In this article, Salem Osseiran of Peace Direct, part of the “Stopping As Success” consortium, discusses the theme of community agency in transitions, reflecting on a recent case study research visit to Bangladesh.
“Stopping As Success” has, over the past two years, examined the foreign aid environments in more than a dozen countries, looking at responsible exits and transitions of INGOs from a variety of different contexts. Within this research context, Bangladesh itself makes for a fascinating story: the country’s move towards middle-income status has generated debate within the development community, both NGOs and INGOs, about their role, place, and sources of funding. At the same time, however, issues such as climate change now require attention and novel solutions.
“Any discussion of locally-led development and responsible exits, and indeed any project design, must begin with that respect of communities’ agency.”
In early February 2019, Salem Osseiran and Farzana Ahmed of Peace Direct, with consultant Partha Hefaz Shaikh, conducted case study research in Bangladesh. Partha, who has for more than twenty years worked with different INGOs on projects across Bangladesh, had an in-depth understanding of the local context, making him an ideal person to work with. The full report of the findings from Bangladesh will be written up by Salem in the coming weeks.
The case study in question was the Climate-Resilient Ecosystems and Livelihoods (CREL) project, funded by USAID and implemented by Winrock International, which serves as an example of a successful exit. The structure of the CREL project brought together numerous stakeholders – from local communities to the forest department – to form “co-management organisations (CMOs)”, coordinated efforts to take responsibility for conserving protected forests. Below, Salem discusses his observations of the interactions of CMO members and how they relate to the concept of agency. Understanding, and properly accounting for agency and power dynamics, is central to not only the case of CREL but also more generally the very idea of locally-led development.
Listening and learning
It is easy to construe one’s experiences as a baseline from which to relate to other situations and other people’s experiences. It takes a measure of self-reflection to listen to another’s perspective absent of judgement. This project has sought to do precisely that. To listen and learn, and in doing so arrive at perspectives that are not necessarily novel or original but genuine.
Perspectives that reflect the experiences of the people we have encountered, and crucially, do not deny their agency. The worst thing that we can do as members of the aid community is deny that local communities are not capable of conducting their own affairs absent of our interventions. If we do then we lose out on the possibility of a true community-led development process.
“This project has sought to do precisely that. To listen and learn, and in doing so arrive at perspectives that are not necessarily novel or original but genuine.”
On our trip to one of the site locations, members of the CMO – the President, Vice-President, the bit officer, a member of the community patrol group, and the CMO’s accountant – took us on a tour of the forest they were conserving. They showed us the work that had been accomplished under the Climate-Resilient Ecosystems and Livelihoods (CREL) project and how they had used the allocated funds to better the forest and their own lives. While we walked, we conversed with them about different details: a bridge constructed that linked two segments of a hiking trail; a picnic area that was abuzz with children from a local school; a mother teak tree they had protected from being cut down. These were activities they had undertaken; accomplishments of their own.
During this walk we asked about their financial situation. Hearing the question, the committee accountant eagerly interjected that they were in good shape. They had income from various income-generating activities and alternative livelihood programs which had been set up under CREL.
As the person responsible for managing their financial affairs, he was obviously proud of what passed before his eyes. But before he could continue, the President of the CMO cut him off and with a humorous retort he stressed to us that they could use more support. He wanted to make it clear that if donors or other INGOs were willing to give them funding they would not say no.
Respecting community agency
Highlighting their financial situation is not to suggest their position is dire. They, of course, could use further assistance and would not close their door to it should it come. But what matters here is the more thoughtful retort from the President that met the accountant’s honest, albeit impulsive response. The President felt he had to show the brilliant work they had accomplished but also the potential activities that remained incomplete – a careful balancing act that was meant to persuade us and get us to buy-in to an agenda. Watching him regale various stories about the park, while remaining conscious of that balancing act, was a testament to how aware he was of his agency within the larger intersecting interests at play between the CMO, the local NGO, as well as the international implementing NGO.
To undermine the agency of the people we met is, therefore, a disservice. To pity them and try to tell the story solely as a call of help is arguably worse. They are clearly capable of assessing the situation – foreigners showing up at their doorstep – and seizing an opportunity. That was their prerogative: to put into action an “advocacy” strategy. And that agency is something to be respected because it goes to the heart of the localisation agenda and the foundation upon which locally-led development should be built. To deny that local communities have this type of agency means that community-led development is not possible. Any discussion of locally-led development and responsible exits, and indeed any project design, must therefore begin with that respect of communities’ agency.