Captivated by Elite Capture in Development

Community-based and -driven Development projects have become an important form of development assistance, with the World Bank’s portfolio alone approximating $7 billion. A review of their conceptual foundations and evidence on their effectiveness shows that projects that rely on community participation have not been particularly effective at targeting the poor. There is some evidence that such projects create effective community infrastructure, but not a single study establishes a causal relationship between any outcome and participatory elements of a community-based development project. Most such projects are dominated by elites, and both targeting and project quality tend to be markedly worse in more unequal communities. A distinction between potentially “benevolent” forms of elite domination and more pernicious types of capture is likely to be important for understanding project dynamics and outcomes. Several qualitative studies indicate that the sustainability of community-based initiatives depends crucially on an enabling institutional environment, which requires government commitment, and on accountability of leaders to their community to avoid “supply-driven demand-driven” development. External agents strongly influence project success, but facilitators are often poorly trained, particularly in rapidly scaled-up programs. The naive application of complex contextual concepts like participation, social capital, and empowerment is endemic among project implementers and contributes to poor design and implementation. The evidence suggest that community-based and -driven development projects are best undertaken in a context-specific manner, with a long time horizon and with careful and well-designed monitoring and evaluation systems.

This is the abstract of Mansuri and Rao’s paper “Community-based and -driven Development: A Critical Review“.

My time in Kenya got me thinking a lot about (what I learned is called) “elite capture” in development program implementation. It’s the idea that decentralized and localized development projects may suffer from the local implementers or politicians influencing the target of the program so that it benefits them more directly, instead of the people the project is designed to help. Reading about this stuff is fascinating! Two excellent papers I’ve read so far on elite capture are:

Pan and Christiaensen (2012) “Who is Vouching for the Input Voucher? Decentralized Targeting and Elite Capture in Tanzania” Do the political elite get greater access to “pro-poor” agricultural input vouchers in Tanzania? Yes.

Sheely (2015) “Mobilization, Participatory Planning Institutions, and Elite Capture: Evidence from a Field Experiment in Rural Kenya” Does encouraging ordinary citizens to attend participatory local government planning meetings reduce the influence of the elite on local politics? No.

Sorry for the pay walls on the links, but if this has peaked your interest, The Economist has an excellent summary article: Targeting Social Spending.

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