The community-based approach gained momentum in the 1980s, largely due to failures of state institutions in managing public funds, delivering public services, and functioning properly as a governing body. Having recognised the pitfalls of state systems, scholars, development practitioners, and donors call for more decentralisation from the state to devolve power to the local people. As the lifestyles of rural and indigenous communities are viewed as more harmonised with ecological systems and the environment (in part due to their direct contact with natural resources), it is believed that they are better managers of local resources than distant state authorities and private corporations. Having communities lead the process would also result in improved responsiveness, effectiveness, cost efficiency, local harmonisation and unity, sustainability, and other benefits.
A few decades after its introduction, the community-based approach has been praised for its contribution to sustainable resource management and rural development through the integration of local institutions, knowledge systems, and customary practices, as well as the participation and involvement of local communities, resource users, and key stakeholders in the planning and decision-making processes of natural resource management. This discourse is shared by a large number of policymakers, development aid agencies, non-governmental organisations, researchers, and practitioners, which then coalesced into a gigantic institutional apparatus to promote the community-based approach all around the world. These aid agencies and financial institutions include the World Bank, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organizations (FAO), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Conservation International (CI), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the United States Agency for International Development, and the Department for International Development of the United Kingdom (DFID), among others. With political and financial power through aid and loans, the above network manages to introduce and implement community-based programmes in a large number of developing countries in Africa, Asia, and other small island nations. Policy changes, institutional reforms, cultural shifts, and power devolution from the state to local resource users took place in at least 50 countries and up to 500,000 local organisations for resource management were established as a result of such interventions.
With many success stories widely shared, criticisms levied towards the approach have, however, been mounting. One of the fundamental issues with the community-based approach, critics emphasise, is its simplistic policy-oriented, techno-centric approach and its failure to integrate politics and power struggles into its analysis and institutional design. Power relations and interactions between multiple-levels largely affect local dynamics, heterogeneity, and institutions that play significant roles in natural resource management and development in every locality. Evidence in central and southern Africa indicates that politics and power relations are responsible for the failures of many community-based programmes. Weak community-based organisations, weak leadership, uneven participation, rampant corruption, and lack of official recognition are some of the reasons for these failures. This phenomenon is also common in almost every locality, whether in Asia or Latin America.
The aims of this paper are to provide an overview of the community-based development approach ranging from its roots and meaning, benefits, and pitfalls, and to propose possible ways in which community-based development can reach its full potential. This paper will start with the introduction of the meaning of ‘community’ and ‘community-based institution,’ followed by discussion of the benefits of the community-based development approach. This paper then introduces the ideas of genuine community-based development, and gives an example in the form of the 100 Model Village project, which was proposed by the Cambodian government, and welcomed by the Asian Cultural Council. The paper concludes with a summary of the discussion and presents ways forward.
‘Community’ has its origins in the Latin word ‘Communitas,’ which stems from ‘communis,’ which means ‘shared by many’. A community can exist in diverse forms from academics to social, political, religious, corporate, media, internet, sport, and entertainment groups, among others. The definition of the ‘community’ for this paper will, however, limit itself to a geography-based definition.
According to Bourke, a community is “a set of social relations occurring within a distinctly spatialized and geographical setting”. People in the community “are tied together because they interact with one another and share common beliefs, values, and cultural artefacts of life—language, traditions, customs, mores, and so on”. In Commons Property Theory, ‘community’ refers to a small group of people, whether inland fishers or upland settlers, who share common beliefs and use and share common resources. The community is usually small with a high level of homogeneity and settled in a bounded territory.
Nevertheless, in Political Ecology literature, ‘community’ is geographical-based, complex, and heterogeneous. They have diverse social, cultural, religious, economic, and political backgrounds and multiple interests relating to local resources. Members of communities are all connected in one way or another to those outside their communities. Each member has multiple roles to play, whether in the community or in networks extending beyond community boundaries. In addition, migration, origins, technology, social movements, and non-place-based interactions can all influence and shape practices within a community. The boundary of a community is, in this sense, fluid rather than fixed, as would normally be drawn by cartographers, community-based development practitioners, and administrators. Escobar stresses that “locality and community cease to be obvious, and certainly not inhabited by rooted or natural identities but very much produced by complex relations of culture and power that go well beyond local bounds.” Mobility, non-place-based practice, and different aspects of social identity—which include gender, caste, wealth, age, and origins—can divide and crosscut the community boundary. This makes community boundaries more fluid than the fixed lines drawn by cartographers.
Furthermore, the state of crisis of local resources may not have anything to do with local governance systems. Instead, it is largely driven by politics, power struggles, and the interplay of multi-level social and ecological processes. The root causes of local soil desertification, resource degradation, or biodiversity extinction or exclusion can be global environmental changes, responses to pressures from the global market, or the result of interventions of the state or transnational conservation NGOs in control of local resources. Oversimplification and flawed assumptions of the complexity of the community can mislead programmes and policies designed to address resource issues in specific localities. Local institutional fixes in the design principles of the main community-based natural resource management literature do not, therefore, necessarily address these underlying issues.
Community empowerment for local development is, for instance, more than simply devolving power from the state to the local community, but understanding and addressing the complexity of social differentiation and political fragmentations of various groups in a community. Sharp social inequalities at the village or community level can have potential pitfalls for local collective governance of resources and community-based initiatives. Local elites, who generally have more financial resources and better means to work with external actors, can drive national initiatives for their own benefits at the expense of poor and marginalised groups within the community. Additionally, the individual choice of resource access is not always for economic return, as what is considered in the model of common property literature; instead, it can be a response to manipulation for political gain. Poor leadership, uneven participation, corruption, and inadequate income alternatives are some examples of the main causes of failed community-based development programmes globally.
Institutions are “regularised patterns of behaviours between individuals and groups in society” with significant roles in mediating and shaping human-environment relations. Institutions are contingent and dynamic, and are operated by human actions. Institutions can be both formal and informal. Formal institutions refer to laws, the court system, regulations, organisational forms, hierarchical decision-making, and written contracts, whereas informal institutions are those of socially shared rules and practices, which are usually unwritten and communicated and enforced through unofficial channels. Interactions between formal and informal institutions can result in unpredictable outcomes for policy intervention. In rural development and natural resource governance, negotiation and struggle can vary from material access and rights to the “meanings, discourses, representation, participation, as well as individual identities,” and these forms of interactions need to be disentangled.
Community-based institutions should be established by community members and for the unity, harmony, prosperity, and wellbeing of the community. It is the role of each member to voluntarily participate in creating contractual agreements that are applicable to leaders and members of the community. Each member has an equal voice for the selection of community leaders, for the proper functioning of institutions, and on issues pertinent to the wellbeing of the community. Community leaders are those who are inspired to lead institutions for the interests of community members, not for particular groups. The benefits from community initiatives should be equally shared among members, not just among local elites, who have the power and means to grab resources for personal gain. The strength and success of community institutions are largely determined by the community members.
Community-based development is about providing opportunities for individual community members to express their voices, make decisions, and take a lead in the development trajectory and actions that matter for their happiness and wellbeing. The benefits of such an approach are diverse, ranging from economic to cultural to spiritual aspects, and go beyond local community boundaries. The first important benefit that community-based development can offer is in addressing the challenges posed by the limited human and financial resources of state institutions in delivering public services to the entire population. The provision of these services is generally way behind in remote villages compared to in urban areas. Some challenges stemming from limited financial resources can be addressed by private sector investment and/or contributions from within communities or from outsiders when suitable mechanisms for fund mobilisation are in place. At the same time, it would be more cost efficient if some of the tasks managed by distant state bureaucrats are instead assigned to the local community, who engage directly with their localities as part of their livelihoods, i.e. local data collection, forest patrols, and local meetings.
The second benefit is the maximised utilisation of the potential of villages. Each village has unique characteristics, whether it be its geographical location, natural resource endowment, human capital, ecological and environmental knowledge, historical and cultural values, or social interactions. Finding village uniqueness is important, as most prescriptions of one-size-fits-all national policies—which generally do not capture full pictures of local contexts—fail to respond to local needs and situations. These characteristics need to be clearly understood through comprehensive scientific and adaptive action research in order for development practitioners and villagers to design interventions that match local contexts and are able to explore the full potential of each village. When an enabling environment is established, as can be shown in numerous cases, community members are able to collectively act to identify development potential based on the available natural and human capital. Necessary planning and implementation can be built upon this solid foundation.
The next key benefit of community-based development is local employment. Being able to identify development potential of villages, such as culture-based tourism, agriculture, fisheries, and small or medium enterprises—by themselves or in combination—is important as these can be exploited to generate plenty of local jobs. This would reduce ex-migration for job opportunities in urban areas or overseas, and maintain the shape of the population pyramid, which is essential for long-term community development. This development approach is important for villagers’ spirit, happiness, and enjoyment of earning income and staying close to their families and communities, embedded with meaning, identity, and a sense of belonging.
The fourth benefit of community-based development is local capacity building. Community-based development is cross-cutting and multi-disciplinary, and capacity-building programmes are diverse, depending on the needs of the community and nature of the projects being implemented. These trainings can be on modern equipment use for data collection, agriculture techniques, fish raising, water management, food hygiene and sanitation, hospitality, project management, financial accountability, local planning and leadership, and financial management, among others. Trainings can take place in different forms and places, from specific vocational trainings to hands-on project management, on-the-job trainings, study visits, and project piloting. Through various trainings and practices, local government officers and villagers will have a better understanding of and capacity to design and lead projects pertinent to local development.
The last key benefit is the sustainable and inclusive aspects of the community-based approach. There are myriad examples of participatory rural development projects not being maintained after the project ends. With genuine community-based development, in which projects are tailor-made and opportunities are given to local people to make decisions and take a lead from the outset of the projects—initially with some guidance from the project team—projects will be more sustainable. Local ownership, responsibility, and capacity building are key for project sustainability. With the majority of villagers participating in projects, benefit sharing and inclusiveness—including social, political, religious, racial, economic, and gender aspects—are also maintained. Buddhist temples and community gatherings are good showcases of how Cambodian local villagers contribute to their community whether in cash or in kind when they see the value of the projects. Even though local people are generally perceived as weak, they definitely have the leadership skills to work with outside actors, and means to achieve what is important to them.
Having discussed the significance of community-based development, it is vital to highlight the roles of key stakeholders in enabling or hindering the success of project implementation. Through policy, power, and historical events, each actor can exert their influence on decision-making regarding resource control and access. These stakeholders range from state agencies to international and national NGOs, transnational and national corporations, community-based institutions, and individuals within communities. The following are the key actors involved in community-based development:
The definition of ‘state’ varies depending on the political and philosophical theory. There are, however, some common elements of ‘state’ that are agreed upon. According to Mountz, the state is “a geographic area delineated by national borders, the population that inhabits this territory, and the political unit and institutions that govern the social and economic relationships among people”. Similar to Mountz, Aligica defines the state as “an organisation monopolising the legitimate use of force or claiming a monopoly on the use of coercion in a given geographic area and over a political entity, and possessing internal and external sovereignty”. For Lee, two elements are important for the state to operate including: (1) A “historical institutional reality that is linked to the specific society, political culture, and economy within which it operates and with which it interacts”, and (2) a “philosophical idea, wherein the various theories of the state have assumed a particular relationship between the state, society, and the individual”. Gotham focuses on the angle of governance of the state. According to Gotham:
State is a set of institutions and agencies that has the authority to define and enforce collectively binding decisions on members of a society in the name of their common interest or general will. The state is distinct from other political entities by its system of legitimate domination based on rational-legal authority… the state includes a system of legal rules that bind individuals to the society, civil service bureaucracy, elected representatives, and coercive institutions such as the police and armed forces. Thus, the state is not a unified entity, nor does it have fixed institutional boundaries. It is, rather, an ensemble of multifunctional institutions and organizations. The state has no unitary interest but, rather, contains many competing interests in different parts of the state. These interests develop through negotiation, bargaining, and compromise among different groups in society, among different state actors, and between state actors and societal groups.
This paper adopts the definition of ‘state’ from the above authors, particularly on the governance aspect defined by Gotham. The state is, in this paper, an organisation operating in a delineated national border with a set of institutions and agencies having the authority to define and enforce collectively binding decisions on the members of a society in the name of their common interest or general will.
The state plays essential roles in the success or failure of development and environmental governance. With the community-based approach, the state is committed to devolving power to local communities for resource governance, but it is, in general, devolved through negotiation and bargaining between the state and community. The state has the power to authorise, help, hinder, or override local controls. Nested within supportive institutions of the state, community-based institutions have higher chances of successful programme implementation. Without state support, community institutions usually fail, as they do not have sufficient means and power to support their projects or to stop unsustainable, exploitative practices. Despite its significant power, the state is, however, not one single, united entity. Its power is not unified and concentrated. It contains many competing interests in different institutions, which give rise to competing, negotiating, bargaining, and compromise. State institutions supporting rural development may have to negotiate with institutions responsible for forest conservation, plantation development for resource management or urban development.
In addition to power relations within and between state and community institutions, transnational institutions including transnational corporations, international financial institutions (the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and the Asian Development Bank), and international environment non-government organisations (NGOs), also exert significant influence on rural development and environmental governance. Transnational corporations play significant roles in shaping livelihoods and the environment at all levels around the world. They condition the actions of other actors and influence policies and practices through loan provision. International environmental NGOs are, however, representative of civil society, which hold other actors (e.g. the state, transnational corporations, international finance institutions) accountable for their actions towards the environment and society. Through collaboration or competition, the decisions and actions of these transnational institutions have a significant impact on state policies relating to local resources and development.
According to United Nations, an NGO is “any non-profit, voluntary citizens’ group which is organised on a local, national or international level,” and is not established by state institutions. NGOs work for common interests, whether humanitarian, development, democracy, poverty alleviation, human rights, biodiversity conservation, or natural resource management, among others, through direct and indirect political and policy influence. According to their definition, NGOs are non-political entities. Nonetheless, their means to achieve their goals of development or natural resource management through promoting local participation, empowerment, good governance, and power-sharing, among others are all in the field of politics. This makes NGOs social and political actors. Since the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, 1992, NGOs have gained momentum and become powerful actors in global governance, which has led to the establishment of more than forty thousand international NGOs and more than two million local NGOs around the world. In the words of Rigg, this is the wave of “NGOs evolution.”
NGOs are not the only key actor working to advocate for community-based development. There are other key giant international institutions including Overseas Development Assistance, research institutes and universities, specifically the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the UK Department for International Development (DFID), Oxfam International, the World Bank (WB), and the Asian Development Bank (ADB), working through collaboration or competition with one another and with other actors (e.g. the state, transnational corporations, local people) to influence policies and practices for sustainable development and environmental management through the implementation of the community-based approach. Providing grants and loans are the key channels for these agencies to influence the political and policy landscape. Policy formulation, institutional reform, capacity building, research, and community establishment and development are some examples of community-based implementation.
However, with the strong promotion of community-based development over the years, most local development projects are largely driven by donors and project implementers, while local roles and leadership are minimal. A large number of projects are not sustained after the projects are concluded.
Transnational Corporations (TNCs) are “incorporated or unincorporated enterprises comprising parent enterprises and their foreign affiliates.” TNCs generally work closely with the state through their subsidiaries or foreign affiliates for natural resource extraction and development. There are diverse groups of TNCs, and they are generally responsible for environmental pollution, biodiversity loss, ecological destruction, displacement, violence, and other forms of environmental damage and social injustice in both developed and developing countries, even though attempts for social and environmental corporate responsibilities have been made by some. TNCs and national corporations are powerful in terms of lobbying and influencing national development policies and natural resource extraction. They also play important roles in investment and local employment. Increasing numbers of social enterprises or more socially and environmentally responsible corporations are key for sustainable and inclusive development.
Despite multiple interests among the above diverse actors, if properly coordinated and collaborated, they can be the drivers for sustainable and inclusive development. Support from all actors allows communities to make the best use of their resources for socio-economic development, environmental protection, and cultural preservation.
With numerous and diverse actors, the capacity of community-based institutions remains weak. There is a need for the supporting roles of mediators to put a system in place that can enable community leaders to learn about and gradually take control of their development trajectory. Mediators play central roles for building networks with key actors to effectively undertake policy interventions. It is the role of the mediators to connect actors at different individual nodes of community-based networks and to ensure that each actor acts to support and maintain the network, rather than work against it. Studies show that mediators are able to mobilise financial, technical, and political support, and provide assistance to those in need or experiencing difficulties when networks are challenged or put under pressure. Mediators can also call for network members to embrace the success of their policy interventions, in order to persuade state decision-makers and new audiences to join the networks. These strategies and support mechanisms are key for network maintenance.
The 100 Model Village project was proposed by the Royal Government of Cambodia during the Asian Cultural Council launching event on 14th January, 2019, as a demonstration of a genuine community-based development model. The following is the description of the project adapted from its concept note:
To summarise the above discussion, this paper argues that with direct contact and ecological and environmental knowledge, local communities are in the most suitable position to make decisions and take the lead on matters pertinent to local development. Even though community members have diverse social, cultural, religious, economic, and political backgrounds—as well as multiple interests stemming from local resources—a sense of belonging to their land and social, and cultural bonds are key for them to cooperate and act collectively for their wellbeing and prosperity. Providing genuine opportunities for local people to drive community development will help address the shortage of financial and human resources allocated by the government for public service delivery in rural areas, improve efficiency of service delivery, create local employment, reduce ex-migration, build local capacity in a range of key areas essential for local development, and ensure sustainability and inclusiveness of the project and development interventions. Genuine community-based development should be based on comprehensive studies of the localities, and results of the studies should lay the foundation for the design of the project, and for the implementation and monitoring and evaluation processes. The whole process should be led by the local community, with certain assistance from project mediators (coordinators), until villagers are capable of managing, and taking full control of the projects. The 100 Model Village project, which was proposed by the Cambodian government in January 2019, is a good example of such a project.
The opinions expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the Asian Vision Institute