Community Participation 


Power to the people?

While increased community participation has been advocated as a way to improve the quality of public projects and services, evidence from randomized evaluations provides very mixed results about its effectiveness. While it is clear that the details and context matter for this type of program, some common themes about what works are beginning to emerge. Programs where the community had more direct control over service providers tended to work better. Community involvement is more effective when people are given specific tasks and training: in Kenya training of school committees improved how these committees handled teachers accountable to them 1, in India a program that trained local volunteers to directly intervene in child learning was very successful while general encouragement to participate was not 4 and a successful Uganda program developed specific action plans for communities and health providers on how services would be improved 2. The one program that compared community participation to centralized monitoring through audits found centralized audits were more effective in reducing corruption 3. One common finding across all studies was that community participation at the start of the evaluation was weak, even though in all cases mechanisms for community participation existed on paper.

The poor quality of service provision in many countries (as illustrated by high provider absenteeism) and a perceived lack of responsiveness of bureaucracies to the many problems (for example, in monitoring nurses' attendance) has led many to place their faith in community oversight. The poor, after all, are the ones who suffer if services are bad.  This argument is set out in detail in the 2004 World Development Report which states that “when publicly financed services are subject to capture… the best thing to do is to increase the client’s power as much as possible. ”

Community participation is attractive because it offers solutions to many problems commonly associated with centrally administered services and projects. Local communities may have better information on what good and services are needed than outsiders, and are in a better position to recognize and quickly respond to inefficiency or corruption in implementation. Citizens who actually stand to benefit from services have better incentives to make sure they are implemented correctly, so locals may do a better job of monitoring and taking action when services are poor or corruption occurs. And if services are run or projects implemented by local workers and officials, then their peers may have a better chance of ensuring honesty through social sanctions.

There are however, concerns about whether community participation is the answer to poor infrastructure and service quality. Community members may not have sufficient power to achieve change. Teachers and health workers and those organizing infrastructure projects are often some of the best paid and most educated people in a community and it may be hard for the poor to complain about them. Even when there are more powerful people in a community who could take action, they often opt out of government services—sending their children to private schools for example. In addition, communities face a classic coordination problem—it takes a lot of work to monitor the quality of services and complain and advocate for change if they are not working well. While the community benefits from such action, the benefit to any individual is small relative to the effort involved and the risk that the service worker may retaliate against them.

There are many ways to incorporate the local participation into development work. By allocating funds at a local level, or allowing citizens themselves to select the programs and services which they value most, it is argued that resources will be spent on the highest priority needs. Many also argue that having been involved in designing a project, local communities will help keep corruption on the project down and be more actively involved in maintaining it. Currently there is little evidence on whether this holds, although several studies are underway to test these hypotheses.

A second form of community participation is in the implementation of programs and infrastructure projects, for example when local contractors are hired to build roads, or local teachers are hired to supplement civil service teachers. The argument is that local providers are more likely to understand local needs, be more subject to social sanctions if they perform poorly, and care more about the quality of services and infrastructure.

A third form of community participation is the oversight of centrally administered projects and services. By making contractors and service providers accountable to the people they are supposed to be serving, it is assumed that oversight will be more rigorous, especially if a project is also being implemented by the community. However, unless there is credible authority and incentives tied to local accountability, it is unclear whether community oversight by itself will improve the provision of development services. This last form of community participation has been the subject of a number of rigorous impact evaluations and is thus the focus of this section.

In all forms of community participation there is a risk of elite capture. Local elites may use their influence to ensure that local projects benefit them while central government may care more about the poor. Local providers of infrastructure and services may come from the elite and not be subject to social sanction by the poor. We will discuss alternative ways to improve the voice of minorities and women in the provision of local services in a forthcoming policy lessons page. 

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Effects of Community Participation

Evaluations Cost Effectiveness Academic Papers
see write-up
Local Oversight Interventions
1 Extra Contract Teachers in Kenya

Contract teachers employed and monitored by a local committee performed better than civil service teachers.

Duflo, Dupas & Kremer, 2011Duflo et al., 2015 Academic green
2 Community Health Monitoring in Uganda

Locals and healthcare providers created a specific joint action plan to improve service, increasing community health.

Björkman Nyqvist et al., 2014Bjorkman & Svensson, 2009Björkman & Svensson, 2010 Academic green
3 Road Construction in Indonesia

Top-down auditing was more effective than community monitoring at preventing corruption in road construction.

Olken 2009Olken, 2007 Academic green
4 Village Education Committees in India

Giving local committees the tools to evaluate student performance and monitor teachers had no effect.

(no impact) Banerjee et al., 2010 Academic green

Government programs have long incorporated mechanisms for local oversight, but there is little evidence on the effectiveness of these programs. Banerjee, et al. (2009) found that 92% of villagers in rural Uttar Pradesh India were not even aware of the existing Village Education Committee (VEC), which supposedly monitored teachers and administrators 4. Working with the community on monitoring tools that revealed just how little children were learning at school, and informing the community of their rights to push for change prompted no increase activity by the community, no increased teacher effort and no improvement in education outcomes.

In contrast to this, Bjorkman & Svensson (2009) found that informing Ugandan citizens of the dismal state of local health service delivery and holding meetings between citizens and health workers to agree on “action plans” significantly reduced provider absenteeism, increased utilization, and improved health 2. One possible reason for the striking different between the results from these two similar projects is that in Uganda specific action plans were agreed upon, while in India the community was encouraged to develop their own approach to addressing the problem. Indeed, when the program in India gave a subset of communities training in how to hold remedial tutoring sessions for local children, many volunteered and reading scores in the communities rose. Not only were concerned individuals in the community given something specific they could do to make a difference, the solution (remedial reading camps) did not rely on cooperation from the government teachers.

In Kenya community oversight went even further—communities were given money to hire additional teachers on short term contracts 1. In some ways these local teachers looked similar to the para-teachers for which VECs in India are nominally responsible. But in the Kenya program, power over the contract and money for the teachers clearly rested with the school committees and the NGO behind the program. These additional teachers performed much better than regular teachers—showing up more and achieving higher test scores. Training of the school committees improved results further. 

Only one study compared additional community participation with the alternative of strengthened centralized oversight and monitoring. To address the possibility of elite capture and corruption in local road projects in Indonesia some communities were told that their project would be externally audited while in others community monitoring was enhanced 3. The threat of central audit was more effective in reducing corruption—although it was also more expensive—than community monitoring. Again, however, the details matter: when community monitoring was organized through schools it was more effective than when organized through village leaders.

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