Each year, billions of dollars in foreign aid are directed to the developing world. Assistance comes in a variety of forms, but one particular method of delivery—community-driven development (CDD)—which came about as a response to large-scale top-down initiatives that were criticized for failing to empower aid recipients, has become especially popular. This approach emphasizes involvement of local communities in planning decisions and controlling investment of resources. Beyond benefiting communities with their involvement in planning decisions and the investment of resources, CDD is intended to encourage sustained participation through local representative institutions, thus improving social capital and local governance.
The CDD approach is particularly popular in the context of weak or fragile states, in which government bureaucracy often fails to provide public goods and services. From 1996 to 2003, World Bank lending alone for such projects rose from $325 million to $2 billion per year, reaching $30 billion in total as of 2012, toward the support of four hundred programs with CDD components in ninety-four countries. Yet, rigorous empirical evidence of CDD value remains limited.
My work with Andrew Beath from the World Bank and Fotini Christia from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology contributes to understanding the effectiveness of this approach by assessing the impact of a large-scale CDD program in Afghanistan known as the National Solidarity Program (NSP). NSP is the country’s largest development program, implemented in over thirty-two thousand out of Afghanistan’s thirty-nine thousand villages at a cost of over $1 billion. Funded by a consortium of international donors and administered by the Afghan national government, its aim is to both improve the access of rural villagers to critical services and to create a structure for village governance centered on democratic processes and female participation.
In that regard, a democratically elected, gender-balanced council is created in each village to determine, in consultation with local residents, which village-level development projects they would like to implement. Communities then receive grants of up to $60,000 to implement their selected projects, which range from drinking wells and irrigation canals to small bridges, roads, or micro-hydro electric generators.
To provide reliable measures of program efficacy, we employed a randomized field experiment, which provided rigorous estimates of program results across a broad range of economic, political, and social indicators. Specifically, at the start of the study half of the five hundred eligible villages were randomly selected to receive the program and another half were assigned to the next financing cycle that took place four years later.
Random assignment of villages into treatment and control groups ensured that there were no significant differences between them before the start of the program, allowing for any differences after program implementation to be attributed to the consequences of the program.
To see how these changed over time, we measured the outcomes of interest in three waves: before the start of the program, midway through its completion at the two-year mark, and after its completion at the end of four years. Since we were interested in a variety of different outcomes, ranging from access to goods and services to security and attitudes toward national government and the social status of women, we measured effects using extensive surveys administered to more than thirteen thousand respondents in each of the waves.
Our results suggest that NSP had important positive outcomes despite the pressing challenges presented by the fragile state context of Afghanistan but also proved limited in achieving a certain range of effects. Specifically, NSP-funded utilities projects delivered substantial increases in access to drinking water and electricity but infrastructure projects proved less effective. In particular, irrigation and transportation projects had little effect on crop yields or on the ability to get goods to the market. As a result, NSP had limited impact on objective economic measures such as consumption or asset ownership. Project implementation and the accompanying infusion of resources, however, delivered a short-term economic boost. This stimulus also improved villagers’ perceptions of central and sub-national government as well as of foreign actors such as nongovernmental organizations and International Security Assistance Force soldiers. However, the influence of NSP on perceptions of government weakens considerably following project completion, which suggests that government legitimacy is dependent on the regular provision of public goods.
NSP’s participatory methods also improved acceptance of democratic processes, including increasing the number of community members who vote in national elections, the proportion of male villagers preferring elections, the frequency of meetings of representative councils, and the number of village members who are willing to challenge or change leadership decisions. We also find that the mandating of female participation by NSP—and the consequent female involvement in project implementation—results in increased male acceptance of women in public life as well as broad-based improvements in women’s lives, encompassing increases in participation in local governance, access to counseling, and mobility.
These and other economic, institutional, and social outcomes of NSP further drive increases in girls’ school attendance and in women’s access to medical services, as well as in improved economic perceptions and optimism among women in NSP villages. We found, however, no evidence that the program affects the position of women within the family.
One of the most important findings of our study is that development aid provided through NSP worked as a counterinsurgency tool. We find that the program led to a reduction in violence two years after the start of the program, although the effect becomes less pronounced two years later. Notably, this result was confined to preventing the spread of violence in villages that were not marked by insurgency at the start of the program and did not reduce insecurity in villages that were already plagued by high levels of violence before the program’s introduction.
Overall our results suggest that a community-driven development program can not only improve access to basic services but also can advance certain social outcomes, such as the status of women in communities or even the level of insurgent activity. This is a very important finding, which suggests that properly designed development interventions can have a positive impact not only on economic but also on social outcomes. However, the long-term success of such interventions is likely to be dependent on continued and regularized government engagement and funding that would institutionalize the role of newly created village councils and allow them to keep serving as an important community tool to deliver public services and solve community challenges in a participatory manner.
Recommended Reading: The final report for the National Solidarity Program (NSP) impact evaluation, which reports estimates of the effects of NSP across a broad range of economic, social, and institutional outcomes, was released in August 2013 and may be accessed at www.nsp-ie.org/results.html/.