It is a blistering Friday afternoon in Pabalelo Township in the remote town of Upington in the Northern Cape of South Africa. A young twenty- one year old woman sits outside her make- shift home under the shade watching her children play in the dusty front yard. A 4X4 vehicle drives by and parks outside her home. It has a government logo on the sides of the doors. A well- dressed man walks up to her from the vehicle and introduces himself from the department of welfare in the province. He wishes to talk to her about the social and economic changes she has experienced in her household and her community over the past twelve months. ‘I have nothing to say’, she responds curtly, ‘you government officials pop up here now and then, write your reports and then disappear without involving us in any of your plans that affect our lives! Here we are, still poor and unemployed.’

The government official is left speechless and disturbed by this encounter. He realizes that perhaps the young woman was right- they often do come into the community and set up projects without actually consulting with the community or even involving them in the developing of projects that are designed to address their plight. No wonder it is so difficult to accurately measure whether there has been any significant and qualitative changes in the lives of the poor, both prior to and after these projects have been established.

As an official of the state he becomes aware that a different approach to what exists is required if the government wants to make a meaningful impact in the lives of its people. He reminds himself that that is why they were elected in the first place! For a democracy to work, real people- centred development must happen. This means that the needs of people must be placed at the centre of any development agenda. It implies a shift in the view that democracy is exercised only when you cast your vote every five years. Instead it places emphasis on people becoming active participants in this development agenda rather than passive beneficiaries.

An opportunity emerged in 2007 to integrate the participatory principles advocated by the MfI approach into a process of developing an Impact Assessment tool for this very same government department. This tool, termed the Social Impact Assessment Tool (SIAT) aimed at developing a mechanism for use by government officials to monitor and evaluate the impact of social development programmes on the lives of their constituency, namely the poor and vulnerable. What makes the SIAT so special is that it places participation and empowerment at the heart of the M&E process.

The Department of Welfare is the second largest government department in the Republic of South Africa. It has the critical mandate of promoting social development in a post-democratic era. This responsibility is given against the backdrop of a country in transition from a highly unequal society to one of a people- centred democracy. Since 1994 South Africa has been a country in transition. Fourteen years into democracy, the country has embarked on a reconstruction and development path to address the aftermath of six decades of institutionalized apartheid. For the first ever democratically elected government this has meant designing and formulating policies and programmes that seeks to deal with the scourge of growing unemployment, poverty and vulnerability.

South Africa has a three- tier system of governance: national, provincial and local. The department has a provincial department in the Northern Cape province within which is located the Directorate Development Implementation Support Services (DISS). The latter department is engaged in several poverty relief programmes. These programmes are designed to deal with socio- economic upliftment in the province. The Northern Cape Province constitutes one of nine provinces in the country. It is faced with a situation of 46% of unemployment and approximately 65% of people living in poverty (i.e living on less that $1 a day).

Khanya-aicdd was approached by the heads of the DISS to help facilitate the design of the SIAT which would be used by its community development officers (CDO’s). These individuals are at the frontline of the community and it is they who are the conduits for state- led community developm

Our approach to the task

Khanya- aicdd responded to the department’s request by setting up an internal team. This team was made up of the Khanya SMIP Focal and the Capacity Development Manager, both of whom were au faire with the MfI approach. At the beginning there was an expectation on the part of the department that Khanya would design the tool remotely and then proceed to build the capacity of the CDO’s to use it once the tool was complete. The Khanya team however, imagined a different approach to designing the tool. This alternative way of approaching the SIAT development process was to involve the CDO’s immediately at the beginning of the design process. The decision was based on the reasoning that in order for the CDO’s to understand and use the tool fully and appropriately, they would have to own and commit it from the beginning. Besides, we intended to let the CLO’s experience the benefits of participation first- hand themselves so that they could in turn be in a position to instil it as a value through their own work!

It was in this light that the MfI as an approach was introduced. It intended to build the capacity of the managers and implementers of the SIAT. More importantly it aimed at facilitating a paradigm shift within the department from the use of M&E purely for accountability and quantitative reporting purposes, to the use of M&E for learning and empowerment purposes as well.

And so our journey of participation with the department began….

We had established early on in our interactions with the heads of department that an M&E system does indeed exist in the department. If this is the case, we wondered why then there was such difficulty in collecting information that would enable the department to make an acute analysis of its impact in the communities it works in. It emerged that one of the main causes of resistance to the monitoring of community projects was that the CDO’s tended to see it as an extra piece of work, and not part and parcel of their daily operations. Nor did they see the big picture in terms of the value that M&E adds to the achievement of impact.

As a result of this assessment we felt that the timing was ripe to introduce the notion of MfI into the SIAT development. We then arranged a standard ten- day MfI training for the CDO’s from __ districts and key management personnel. The training was structured according to the MfI pillars, and the ten days were interspaced with a fieldwork assignment in a community that they were already working in.

The process that we intended to facilitate seemed to be going according to plan. Participants enjoyed learning about how the success of a project depends on more than just the basics- a rigid project plan, a budget, and the allocation of people. Instead there were some ‘a- ha!’ moments. This happened when people realized the importance of guiding the project strategy towards impact, having the correct conditions in place, and inculcating a culture of learning.

Just as we (the facilitators) thought our journey with participants was a smooth ride, we began to encounter some pot- holes in the road! This happened the moment we started to introduce participatory approaches to monitoring and evaluating for impact. Suddenly our destination started to blur. Participants began to question the need for participation of communities in project design and monitoring. It was almost as if we, the practitioner, should know better than the poor what is good and right for them. Further to this including the voices of the poor seemed to be a waste of valuable time. An element of paternalism emerged and we encountered the first bit of resistance to the virtues of participation.

It was evident that under the current situation that the CDO’s were accustomed to extractive information collection from the communities within which they work. Typically community members would respond to questions posed by the CDO, these responses would be translated into a pre- determined reporting format, and then submitted to the provincial level for monitoring purposes. No downward accountability occurs, and the community has no opportunity to check if the information is accurate or to influence how it is used.

The MfI training intended to change this perspective by exploring how important it is for communities to participate to ensure that the community projects have an impact on the livelihoods of the poor and vulnerable. Shifting emphasis from a participatory typology of participation to that of functional and interactive participation was necessary for the true value of the SIAT to be achieved.

Imagine a situation where the young woman from Pabalelo was part of a community group that was active in planning and influencing the development of a community project with the department official. She would certainly feel as if she is taking ownership of the project from the start and will automatically work towards ensuring that it benefits herself and her young child. Imagine the smile on her face the next time she does mark a cross next to her preferred political candidate at the next election. For her, democracy would have turned into a reality.

Some reflections from practice

The concept and purpose of participation must be brought back into the development debate if we want to make a genuine dent in poverty and inequality. Organisations and agencies ranging from multi- lateral organizations to state bureaucracies to international NGOs and local CBO’s have embraced the notion of participatory approaches to development. Yet we still grapple with whether participation directly translates into empowerment of the poor and marginalised. Through facilitating participation we intend for the voices of the voiceless to emerge so that they are in positions to make choices that affect their own lives. In reality however, there is a tendency to flirt with the idea of participation. Instead of facilitating processes where social organisation and community control is the order of the day, we are content with consulting people when it suits our agenda. Although we listen to the people, we often take their views and mould them to suit our objective. These objectives can be multifold: a report to our supervisor indicating the number of site visits made so that we get a good performance review; an ethnographic study to write a dissertation; or a validation of a hypothesis to justify funding.

Real participation of the poor and marginalised implies that they have to be organised and mobilised in drafting an agenda that affects their own lives. It means that they must be active and vocal in demanding their rights to access services and to speak out against the values that have placed them in a precarious position in the first place. More especially, it means that the external change agent (be it the state, or NGO) plays a catalysing, facilitating and brokering role. This role does not entail making decisions on behalf of the community by consulting with them every now and again- rather it involves ensuring that community groups become empowered to become self- directed in taking control of their own lives.