Community-driven change in Bukavu

Development Policy14 May 2009Rutger Engelhard

I am spending the week in Bukavu, DRC, where I am supervising one of my PhD candidates, Patrick Milabyo. He is doing ethnographic research on and around a community-driven reconstruction programme implemented by the International Rescue Committee. Very interesting discussions about the question how close development programmes should align to people’s expressed needs or whether they may develop ambitions to change attitudes or build societies?

The IRC is giving community groups the chance to select their own projects, of 3.000 Dollar each. After successful implementation, they can opt for a higher level of organization (of ten community groups) where they can avail of a project worth 50.000 Dollar. It is an immense operation. Before the project can be selected, the population must be educated, committee members elected and several general meeting organized. It is a long route towards identifiying small projects, and one often wonders whether it is worthwhile. After all, people invariably chose for the rehabilitation of small clinics, class rooms, water points or feeder roads. The IRC has chosen this long route towards selecting projects to get people acquainted to principles of good governance, transparency and accountability.

So, I find myself thinking about the value of messages. Providing messages is a core business of development. The amount of tee-shirts carrying educative slogans (A good husband does not beat his wife, I love iodized salt, Make peace not war, etc) is countless and often comes across as ridiculous and overly interfering in people’s lives (what Foucault refers to as bio-politics). Evaluation of the IRC programme shows that at most people now recognize the terms, but otherwise they make not much sense to them. How important is it that people recognize the concept of transparency, in a country where basic services are still direly lacking? Why not cut the crap and simply reconstruct the services? But then I read an excellent paper by Hans Romkema and Koen Vlassenroot about local governance and leadership in Eastern DRC. They argue that in view of the complete lack of good governance in this country people can not rely on their authorities, and the only ways out is for all development programmes to either strengthen the effectiveness of local government or to advance the directparticipation of the population in development in order to create a system of checks and balances from below. If they are right, there is only a long route to take. Then one has to start at some point to familiarize people with notions of transparency and participation.

Practicing with good governance in a small community project may not change society overnight, but change has to start somewhere. So, I may after all buy some tee-shirts tomorrow to bring home: ‘Good students finish their thesis on time’, ‘Good children clear out dish washers’, and ‘Good dogs don’t bark at night’.