Facilitating What?

Aaron Ausland raises the age old question of how exactly ‘participatory’ all this community-centred development (and conservation) work is. It’s a serious and almost inescapable problem. Our overall goal might be facilitating community development, but in any given meeting we are almost certainly focused on facilitating the next step of  our project. A good facilitator will ensure a meeting stays reasonably focused on the topic at hand, but, given the topic was most likely chosen by the facilitator, how can we be sure this isn’t just a box-ticking exercise? Is this what the community really most want to discuss? Probably not …

I think this issue is another facet of paternalism in development.  Aaron’s criticisms of ‘facipulation’ as a ‘bad thing’ are 100% on the money, but I also think a certain amount of facipulation is almost inevitable, and even sometimes desirable, because the fullest forms of participation are just too onerous. (The cost-benefit ratio of the project disappears to infinity.) Sometimes a certain amount of facipulation may also be appropriate in order to achieve a constructive outcome from a meeting with local politicians or officials who might otherwise cause trouble.

Another difficulty is that if we are to achieve the highest levels of community participation, then we have to be prepared to let our projects take a very different direction than what we perhaps first envisaged. This is often problematic since if we’ve promised our donor a chalk project we cannot then deliver a cheese project, even if that’s what the communities want. Even if we were wise enough to promise donors a mixture of chalk and cheese in the first place, high levels of community control and direction inevitably pose management challenges. This requires high calibre staff on the ground able to adapt and adjust strategies on the go.

In all of this what I think it is very important is to realise when one is guilty of facipulation; to understand when the reality falls short of the proposal rhetoric. Knowing this, we will hopefully strive to ensure the manipulation part is minimised. In short, a guilty conscience is good for keeping us in check!


2 responses to this post.

  1. MJ,

    I think part of what makes facipulation inevitable is that our planning and approving processes bring in the community too late and leave too little room for reality to force changes. Often we end up with margins around the budget lines that project managers and implementers are incentivized to stay inside of to the detriment of being responsive to new information. One of my next blogs will be on the “myth of the plan,” which essentially recognizes that 98% of the relevant information we need to plan a good development project is inevitably unknown at the time the plan is approved. If we don’t write in generous margins, we are going to end up facipulating throughout the implementation. One of the solutions may be to write plans that only lay out the general objective, the possible activities that may be selected in pursuit of that objective, the methods/processes that will be used with the community to determine the best set of activities, and a set of principles that will guide decision-making within the organization. This seems a more honest, flexible way to plan and it leaves room for real participation to change the project from a chalk to cheese, so long as both chalk and cheese meet the same overall objective of the org’s involvement in the community.


    • Hi Aaron,

      I think you have a good point although it depends to a certain extent upon the project as to when is the best stage in the planning process to bring in communities. More importantly many good projects introduce something completely new to the communities involved; it is very difficult for them to play much of a role in planning something they don’t understand. Also, and this applies particularly to NGOs, many projects do not start off with specific budget for a planning stage; we can squeeze out staff time as that is usually just accounted as salaries (without saying what the time was spent on), but planning workshops are expensive to organise, and budget is usually committed elsewhere. Application deadlines are also significant constraints. And whilst most donors remain focused on what happens to the inputs (i.e. tracking their cash) rather than what outcomes are generated, it can be difficult to design in the necessary flexibility. And, though, I have many criticisms of donors, I do sympathise on this one; I would also want to have a clear idea what I am being asked to fund, whether it is chalk or cheese.

      Overall, I come back to the need to have high calibre management to resolve these issues, and that is perhaps one reason why so many such community projects have fairly dismal results – the talent pool available is just too small to fix the whole world!



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