Subcontractors or visionaries?

Sheela Patel

One of the most important concepts in the development debate is trusteeship – the capacity of community leadership to make accountable choices, to reflect on these choices and make course corrections when necessary, and to maintain a focus on the goal of equity. The need for this kind of trusteeship is poorly understood by grant givers, and I believe its absence is a serious omission. For me, a fundamental question donors need to ask is this: do they want subcontractors to carry out their mission? Or do they want to support those who have a vision for their own transformation?

If donors are serious about addressing poverty and exclusion, they need to look for trusteeship in organizations of the poor and to support its development by adapting their own processes rather than imposing them on the organizations they support. They also need to look at community organizations’ organizational and management processes in the same light.

The alliance of the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC), Mahila Milan, National Slum Dwellers Federation (NSDF) and Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI) illustrates this well. Our fundamental hypothesis is that the poor and vulnerable cannot promote their aspirations because they cannot breach the barriers that exclude them. In order to overcome this exclusion, large numbers of poor people need to make their claims collectively, to sustain these claims over long periods of time, and to push for participation in the production and maintenance of new resources that may transform their lives. They need in fact to become a social movement.

This process never follows a blueprint so the capacity to correct the course along the way is as critical as the initial determination to produce change. The leadership of the poor urgently needs to develop the ability to defend their aspirations and to see them through to fruition. Much development assistance supports the creation of aspirations among the poor, and the formation of groups and organizations, but fails to create the values and skills of trusteeship. 

Three examples of trusteeship

I would like to cite three examples from our experience in SPARC, Mahila Milan and NSDF, and SDI to show how these skills can be nurtured and supported. The first concerns the management of resources in local community federations in India. The second concerns the management of a construction company called Sparc Samudhaya Nirman Sahayak (SSNS), set up primarily by federation representatives and members of SPARC’s board. The third concerns the current development and management of the International Urban Poor Development Fund, which will give SDI the capacity to administer external funding and make decisions regarding its allocation to its national affiliates.

Community trusteeship

SPARC’s commitment to strengthen the qualities of trusteeship is a persistent and long-standing character of our partnership with Mahila Milan and NSDF. Local federations manage their own resource centres, and we use community accountability systems to decide who will manage programmes and finance, and how reporting is shared between communities and with those who support us. SPARC deals with funders and passes on the funds agreed for these activities.

In most cases the communities don’t have bank accounts, so joint accounts are established in the names of two or three people in the leadership. Almost all expenses are recorded by hand and signed off. There are few bills or receipts as rooms are rented informally and electricity bills are contributions to a main meter shared by many. However, our system of orally listing activity and planning expenses is treated with distrust by funders, and I am often asked why I have not demanded formal records.

For us, transformation requires that communities of the poor build confidence in their capacity to discover and produce their own version of trusteeship. They must develop the ability to detect who has made mistakes and who is cheating. They also need to work out what to do with such people and to understand the consequences of their choices. These are critical governance issues that should be embedded in the development process. This doesn’t happen overnight nor does it happen by adhering to strict rules of accountability imposed from above. Yet time and time again, donors base their dealings on vertical accountability and distrust until it is proved to be unnecessary.

Often when federations make mistakes, or money is taken by the leaders, communities hide this for fear of being sent into development exile. An in-depth exploration of what failed in their internal accountability system, on the other hand, has taught valuable lessons from which Mahila Milan and NSDF have benefited innumerable times. They may have lost some money, but they have helped communities to regain trust, and have developed strategies for dealing with those who have cheated or betrayed them. Few funders’ programme officers can hear this and not run in fear of the implications, but we believe our 20-year record demonstrates that it is a good working model.

SPARC Samudaya Nirman Sahayak (SSNS)

SSNS is a construction company set up by SPARC, Mahila Milan and NSDF in 1998 to assist the federations. It provides technical and financial support to federation communities to help them manage design and construction when they have obtained land for housing or funds for housing and infrastructure.

SSNS also undertakes a deeply political process. The community leadership begins to examine where they get excluded in construction practices, and how rules and regulations obstruct their collective attempts to bid for or benefit from projects, and these obstacles are challenged through SSNS. Whether the procurement norms are those of the World Bank or of a local municipality, they gradually develop the confidence and the capacity to seek inclusion, thereby changing the tendering process and ensuring they have a level playing field.

The process also involves a gradually developing awareness of how to manage a company, seek bank loans, develop housing and infrastructure projects, and take on construction contracts. While battling with these formal exclusionary procedures, the federations also battle with informal threats such as demands for bribes and demands by politicians for a cut in the contract, and other practices of extortion that are part of the construction industry.

This process has received large investments from the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA). An unusual feature is a committee comprising all actors (donors, managers of funds, recipient organizations like SSNS) which meets every six months to develop resolutions which reconcile the expectations of all involved, while sensitizing all of us on the various back office demands and requirements.

Northern agencies tend to prefer hands-off institutional arrangements and they worry about conflict of interest, so they were concerned about the representation of SPARC, NSDF and Mahila Milan on the SSNS board given that NSDF and Mahila Milan are also beneficiaries. But the southern organizations on the committee argue that unless the federation leadership, along with SPARC leadership, are involved in the trusteeship for the capital provided, this money will never really revolve. Money is seldom used with much reflection when it is not your own, and creating that ownership in turn produces trusteeship. Discussion has resulted in a compromise: the SSNS board now consists of three members from the SPARC board (rather than the whole SPARC board as previously), three members nominated by the federations, and two or three external members. For once continued dialogue has produced a conclusion that works for all sides.

International Urban Poor Development Fund

Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI) is a transnational organization in which grassroot federations such as NSDF and Mahila Milan are affiliates. Recently SDI has set up an International Urban Poor Development Fund to deepen and expand the capacity of national urban poor funds managed by affiliates. This fund will pool money from external sources, starting with a grant of US$5 million, and pass it to national funds such as SSNS and other SDI affiliates’ national funds to be used for projects. Some of these funds will be revolved; some will be used to leverage advocacy and policy outcomes.

The larger focus is to develop within the board and council of SDI a capacity for trusteeship – developing criteria for providing money to support local initiatives and sharing the risks of exploring change. It’s a process that does not exclude external review or evaluation but does seek to put the community leadership in the driver’s seat. This will make it possible for large funders to test the waters in building the capacity of global movements to engage in development decisions.

Although the development industry apparently champions the rights of the poor to choose their own ways of escaping from poverty, they continue to follow their own vision through prescribed strategies, with NGOs functioning as their contractors. Our challenge to the development industry, both governmental and non-governmental, is to rethink this approach and to consider whose vision is being financed.

Sheela Patel is Executive Director of SPARC and Chair of the SDI board. Email

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