The benefits of community-led development in insecure environments

June 15, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Iraqi women represent 25 percent of members of parliament — they vote, they work and they have found ways to survive and maintain their families during the very difficult last seven years. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps

I have read a lot of research studies in my life, and so I know that lots of research seems to turn up things that we already knew. In some ways, that’s also the case with the study Mercy Corps is about to launch today.

We carried out this independent study because decades of experience provided us with so much anecdotal evidence suggesting that it is vitally important to involve people in their own development from the start – even during and just after open conflict. And although there have been tons of studies proving the value of participation in development efforts, in conflict and post-conflict setting we saw donors going in the opposite direction – favoring quick impact projects to meet urgent needs rather than laying the groundwork for people’s participation in the long-term development of their own communities.

I’ve been managing this research effort for over a year now and today I am struck by how simple it all looks now that it is finally done. In fact, I know that there was nothing simple about this study – from beginning to end it has been a constant challenge. Without the dedication, vision and skills of many Mercy Corps staff and outside experts it would never have been completed.

First, there’s the countries that we chose to carry out research in. It’s not exactly easy to make your way around Iraq and Afghanistan and interview community leaders and members. Not only did we have to think about security issues, we also had to consider our methodology very carefully to ensure that the people being interviewed felt free to share their opinions with interviewers. In normal research settings this is tough, but in countries with such complex histories of conflict one has to consider many more factors. Our research tools had to be translated into three languages. The interview teams had to include half women to ensure interviews could be completed with designated women in field locations. Random samples had to be reworked and adjusted when security conditions changed where we could safely carry out interviews.

Second, there’s the question that motivated our research. Much research on international development aims to evaluate whether a project has been successful at reaching its basic goals and objectives. Too often that produces measures of output, not of impact. But we wanted to do something altogether different. We wanted to understand people’s perceptions of different development efforts. We wanted to see – through their eyes – what really matters most for people in moments of conflict or post-conflict when things are still unstable and they urgently need assistance to rebuild their lives.

What we found was not a surprise to us. We found that development efforts are viewed as most effective when people are so actively involved that they feel like the project is theirs. This sense of ownership is a real sign that these efforts matter to local people – because they themselves are creating the changes that they value most. We also found that in conflict and post-conflict settings the problems facing local residents can vary considerably, making involvement of community leaders and community members even more important for ensuring that programs address the needs considered most urgent by local residents. Finally, we found that working hand in hand with local people was essential to creating trust, which is the basic building block for collaborative work to rebuild fragile institutions.

I hope you’ll check out the full result of our study. We are sharing it widely with policy makers, donors and the public, with the hope that we can share with a broad audience the amalgamated voices of many of the courageous Afghans and Iraqis who we’ve worked with over many years.