Community Driven Development (CDD) is an approach to development, often used in fragile or conflict affected areas, which aims to engage the community in the decision making process to decide how development funds should be spent in the local area. It typically involves setting up some sort of community council which then makes decisions on how a block grant should be invested. It is massively popular with development agencies – the World Bank, for example, supports over 400 CDD projects in 94 countries at a cost of over $30 billion. Its supporters are almost evangelical about its ability to rebuild damaged societies and promote social cohesion but does it really work? That is the question asked in a recent critical review of CDD in conflict-affected areas written by Elisabeth King. And the answer is… not really.
The review is a masterpiece of clear-headed analysis and intelligently combined research methodologies. King began by constructing a general Theory of Change based on the programme documents of previous interventions to describe how people believe that CDD will lead to social cohesion. She then carried out a synthesis of rigorous impact evaluations of CDD programmes in conflict-affected areas to test whether the included studies demonstrated an effect on the intermediate and final outcomes identified in the Theory of Change. And finally she carried out qualitative research to understand the views of those implementing and researching CDD.
The review demonstrates that CDD programmes can be an effective way to distribute development funds to achieve ‘proximate outcomes’ – for example, roads got built and people got grants. But there is little evidence that it achieves the kind of long-term social outcomes that its implementers are setting out to achieve. None of the five included studies found evidence of improved governance and only one out of the four which looked at it found any evidence of an improvement in social cohesion. The qualitative arm of the study revealed that some experts felt that the intervention was being over-hyped – they described the generic Theory of Change on which CDD interventions are based as “lofty”, “unrealistic”, “inherently flawed” and even “ridiculous”.
I began to understand this scepticism when I considered what would happen if it was implemented in my own area. I live in the London area of Vauxhall. Like most areas of London, it is fantastically diverse. It is well-known for its large gay community – most of my neighbours are gay couples – but perhaps surprisingly, it also has big populations of quite conservative Christians. If you get on a bus you are as likely to hear Portuguese or Yoruba as English – and a massive 40% of people living here were not born in the UK. Around a third of the accomodation is social housing including some big housing estates and high-rise flats – but we also have some very gentrified streets. I would not say that we have massive problems with intergroup intolerance – but neither would I say that it is a cohesive community; in fact, there is relatively little interaction between the demographic groups. So, would CDD bring us all together?
Well… I’m not convinced. If an NGO came along and said that our area could have a million pounds to spend on something so long as we all got together to agree on it, I can’t really see how that would bring me closer to those around me. First, I would have to decide to go to the meeting – and although a million pounds is a lot of money, I am not certain that I would feel that it would be likely to have a sufficiently big impact on me that I would give up my precious free time to attend. And if I did go, and if I found that there were others who had massively different ideas from me on how it should be spent, I suspect it might make me feel less connected to them rather than more.
So what next for CDD? King is careful not to suggest that the approach should be discarded completely. As discussed above, it can be an effective way to achieve proximal outcomes (e.g. infrastructure, service delivery) and, given the relative lack of tools we have for working in fragile and conflict-affected environments, this is not to be sniffed at. However, she is also clear that we cannot continue to treat CDD as a panacea. She concludes that we need to be guided by “humility and more realistic goals”; a suggestion that we would all do well to consider.
This review, along with a number of previous articles, suggests that we need to think seriously about CDD – can the approach be modified to improve its outcomes? Or should it be seen as just a mechanism to deliver funding for projects but not as a means to social cohesion? It will be interesting to see how those implementing CDD respond.