Building Community Consensus

Reaching consensus within communities is often a difficult and challenging process. Outsiders usually think of rural communities as homogenous and straightforward. Practical experience and a half-century of development research show the opposite: even impoverished communities tend to be stratified, with their own forms of inequality, conflict and hierarchy. Almost invariably, local elites try to take control of external development assistance and distribute the benefits to their families, allies and subordinates. Non-elite residents (women, young men, minorities, etc.) usually receive nothing or very little and may actually become poorer. Unless safeguards are put in place, the most predictable outcome is conflict and impoverishment, not improved living standards.

For the past 15 years, we have focused intensely on solving this problem. We have developed a set of tools that allow local people to identify high-priority needs – projects that will provide the greatest benefits to most people – and separate them from their “wants,” e.g., a prestige building for traditional leaders. Such tools have been highly effective in avoiding potential conflicts and in identifying development initiatives with the greatest possibility of success. (Case Study)