Towards the end of every year, African governments request their departments or ministries to submit budget projections covering activities for the following year. That information is then consolidated into a national budget. To the extent that process does not involve communities who are supposed to benefit from the national budget, it is largely top-down and assumes communities at the grassroots have nothing to contribute to the national budget. Yet that is a serious oversight.
When the national budget is only considered in terms of figures, policy makers may mislead themselves to conclude that communities and rural people have nothing to contribute. However, when facts and knowledge are taken into account in ways that canvass contributions from the grassroots, the budget becomes a powerful instrument for socio-economic transformation. For instance, when adequately consulted, agricultural communities can contribute vast knowledge and ideas that enrich the national budget. They can even point out areas that do not need money but simple re-prioritization of existing resources, some of which are under-utilized.
If top-down approaches were sustainable, many African countries would have succeeded in moving millions of people out of poverty. For the past decades, there has been no shortage of top-down interventions through which millions of dollars have been thrown onto challenges that could easily be solved through asking and listening to communities. Going forward, the best thing development agencies and African governments can do is empowering communities to mobilize their own funding and other resources. That way, communities do not just wait for external support or support from the national treasury which is increasingly getting under pressure from shocks like COVID19.
Appropriate avenue for devolution
For countries striving to introduce devolution, empowering communities to craft their own budgets and mobilize their own resources is an ideal starting point. Instead of sticking with fragmented survivalist models like Voluntary Savings and Lending Associations (VSLAs), what if development agencies build the capacity of communities to mobilize funding, ideas and knowledge for their own development? This approach could include building the capacity of communities to package their districts into viable opportunities for investors. Models for local fund-raising need support from everyone including NGOs that currently traverse rural communities competing to introduce projects in a piece-meal fashion – a nutrition garden here, a goat project there, a water project in another community and so on.
Top-down and fragmented initiatives have always been struggling to achieve collective impact in ways that lift people out of poverty. Empowering communities to design local collective budgets and mobilize financial resources can contribute more benefits such as building trust, valuing existing knowledge, solidarity, self-confidence and independence. Eventually communities will stop burdening the national treasury but also contribute to national development. eMKambo is not suggesting that communities can meet all their needs without government or development agencies but most are able and willing to participate fully in their own development if the right engagement channels are used. Communities can take care of what is within their power while government and development partners provide support for expensive national initiatives like providing educational and health services that reach whole populations beyond small communities.
Rolling back power from conflicted intermediaries
Unless farming communities are empowered to take matters into their own hands, they will not be able to roll back power from middlemen and other conflicted intermediaries who have remained part of systemic barriers for farmers to earn better incomes from their farming activities. In some cases, trusted people like members of parliament also act as conflicted intermediaries and middlemen. They do not bring money or natural resources to communities but merely accompany government resources in the form of constituency development funds whose use in the community does not involve all community members so that they combine external resources with what they have locally.
Traditional leaders can be an integral part of community resource mobilization because they have an oversight role over local resources. African communities are tired of too many solutions imposed from the top in ways that undermine local people’s capacity to contribute to generating home-grown solutions. Effective action in communities depends on genuine ownership by the larger community. While data is an important piece in this direction, it may not enough. Beyond expert knowledge foisted on communities by economists and other technocrats, it is critical to value public knowledge, which comes only from authentic engagement with communities. That is why African countries should strive to build public knowledge, combine it with expert knowledge and use it to strengthen community efforts.
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