Meena Munshi, a Village Invest advisor, has three decades of experience in international development and about 20 years of work specializing in South Asia, so it’s fair to say that she knows the development landscape of the region! In this blog, Meena looks back on what she has learnt about development and social enterprise over the course of her career.
When I first started working in the sector things were different, almost all organizations took a top down approach to programming; they decided what a community needed, how it would be delivered, how long for and so on.
I started working in development when I joined the World Bank in the early 90s and it has always been close to my heart. But I began to start questioning our assumptions around development towards the end of the decade when I joined a Village Immersion Program. At the time, it was a compulsory element of my role which gave me the opportunity to visit around 16 villages, to find out more about the program models, NGOs and government organisations operation in the area. What I learnt was extremely valuable and something that has served the rest of my career.
On visiting village after village, I saw that the local communities didn’t trust the outside organizations. There wasn’t enough accountability and the most vulnerable and poorest people were often excluded for development opportunities. They had no say in deciding program priorities or implementation according to the local landscape. Outsiders made all these decisions on their behalf without understanding their needs, what worked for them or how the programs could be made relevant for the local conditions. All the external agencies had their own mandates.
It was heart-breaking to see how the development programs kept reinventing the wheel and were leaving people behind. When villagers saw this, the broken promises and the lack of change, the trust was broken. One woman said to me, “we don’t eat paper!” - Her village needed sustainable, real life change rather than all the proposal research it was getting.
Community led inclusive development
My mantra from then on was that we need to come out of top-driven, official led development, and start thinking outside of the box on how those of us in development agencies can better serve priorities and needs of the people. This meant putting the people first, allowing them to have a voice and a seat at the table to decide what they want, and at what speed they want, and involving them in all aspects of decision making. But this is easier said than done.
While there were some examples of community led development, transferring money directly to the community organizations and putting them in the driver’s seat was a challenge, especially when working with governments and in an institution as large at the World Bank.
The power of community led development is enormous
Despite the sceptics at the time, we began a small pilot with a few villages in Sri Lanka. It was challenging to convince the senior government officials, technocrats and bureaucrats as well as the staff in the Bank to transfer funds and authority to the people for whom our programs are designed. But where there is will, there is a way. We had a small team who along with the communities worked hard to show relevance of this model.
The results spoke for themselves. One by one these sceptics became the champions of community led inclusive development.
They gradually became convinced that the process could be transparent, accountable and efficient. The villagers taught us a huge amount and we saw how various officials over the years had damaged their trust and how little they were able to influence decisions that affected their lives.
The power of community led inclusive development is enormous. It empowers people, gives them a voice, and helps them to make informed decisions. Early on in our trials we started asking people, ‘What were the failures of previous projects?’, ‘If you ran a development project in your village, what it would look like?’ We looked at their responses and helped them build the institutions to help them operationalize their plans.
Inclusive, transparent and accountable institutions
Without inclusive institutions there is no inclusive development.
A key challenge in these rural, remote areas was an absence of local rules-based institutions. The first thing communities did was to agree on a set of rules, which they later called the “Golden Rules”, to help them design and implement their programs. They were basic rules focusing on what was needed to govern an equal, inclusive and accountable society. They wanted human values; for everyone to be treated with respect as equals and to have an inclusive, accountable and transparent institution.
The next step in the pilot process was to operationalize the inclusive, community- led approach according to the rules they had decided. Thinking about how best to do this raised a lot of questions like; how can you demonstrate what transparency means to communities, how do you ensure everyone has a voice in the decision process and how do you set priorities, given that resources are limited.
The pilots released the potential of the local communities and proved that the power of people is enormous. Not only did they show they do it in their own villages, they also led the way for many other communities in different states, and countries around the world. A truly people and inclusive institution centered movement started in South Asia, and has now been practiced by governments and development agencies for over two decades!
To be sustainable, inclusive community- led institutions need a lot of support from both the public and private sector. ontinuous support is crucial because, no matter where you are in the world, a governed institution takes a long time to establish itself.
There is a need for social enterprises to partner with local organizations
But development programs and projects have limited lives and exit at a critical stage of these community institutions. Although challenges of continuity and long term programmatic approaches are highlighted at the end of each program, there is an absence of institutional support in most development programs. This was another important lesson in my journey of development; something more is needed to fill the gaps and make community-led institutions work in the long run.
There is a need for social enterprises to partner with these local organizations and support them in a way that fills some of the gaps and addresses these challenges. One of the challenges in rural areas is the unmet credit needs of the people. They live in remote areas, have no assets, and no opportunities to avail of. They get trapped in a cycle of debt and poverty, forced to pay very high interest rates – sometimes as high as 50 or 100%.
Filling in the gaps: taking sustainable institutions to the next level
Village Invest aims to be the ‘something more’.
It builds on the last three decades of experience. It is designed to address some of the challenges caused by the limited life of development programs, their lack of local sustainable investments and support for local institutions.
It provides a platform for socially inclined lenders (you!) to support excluded and vulnerable borrowers.
How? Village Invest, developed its own uses our own technology platform (DART) to reach out to each and every family in the areas we work in. DART is an analytics and rating tool which provides much needed support to pre-existing community institutions, building a database at a family level and rating the families and community institutions to help them understand this cycle of debt that they are in. Ongoing ratings help families to track their progress and give them hope for the future. It also provides them with the financial literacy they need to make informed choices and financial decisions and ensures that everyone is involved in the decision making process.
DART will also help community institutions become more accountable, transparent and efficient by bench-marking them, measuring their performance and providing technical assistance and support needed to make institutions sustainable