Are we asking the real questions?
The social development sector is a surprisingly easy and a frighteningly difficult to handle. Numerous theories and not exactly well trained implementation people. And the theories quite often remain cut off from the truth on the ground requiring extensive process innovation at every level. While in a way that is the essence of social development – constant change in intervention methods responding to constant change in the social fabric – it makes the job so much more difficult. But then, that’s not the problem.
Social development interventions, unlike those requiring an environmental intervention, by design impact the deepest corners of any societies well held belief systems. Therefore, any intervention should (and its rather common sensical to think of this) be based on a through understanding of the people and their belief system. For instance, trying to promote alternate livelihoods in a community which does not have material resources but is fine left to its own methods is fraught with risks and dangerous consequences. For someone from the plains who does not understand the sensibilities of the mountains, paperwork is rarely going to lead to real, effective change. Any meaningful intervention must be entered into after careful need analysis in the context of the target community rather than the ideas of progress, development and social equality of the change agent. Even the case of the change agent being outside of the target community or the process being effected is a assumption that needs to be and has been challenged.
The reality, as is often the case, is starkly different compared to the version one would see on research papers. Community mobilization drives are nightmares and often a case of fudged figures. It is easy to shift the blame on the operational people in such a scenario but a little digging in shows very different results. Project designs are almost always built on the notions of development shared by people living in big cities and are supposed to appeal to a fund sitting in The Hague or Washington. Therefore, more often than not, proposals that do go through are the ones which ‘make sense’ to them. As a corollary then, project implementation processes become a case of pushing ideas down someone’s throat. For projects that last 5 years or more (social development mandates typically last at least for 5 years to be effective), you tend to do atleast somethings right and that gets touted as the success of the program.
So the basic questions here are three.
One, should project designs be based only on felt needs and where do you draw the line on where the sensibilities of the target communities are being affected?
Two, should one of the qualifying criteria for a project be the assessment of the need (felt or assumed) which has been conducted by the implementation agent?
Three, should ALL social development interventions first explore the possibility of mechanism based change coming from inside rather than an external agent being involved?
The answers are not easy. In a funder-led system like is the world of non-governmental organizations, it is of paramount important that projects are sale-able. Like every other organization, an NGO has to fight for survival and with so much money up for grabs across the world, one cannot help the interest of the community taking the backseat.