Classical versus Grassroots Development


The world has become preoccupied by "development." Every industrialized country has its "development aid agency," multinational development banks (MDBs) thrive on it and dozens of international organizations, including the United Nations system, are devoted to it. The purported goals of development are to eradicate poverty, raise standards of living to equal those found in the industrialized, "developed" countries, and generally to provide all the requisites for happiness such as education, health, clean water, food, housing, transportation, energy, etc.

Economic development, in the Western sense, commonly involves the transformation of a Third World traditional socioeconomic system into one more similar to the pattern found in the West where continual growth of production and capital wealth is assumed as good and desirable. The usual approach to development has involved a donor bureaucracy (e.g. USAID, World Bank, UNDP, EEC) dealing with a recipient government bureaucracy (e.g. Ministry of Planning and National Development, the Treasury, etc.). Development project proposals are formulated based on priorities established nominally by the recipient government, but usually influenced by what the donor is willing to finance. These proposals are often formulated by "expert" consultants, usually paid for by the donor agency. The consultant(s) pay a short visit to the proposed project area, study the technical and economic aspects of the project and, theoretically, the social and environmental impacts, and then write up the proposal.

Most of the projects formulated in this way are not very successful, and often are downright disasters. The donor agencies themselves have identified the major problem as one of taking a "top down" approach, i.e. that of planning a project from above without involving the local population intended to carry out the project and benefit from it. Literally thousands of development project from above without involving the local population intended to carry out the project and benefit from it. Literally thousands of development projects have been planned and implemented using this approach in the Third World since "aid" started up in earnest in the early 1960s following decolonization. Remarkably, after 25 years of experience, it is still the way in which proposals are formulated today. Unremarkably, projects continue to fail.

A main problem is the inherent inability of a bureaucracy to behave like anything other than what it is - a bureaucracy with rules and regulations, set procedures and formats to follow. Only bureaucrats trained in the intricacies of their self-made rules have the ability to interpret and follow them. How, then, can the people who are supposed to be the objects of a "development" project have input into planning? They need interpreters, consultant who are skilled in discovering and translating the wishes of the people who are to be developed into the bureaucrat's language and rule system. With this method, however, the translation is often very bad or, even if it is good, the bureaucrats don't read it. Also, national priorities set by a central government may override local desires, and most development agencies have to work through government.

Because of their own investigations and self criticism, and unsolicited criticism from outside, most donor bureaucracies have incorporated guidelines into their procedures for project proposal formulation that call for "local participation in planning at all stages." Because of time constraints and lack of communication between bureaucrats and the people, lip service only is paid to these guidelines.

Project proposals formulated by the major development agencies usually involve large sums of money. Since a small project may take the same amount of administration as a large one, it is easier and more cost-effective for the bureaucracy to have a few large projects rather than many small ones. In fact, some donors have a minimum cost, under which they won't even consider a proposal. This minimum is usually in the $50,000 to $100,000 range. Allied to this urge for large projects, i.e. in excess of $1 million, is a philosophical belief that large problems require large solutions. A $100,000 project, so the belief goes, is so insignificant compared to the problem (let's say hunger in Africa as an example) that it's not even worth doing.

Given the above constraints and beliefs as a starting point, it is not surprising that there is a crisis in development. Billions of dollars are being spent every year in the Third World but, with few exceptions, poverty is increasing, more people are hungry and development projects are destroying our environment, the basis of all life.

Grassroots Development

An alternative to the above scenario of "tree top" development, where the bureaucrats plan and peer down on their works from detached perches, is the bottom-up approach of grassroots development. This is where the people of a community plan their own projects and seek financial and technical support themselves. Because cohesive communities in the Third World tend to be organized on traditional lines, they are relatively small. Their project proposals are therefore usually fairly modest (rarely exceeding $50,000 a year, unless an expensive bit of equipment is needed). When a formal request for support is submitted to a donor agency, language and conceptual differences make the objectives and activities hard for agency administrators to understand.

These kinds of proposals are anathema to bureaucrats. They seem to come from out of the blue and are not part of a "program." They are too small and, worst of all, they don't fit the format or follow the rules. They are usually thrown away - an indication of how bureaucracies really think of the people's voice and local participation in planning.

However, some organizations, usually nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), do fund these sorts of projects with very successful results. Yet, there is more to achieving a successful project than simply having grassroots planning and participation. The key to success will usually be found in a community-prepared proposal, or follow-up work with the community by someone who has the ability to keep an open mind, listen instead of talk, and who has a basic understanding of the traditional and modern socioeconomics of the area. The person does not have to be an "expert," only sensitive to the needs and aspirations of the people.

The Key to Success

A successful project is one that not only achieves its stated immediate objectives, but one that can carry on once the original impetus and source of support withdraws. It is sustainable, both from a human and an environmental point of view. Nonetheless, for a project to get off the ground, people must be able to perceive a tangible, fairly immediate and direct benefit from their participation. In other words, they have to get something personally out of it with limited risk side from poor planning and unrealistic design, I think most development projects formulated by bureaucracies fail because they lack this simple and fundamental element. Grassroots proposals invariably contain economic benefits for their proposers. Although not always feasible in their original form, these proposals can refined.

Local communities can also better their lives without, formal projects. Communities or individuals help themselves by taking advantage of newly-available technical and material resources brought into their area. Such innovation and cultural change, which follow processes that have been going on since the origin of humankind, is a slower and more natural type of development, and it is generally unplanned and unguided. It can have effective results if the social and economic environments are conducive, as is illustrated in the following case study.

Case Study 1: Innovation and Cultural Change:

Vegetable gardening in Ivory Coast

I was a Peace Corps volunteer in northern Ivory Coast from 1967 to 1970. For the first two years, I worked in a school gardening program with the Senoufo people, at that time still very traditional in their agricultural practices and diet. Vegetables were not a very important part of their diet, consisting mainly of okra, a small tomato and lots of chili peppers. These would be grown among the grass and weeds and planted by throwing the seeds on the ground. Yams, millet and sorghum were the staples and peanuts provided a rich sauce. Cotton and tobacco, grown in small quantities, were the main cash crops and cashew trees orchards were under development but were state enterprises.

Nutritional studies had shown that there was a distinct lack of protein and vitamins in the diet, particularly of children. My job was to provide vitamins and important trace elements to children through the school gardening program, and even increase protein intake through vegetables such as beans. Proteins could be increased indirectly by encouraging the establishment of market gardens in the villages where vegetables could be sold to obtain money for the purchase of dried fish, meat and poultry. I used the school gardens to demonstrate good horticultural practices. There was a good market for European type vegetables in the towns, and there was even a good export market to the larger cities of the south such as Bouake and Abidjan.

There are many specialized techniques that are needed to successfully grow vegetables in the tropics, where the sun is very strong, rainfall torrential, dry seasons long, and insects and wild animals abundant. The labor requirements are very high. At each school one teacher was made the responsible of the garden. Most of the gardens were extremely successful.

Villagers visited the school gardens, which were always located near a village. They saw how well the vegetables grew, and when the schools began selling vegetables in the local market, it became clear that money could be made. Near the end of my second year there, individual market gardens began springing up all over the area, established on the villagers' own initiative with little help from me (except for seeds, if asked for). The markets of Korhogo and Ferkessedougou began to fill up with big tomatoes, cabbage, lettuce, eggplants, green beans, radishes, etc. "Truck farming" was off and running in the northern Ivory Coast, improving both the economic and nutritional status of many people.

The reason this development took place is simple. Cultivating comes naturally to the Senoufo and the people picked up the new methods of planting with seed beds, spacing, weeding, mulching, etc. without any difficulty. They modified some of the techniques that I had been teaching, but basically they were following modern methods of horticulture. Secondly, they saw that they could make money at it. Some people, particularly the Dioulas (a trading people), did quite well selling vegetables. Thirdly, people began to acquire a taste for certain vegetables in their stews (cabbage and eggplant, in particular), increasing local market demand as well as the growers' own home consumption of vegetables.

Case Study 2: Grassroots Development: Reforestation in southern India

In late 1984 a letter landed on my desk at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) from a man who works in Karnataka state in southern India, named Ben Soans. It was a letter more or less in stream-of-consciousness style, poorly typed, but brimming over with enthusiasm and idealism. It had been passed to me after traveling over several other desks higher up, the occupants not knowing what to do with it. The letter told of a tree planting project that trained school children and farmers to set up nurseries. He had an idea for establishing Van Vigyan Kendras, "forest knowledge centers," where poor people and school children could be taught about the environment, the importance of trees and shrubs, and receive assistance in establishing "Peoples' Nurseries," where all kinds of seedlings would be raised for sale and for massive tree planting using "Labor Brigades." Mr. Soans had already begun the material, but he needed more money to realize his goal to "Make West Coast the California of India," which was printed at the bottom of his stationery.

My first impulse was to make a polite reply and file it, the bureaucrat's way of throwing something away. But the more I thought about it, the more I saw the potential for a very successful project. It had all the ingredients: it was grassroots, involved the local community, produced environmentally positive results, and people could make money from it.

I visited the project in March 1985. Mr. Soans took me to his ongoing operations near Mangalore, on the west coast of Karnataka, and around Kodaikanal in the Western Ghat mountains of Tamil Nadu. I was most impressed, particularly with one completed and very successful example of grassroots development.

In 1976 the Mangalore River flooded and displaced a number of landless squatters from its banks. Mr. Soans arranged to settle a number of families on national forest land in the hills behind Mangalore, and set up the Herekala Landless Poor and Marginal Farmers Development Society on 300 acres of land. The forest was gone, however, having been cut down for fuelwood. Mr. Soans obtained small grants from the government and Hivos, a Dutch NGO, to help set up tree and shrub nurseries. The settlers put in water holes and established irrigation systems on a family basis. Mr. Sonas, an expert on tropical plants, taught the farmers how to propagate and plant a large variety of indigenous and exotic fruit, fuelwood, small timber, fodder, and ornamental trees and shrubs. He also helped them sell their seedlings to industry, business and government for landscaping, to other farmers who wanted to set up orchards and to a variety of other outlets, including exports to the Middle East.

By 1985, the 15 or so "Peoples' Nurseries" were producing a handsome income, the farmers were moving from mud and thatch huts into larger brick houses, and around the settlement, the hillsides had a half million trees where previously only a few weeds and erosion gullies were to be seen. The society was also very near to obtaining official ownership of the land. Ironically, the only sour note in this brilliant success story was a hen house that the NGO insisted be built. It was duly built and a hundred laying hens purchased, against the will of the people and of Mr. Soans. But, Herekala is about 30 km from Mangalore up a winding, bumpy road and none of the farmers have cars. Mr. Soans brought me into a large room filled high with neatly packed egg trays. There must have been several thousand eggs. "What do we do with these?" moaned Mr. Soans. "We can't sell them."

UNEP is now helping Mr. Soans realize his dream and in the little more than one year since the project started there are five Van Vigyan Kendras and 21 People's Nurseries. About 3,000 school children have gone through an environmental and tree planting course and they have planted over 1,000 seed beds. Several dozen farmers also have received training. In all, more than two million seedlings have been produced to "Make West Coast the California of India."

Mr. Soans won India's highest environmental award in 1985, and the whole project for two years is costing UNEP well under $50,000. In fact, UNEP made a short television documentary of the activities of the project to disseminate the concepts upon which the project is founded in the hope that it will be replicated elsewhere.

Case Study 3: Classical Development

Government policy can prevent development and promote environmental and sociocultural destruction while seeming to be based on sound principles. The Aweer people, popularly known as Bone, live in the mosaic forest of Lamu District near the east coast of Kenya. The climate is hot and humid and rainfall, though variable, averages around 650 mm a year. In many parts of Boni country water becomes a major problem in the dry season as the water table drops in the sandy soils. In a couple of villages pumps have been put in but are now broken, forcing people to get water from shallow pits. By contrast, the single dirt track into Boni land is often impassable during the April-May long rains or October-November short rains, and development activities are almost nonexistent.

Traditionally the Boni are hunter-gatherers. For centuries they were a main supplier of ivory, rhino horn and skins to the Swahili towns on the coast for export to Arabia, Europe and the Far East. Their culture and way of life is based on the hunt, and their economy has been dependent on the abundant products of the forest. Beginning earlier this century, under the British colonial government, restrictions were put on hunting in the name of increasing revenues first, and conservation second. Purchased licenses are now needed to kill game legally and Boni status has changed from hunters to "poachers." The highly prices game licenses are too expensive for them, and they resent having to pay the White Man for use of the animals which God gave them.

At the same time, the colonial government encouraged the Boni to take up agriculture, even though it was known that the area was not suitable for most crops. Drought and flood are both common in the low-lying forest and the fact that no agricultural peoples ever occupied the area attests to the low quality of the land for crops. Pastoralists rarely use the area, except in the dry season, because of the heavy infestation of the tsetse fly and sleeping sickness. Therefore, the Boni, who in Kenya number fewer than 2,000 people, have 6,000 km² pretty much to themselves.

Since independence in 1963, the new government has followed the same policies as the colonial one and, in 1977, President Jomo Kenyatta banned hunting and in 1978 the sale of wildlife products entirely. Agriculture became the only legal way for the Boni to make a living. Even their traditional woodworking craft became difficult to carry out, as now permits were needed to fell trees.

That fact that the Boni-Dodori forest was still intact and that the area had the highest concentration of elephants and other game in Kenya in the early 1970s adequately demonstrate that traditional Boni land use and hunting patterns were ecologically sound. They had a healthy economy based on the hunt, they enjoyed a rich cultural life, and they were supplying useful and desired wildlife products to the Kenyan and international market. The Boni were not threatening any animal species with annihilation with their bow and arrow hunting. This threat was coming from the shifta, bandits armed with rifles coming from Somalia.

Today life is hard in Boni country. Without the hunt, agriculture and wage labor are the only alternatives. Poaching still occurs, of course, but if one is caught, the punishment is severe - beatings, fines and prison. The forest ecology is suffering as slash-and-burn cultivation takes several hundred hectares of forest every year, destroying the habitat for the wildlife that the ban on hunting was supposed to save. All of the rituals and traditions surrounding the hunt are now irrelevant and the Boni's self-identity and value systems are eroding. Young men leave the community for months or years at a time as they move away to work as casual labor in the fields of Swahili landowners or as stevedores in Lamu.

More rational development in the Boni area would involve returning to the hunt. Threatened species, such as the elephant, rhino and leopard, would continue to be subject to control, but the common topi, waterbuck and zebra could be hunted for food (which is often in short supply) and markets could be developed for skins, horn and carved wooden objects. Forest conservation would receive a boost and the habitats of thousands of wild animals be assured for future years.


A main question in grassroots development is how far can it go without outside inputs? And conversely with outside large-scale inputs, which mitigate against local participation, can any meaningful and useful social and economic change for the better take place at the most important level, that of the community?

A possible solution lies with a restructuring of the large bureaucracies in conjunction with reeducation and retraining of consultants and administrators. To my knowledge, there are at present no educational programs that prepare a person specifically to formulate well-designed, workable development projects in a cross-cultural context. There are many theoretical university courses in both industrialized and developing countries that deal with various aspects of economic and social development, and with cross-cultural issues (social anthropology), but the two are rarely combined. The situation is further complicated by the fact that a person in a development organization also has to be an administrator. Bad projects are often simply the result of the ignorance, in a non-pejorative sense, of the people who make the decisions.

Development in general desperately needs a rethinking of the classical patterns built up over the past 25 years. The guiding principles of all development should be: (1) let the project or activity idea originate in the local community, (2) support the community idea and (3) make sure it is clear to the people that there is something in it for them. In this way it might be possible to meld classical with grassroots development.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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