-driven development. There should be more than a sliver of optimism about government committing to strengthening community control of police stations, schools, hospitals and public works. It signals an attempt by government to remake a partnership between itself and communities through the implementation of policies. 

Consequently, we may arrive at a point where poorer communities have control over actual resources and how they are utilised. These developments are encouraging as they hold the potential to deepen democracy and improve the impact of public expenditure. 

Allocating hard cash to community based structures, however, raises the concern: “The money will disappear.”

It is in some respects a peculiar objection given that community based organisations, including school governing bodies and community-policing forums often execute budgets effectively, routinely stretching the meagre budgets they have through sponsorships and volunteers. Success factors include the commitment of volunteers, dedicated public servants providing support and the increased transparency that community involvement provides. 

The danger of corruption is however real. To deal with this problem, the tendency in South Africa has been to increase the hurdles before funds are disbursed with additional project and programme level audits. These systems however run the risk of “over bureaucratising” the allocation of resources and making disbursements complicated – also making it difficult to spend funds within a financial year.

The approach has two major weaknesses. First, the oversight process is insulated from public scrutiny. Second, there are limited mechanisms to track the usage of funds during implementation. Mechanisms involving the community could support government systems and provide signals of inappropriate usage of funds. 

There is however a deeper barrier to expanding community based delivery mechanisms. The biggest being that in South Africa, the concept of the community as a delivery agent is counter-intuitive. It is often jarring for mainstream South Africans to accept that government is providing resources directly to poorer communities. The dangers of vote buying, nepotism and cronyism are so obviously with us, that there is a psychological barrier to accepting community methods of delivery. The problem though is that we may batten down the hatches and in so doing limit the possibility for poor communities to exercise control over resources. 

There is also another barrier. Our collective imagination is limited by the saturation of South African capitalism. As a society, living in an extremely concentrated economy, we have internalised the market mechanism as the most efficient way to allocate resources. 

Nevertheless, nascent work under the banner of the “social solidarity economy” shows us that the exchange of goods and services can be achieved while strengthening social forms of ownership in ways that deliver high quality public and private goods. Social solidarity approaches include cooperatives, worker-owned enterprises, self-employment and even micro and small business. The difference is that the work being done – to quote Pat Horn of Streetnet International – is to “contribute towards a sustainable economic model where people are more important than capital.”

The South African experience with the Community Works Programme (CWP) provides a living example of how this might work in practice. Communities are organised in various ways to determine what work needs to be prioritised and undertaken. The work is funded by government with established policies and procedures to monitor the allocation of funds, the work schedule and disbursements to workers on the programme. Thus far the results have been encouraging and form the basis for Cabinet agreeing to expand the programme to reach one million jobs. 

Importantly, the design of the CWP recognises that wider economic restructuring needs to be undertaken to break ‘poverty and inequality traps’. Even in economic restructuring, community development models can be undertaken. For instance, existing policy on local economic development provides space for public-private partnerships to support community based economic activity. This could take multiple forms, including cooperatives, in a variety of sectors. It could also be a mechanism to seed community efforts to support smaller businesses or play intermediary roles (e.g. combining resources to get smallholder produce to markets) or even for a community to become the producer of all the food it needs. The possibilities are endless. 

The only obstacle to these possibilities is our dominant conception of the developmental state. Khanya-AICDD, a local NGO that promotes community-driven development argues that it requires a rethink of how we understand governance. This is no small task, as community-driven development practitioners indicate that changes are needed across government not just in terms of policy, but in terms of the ethos that guides government action.

There are, of course, attendant issues about whose voices get heard and whether community-driven development transforms rather than replicates power relations. These are difficult questions to which the exemplary answer is: “We will never know until we try, and try we must.” 

Obviously some projects will not work – the money may disappear and some politicians and businesses will collude to capture public expenditure. However, the vast majority of projects have a much better chance of succeeding as spending allocations are made more transparent, government more accountable and most importantly because communities are orientated to a future. Ultimately community delivery methods are experiments that, as a society, we must run. 

In fact, after a decade it would be prudent to compare the outcomes of large-scale community delivery programmes, with say, the much-vaunted mega projects in energy and ports that are the fulcrum on which government’s economic development strategy rests. I would venture that community delivery programmes would trump these mega projects in terms of their transformative impact. 

However, the combined impact of both mega projects and community-driven development is significantly more important. They hold the potential to not only grow the economy, but also ensure that ‘economic development for the poor’ happens. In so doing, we might yet create a society in which there is the social ownership of the future. 

This article was first published under creative commons license on South African Civil Society Information Service website.