Government as "outsourcer", government as "facilitator"

Wednesday, 06 January 2010
By Benjamin Bradlow, SDI secretariat

David A. Smith of the Affordable Housing Institute has a great post about a Federation of the Urban Poor (FEDUP) - led enumeration in Durban last month. It gives a good sense of how the community-led self-surveying is a key tool for community empowerment, as well as how this fits into the greater strategies of community-driven housing delivery and slum upgrading. Here's a key quote from Smith:
Enumeration by the people themselves represents outsourcing an essential governmental function both to accelerate its delivery and to create political standing for the poor themselves. If you won’t do it for us, we will do it for ourselves and make you acknowledge us.

When we talk about "outsourcing an essential governmental function" such as census-taking for evidence-based solutions, I wonder what does it really mean to "outsource" such a project? If governments are not doing it, then is it really an "essential government function"? And what does it even mean to call something an "essential government function"?

The political value of an enumeration sheds some light on these questions. As I mentioned, enumerations are not just about momentary community empowerment for the sake of community empowerment. Having witnessed other FEDUP enumerations, I can say that the show of songs, slogans, and speeches can have a powerful emotional effect, something Smith also describes in his Durban experience. But the real test of enumerations is the way they can change our very notions of government.

It is helpful to think of these surveys not as "outsourcing," which implies that it is some kind of half-hearted, last ditch measure, but rather as the most effective way to do such a survey to begin with. Poor communities are best placed to know the kinds of issues that really need to be surveyed, they stand to benefit the most from the information, and they have the most legitimacy to conduct the surveys. Once they have the information, they can negotiate with governments from a more informed, more organized, and more constructive standpoint.

In fact, it may be more useful to think of such "outsourcing" as the most effective thing government can do on this particular issue. But we can do away with this market-based language (every time I type the word "outsourcing" I think of big telecom companies, but maybe that's my own problem). Ultimately, the government will have to act on this information. Instead of being the driving force behind development of poor communities, governments can think of themselves as facilitators working in partnership with poor communities — in fact, being led by poor communities. Poor communities need the political will, the technical capacities, and the finance that only governments can provide. And governments cannot facilitate these things without encouraging the organization of poor communities around their own resources, a key example being the information gathered through enumerations.

So it is not a binary of either governments leading or governments throwing up their hands and "outsourcing" community development and organization. Instead, governments can be facilitators, encouraging the very people they serve to take the lead and organize themselves. Then, governments will benefit through the strengthened political will and practical expertise to work towards development that can only come from these kinds of "people-centered" approaches.

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