The participation of the Aguégués District population in the project "improving the living conditions of the populations of the Aguégués District"
by Cécile Beauvallet-Le Coq
A district in South Benin comprising of 21 villages with about 22,000 inhabitants, Aguégués has, since 1992, been benefiting from an integrated rural development project cofunded by UNCDF, UNDP, WFP, and the Beninese government.
The project, which aims at improving the living conditions of all the people, has the following development objectives: resolve problems facing people in the short term; provide a mechanism and resources in the long term to enable them to be "self-developed while respecting nature". The project comprises the following five components:
- "Disenclosure, which envisages the construction of dams and a landing site;
- "Improving basic infrastructures" including the construction of about fifty buildings (district, town councils, schools, health centres, maternities),
- "Village equipment fund" to develop income-generating activities (fisheries, agriculture, commercialization),
- "Progressive reconstruction of an appropriate ecosystem" for better protection of the environment through sensitization activities of the people and replanting,
- "Strengthening participation mechanisms of the people" aimed at strengthening their capacity at self-promotion through the animation and training of various local structures (authorities and administrative staff, associations, groups, etc.).
The project has a highly participatory character based on the involvement of the population from the design phase of the project to its evaluation, their financial and material contribution and strengthening their capacity to initiate, promote and implement development actions.
Three years after the commencement of the activities in the field and as a result of some problems encountered by the project team in obtaining adequate participation of the population, a one-month consultation was undertaken to examine the population's participation in the implementation of the project and in the management of infrastructures supplied. Through available documents and group meetings/discussions carried out in the field, it was possible to determine the nature of the population's actual participation, to describe factors which have contributed towards achieving the objectives of mobilising the population or those which, on the contrary, limited their participation, and make recommendations for improving participation.
Participation of the population in construction of infrastructures and their management
Construction of infrastructures was the major material contribution made by the population to the project. This consisted of supplying, to about 50 sites and over a five-year period, storage facilities for site materials and free labour for various non-specialised jobs (clearing of sites, water and sand supply to the sites, loading and off-loading materials).
The "Improvement of Basic Infrastructure" component, the first activity undertaken at the beginning of the project, included considerable preparation by the project team (a three-month population sensitization and animation phase and signing of the agreements between AFVP1, site managers and villages concerned).
1 French Association of Volunteers for Progress (AFVP)
Despite this, results obtained for the participation of the population were very disparate and generally very inadequate (absence of villagers on the sites, refusal to work voluntarily,...). Different solutions were sought and various authorities (religious and other influential leaders, animators,...) involved without obtaining lasting results. Actually, the sole solution to the problem was remuneration of the villagers, which can be considered a failure from a community participation perspective.
Possible causes of such a failure were as follows:
- the Aguégués community mentality, known to be less communicative, independent, less inclined to community work and preoccupations;
- inadequate consultation with the people during the elaboration phase of the project and in the establishment of participation modalities; poor targeting of persons sensitized,
- the very design of the project: too much work to be done at too short deadlines; poor distribution of roles (AFVP was responsible for both the execution and supervision of sites); too wide complexity of participation modalities (some jobs were paid for on some sites and not on others, thereby leading to confusion among the people),
- poor coordination between the execution of the work in the field and the arrival of WFP foodstuffs promised in the agreements.
Moreover, with regard to maintenance of the infrastructure supplied by the project, the study highlighted a lack of reflection of the people on the role which they should play in the management of the infrastructure. The issue did not seem to have been discussed at the beginning and is only being considered now. Some independent initiatives were observed (establishing the cleaning of health infrastructure by women groups; constitution of a maintenance fund from the sale of materials from old demolished buildings) but the issue of maintenance remains in its entirety and the need to create reflection structures in the villages or among users as soon as possible was evoked many times.
People's participation in the Village Equipment Fund
The participation envisaged by the population for the constitution of a village equipment fund lies in the membership of the people to a Village Savings and Credit Cooperative and in the constitution of a deposit through prior savings (20% of the loan requested).
The organisation of a public awareness campaign and the attraction of access to loans led to an impressive mobilisation of the people. Membership of a sufficient number (estimated at 16% of the total population) henceforth transformed the Village Cooperative into Local Mutual Agricultural Credit Cooperative and enabled them to elect a 15 member Board of Directors from among the people. Moreover, the Cooperative gave loans to about 900 people and the operation can thus be considered successful from the genuine priority given to access to loans for the people.
However, the study of the population's participation in this component highlighted a different participation according to groups. Women and interest groups, even though considered as the groups to be privileged, hardly participated, either due to lack of information or misinformation (women initially thought that they did not have access to loans), or because they were refused access to loans (interest groups have a bad reputation and are not well known).
Incidentally, the existence of fundamental problems was raised, which, if not resolved, could, in the long run, limit membership of the population:
- inadequacy of credit conditions among the Aguégués community (very significant initial savings, very low amount of loans (limited to 500.000 FCFA), loans granted for very short periods (one year maximum) for a very high estimated interest rate (16%/year),
- poor organisation of credit distribution which is not always available when the people need it most,
- lack of technical monitoring of financed operations.
People's participation in the "Progressive Reconstitution of an Appropriate Ecosystem" component
This component benefited from a very important sensitization work undertaken by a local NGO (rapid diagnosis-evaluation survey, then production based on data collected from an audiovisual sensitization material adapted to the area). It also led to very good response by the population to sessions and methods used. The people then organised themselves to set up an adequate number of plant nurseries despite the fact that they did not receive the WFP foodstuffs earmarked for that purpose. A total of 10,000 forest-related saplings were replanted on the banks of the river.
People's participation in the "Strengthening of the Participation Mechanisms of the People" component
The population's participation in this last component was carried out as follows:
- participation of representatives from different socio-professional categories in the project's Management Committee,
- the population's participation in information, sensitization and animation sessions
- the population's participation in training activities.
Apart from the difficulties encountered during the general sensitization phase at the beginning of the project (poor participation of the villagers especially women), all the activities elaborated in this component were well accepted by the population as evidenced in their impressive participation. The integration of the people into the project's decision-making body as well as specific responses to certain activities (replanting) or to certain groups (women interest groups and fish culture interest groups) were very much appreciated by the people. Similarly, technical training and literacy, which, up till then, never really functioned in the district, aroused some interest among the people.
However, it was observed that full participation of the people was sometimes limited. The limits of the component and their causes are as follows:
- the functioning the Management Committee was limited by the poor availability of some Committee members, lack of resources (no budget was granted by the Beninese government as a counterpart) and was hindered by a certain rigidity of the project which did not permit the consideration of the population's proposals and initiatives during the project implementation;
- information, sensitization and animation activities, if well attended, were not sufficient, these activities were too quickly handed over to existing local structures without giving them the necessary prior technical support, this is linked to the general technical supervision problem associated with insufficient technical staff on the project and a lack of clearly defined collaboration with the technical agents in the field (extension agents of the Rural Development Sector - CARDER - Aguégués;
- actions undertaken were not often applied: consequently, literacy was not really seen as a horizontal component of the project because the utilisation phase of the acquired bases utilisation for management, reading of the technical books written in the local language did not take-off two years after the end of the first literacy series.
The study of the Aguégués people's participation in the project indicated a variable mobilisation of the people according to groups and activities. The poor participation of the people in the construction of infrastructure and the interest shown for certain better supervised actions (replanting, support to interest groups) indicated the importance of the people's involvement.
Consequently, in order to sustain the action of the project, it would seem necessary, in the last three years of the project, that the project's team more seriously involve the people. The establishment of a reflection committee and organisation of animation and sensitization activities, the strengthening of collaboration with local structures likely to execute general animation work in the field, and the intensification of support to interest groups, especially to women interest groups, were the main solutions proposed for achieving this objective.
Moreover, specific recommendations to the various components were made:
- reflection on the issue of maintenance of infrastructure supplied by the project must be discussed as quickly as possible; the organisation of the reflection sessions can be delegated to the Aguégués Development Association, which will be entrusted with bringing together the parties concerned and guiding them to reflect and find solutions to the problem;
- in the case of the Village Equipment Fund, the modalities for granting loans can be reexamined (increasing the amount granted and extending repayment to two years), access to credit of the interest groups should be facilitated (intensifying support work to the interest groups serving as guarantee); distribution of credit should be better spread over the activities while taking into account the peak periods of each activity.