Micro-Grant Selection via Community Voting as used in USAID Project “Approach to Participatory Management of Natural Resources”

By Aaron Presnall Post date: Jul 04, 2017

Location

In 2010, the Rural Development Fund, a Kyrgyzstan-based NGO, implemented an innovative method of small grants selection as part of USAID’s Approach to Participatory Management of Natural Resources program in Batken.  The Micro-Grant Program sought to foster local ownership and accountability by allowing communities themselves to select, through transparent voting, which development projects to award, rather than having program staff rate and select projects as is customary.  The results indicate improved rates of participation, motivation and quality of implementation over typical USAID small grant programs.  Though conflict over resources in Batken is ongoing, the Program Areas of Ak-sai and Ak-Tatyr exhibit continued use of democratic processes to resolve conflict.  Lessons learned include the following:

  • It is possible and even desirable to give local communities substantial powers of design and selection of development projects.
  • Community Voting on development projects fosters an increased sense of local ownership over projects and trust in the democratic process. 
  • Opening a bank account for the disbursement of grant awards rather than using cash payments increases transparency and accountability.
  • Including traditional forms of civil societies into public institutions encourages participation in public affairs.  

Introduction

From 2009 to 2010, Rural Development Fund (RDF) implemented the activities of USAID’s Approach to Participatory Management of Natural Resources (APMNR) project in order to mitigate conflict in two Kyrgyz aiyil-okrugs­ bordering the Tajik exclave of Vorukh in Batken Oblast.  The Project sought to publish a comprehensive report on border conflicts in the region, create a series of maps documenting resources and conflict areas, and provide income generating opportunities to residents of the area.  While the project budget was $549,249, the specific program in question, the Micro-Grant Program totaled $50,000.  The Micro-Grants Program tested an innovative method of small-grant selection where grants to community-designed micro-projects were awarded by the communities themselves through democratic voting.

Context

Border Conflicts around Tajik Enclaves

Second only to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, the Fergana Valley most exemplifies the detrimental legacy of Stalinist border drawing.  Batken Oblast in Kyrgyzstanhosts a total of 6 enclaves: 4 belonging to Uzbekistan and 2 belonging to Tajikistan.  During the Soviet era these borders did not matter and thus roads, irrigation canals, and power lines regularly crossed these enclaves and all communities in the area hosted a mix of Uzbek, Tajik and Kyrgyz passport holders[1].  Since the fall of Communism in the early 1990’s, the region has been a hotbed of conflict. 

In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, it was believed that this conflict centered on Islamic fundamentalism related to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan’s insurgency in the mountains straddling the Tajik-Kyrgyz border.  Indeed, it was the entry of an estimated 800 IMU militants into southern Kyrgyzstan which necessitated the creation of Batken oblast from Osh oblast in 2000[2].  However, research in the mid 2000’s discovered that the majority of conflict in the region centered on demands for water, arable land and pasture. While residents in Tajik Vorukh jamoat lacked arable land and pasture, residents in the nearby Kyrgyz aiyil-okrugs of Ak-Sai and Ak-Tatyr depended on irrigation canals and electric power lines which traversed Vorukh[3]. Because pasture and land laws in Kyrgyzstan were complicated and had no mechanism for leasing land to foreigners, residents resorted to informal and opaque arrangements arbitrated by village elders.   Conflicts would erupt over misunderstandings over these arrangements.  The situation was compounded by the fact that there existed no simple and clear map of the region due to the governments of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan use of conflicting maps in order to demarcate borders[4].Finally, even though Tajiks and Kyrgyz often lived side by side in the same communities, communication is difficult due to the reduced knowledge of Russian in the rural area since the fall of the Soviet Union[5].  In short, the region surrounding Vorukh poses intersecting challenges of neglect by the central government, uncertainty over national laws, mistrust fueled by past conflict, and language barriers. 

Promoting Democracy through Developmental Aid

Stepping back from the immediate country context, United States foreign assistance has been criticized in the literature for its ambiguous effect on the democratization of other countries, especially that of non-targeted democracy assistance.  While Knack found no correlation between a country’s Freedom House scores and the level of US foreign assistance it has received, Finkel et al. concluded that it is only foreign assistance targeted towards socio-economic assistance which shows no correlation[6].  On the other hand, Carothers questioned the ability of targeted democracy assistance to civil society to spark wider public participation in democratic processes and criticized civil society aid for ignoring traditional forms of civil society and NGOs not based in capital cities[7].  Clearly, the literature on democracy assistance points to programs, which – in Carothers words – “[take] on social and economic matters, rather than keeping than keeping to the narrow range of often abstract ‘democracy issues’ … [to encourage] widespread participation in public affairs”[8].       

While not a targeted democracy program, the Micro-Grants Program of APMNR sought to use transparent democratic processes and traditional sources of village authority to legitimatize community developed methods of conflict resolution in the aiyilokrugs of Ak-sai and Ak-tatyr.

Project

The Micro-Grant Program was carried out from March 2010 to December 2010.  Essentially, groups of no less than five villagers designed conflict resolving or income-generating projects for grants ranging from $300 to $5000[9].  The program is innovative in that instead of grants being selected by program staff, grants were pre-selected by a committee of traditional village authorities and local government officials and then finalized by a vote of the entire community.  The only involvement of program staff in the process was the conducting of capacity building trainings for villagers before project design, the disbursement of grant funds, and mid-term project monitoring and evaluation. 

Actors

APMNR was funded by USAID througha cooperative agreement and dually implemented by Rural Development Institute and its in-country partner, the Rural Development Fund, (RDF).  RDF is a Kyrgyz organization founded in 2003 that specializes in applied research and testing innovative methods of development.  While administrative functions of the program were carried out in RDF’s headquarters in Bishkek, RDF set up a Batken office for the duration of the program. 

The local institutions involved with the Micro-Grant Program included the Village Governments (ayil-ökmötör), Village Councils (aiyil-kengeshter), ak-sakal courts, and the Neighborhood Building Network (NBN).  The Village Governmentis the lowest level of government administration in Kyrgyzstan and govern the several villages in an ayil-okrug.Village Governmentsare responsible for collecting taxes, communicating with counterparts in Tajik jamoat administrations, and formally have the right to issue certificates of use for pasture land[10].A Village Council is the traditional governing council of each of the five villages located in Ak-sai and Ak-tatyr okrugs: Ak-sai, Ak-tatyr, Orto-Böz, Üch-Dobo, and Kök-Tash.  In contrast to Village Governments, Village Councils headed by the Village headman hold more traditional powers, such as deciding when to sow and harvest, when to go to summer pasture and informally leasing land to Tajik residents[11]Ak-Sakal courts, who also informally administer arrangements between Tajik and Kyrgyz citizens, is a blanket term for gatherings of village elders to decide issues dealing with Islamic religious law (among the Tajiks) or the customary adat law (among the Kyrgyz).  Finally, the Neighborhood Building Network is an institution created by previous activities of APMNR composed of representatives of the aforementioned institutions as well as women’s committees, teachers, student organizations and other civil society organizations[12].  The NBN previously underwent capacity building and conflict resolution training administered by RDF staff, provided data for RDF’s Situational Analysis, and with RDF support authored a Conflict Management Plan for the pilot area. 

Activities

A total of $30,000 were distributed through 14 micro-grants. Each project had to address one of the conflict issues identified by the Conflict Management Plan written by the NBN[13].  Each micro-grant award ranged from $300 to $3000 for projects implemented by Kyrgyz-only groups, or from $300 to $5000 for projects implemented by Kyrgyz-Tajik groups.  The maximum award for joint-implemented projects was significantly more than that of Kyrgyz-only projects in order to encourage cooperation between Tajik and Kyrgyz villagers[14].   Additionally, groups were required to add a cash/labor/in-kind contribution equal to 20% of the grant award to ensure local ownership of each grant[15].  The timeline for implementation of each grant was no more than 3 months[16]

Between March and August 2010, RDF staff conducted seven capacity building trainings for villagers: Principles and Conditions of Micro-Grants, Preparing Micro-Grant Concept and Budget, How to Evaluate Micro-Grant Proposals and Reject Unviable Proposals, How to Pitch Proposals with Flip-Charts, Developing Full Micro-Project Proposal and Budget, Open Village Mobile Voting, and Implementation of Micro-Grants.  The trainings were intended to make the entire process of micro-project design, selection and implementation as transparent as possible and to communicate that USAID regulations on sub-grant awards would not allow infrastructure projects, projects involving the purchase of vehicles, projects to produce toxins, chemicals, tobacco or alcohol, or projects that negatively impact the health and welfare of the population or environment[17]

The Micro-Grant program was publicized throughout the villages concurrent with the trainings.  A total of three consultations were held in each village during village assemblies in order to explain the purpose of the program and how projects were to be selected.  While the program staff distributed leaflets on the programs at these meetings and around schools, information and awareness of the program was notably spread by micro-project applicants campaigning in village bazaars after program staff made it clear that selection of projects depended on the number of villagers who vote[18].

A total of 24projects were submitted to program staff and werethen reviewed by a 11-member Micro-Grant Selection Committee composed of representatives of Village Governments, Village Councils, pasture committees, ak-sakal courts, women’s committees, student organizations and members of NBN who did not submit a proposal.  The purpose of the pre-selection committee was to add additional conditions for micro-grants which the committee felt reflected local needs and to reject proposals whose authors were known to mismanage funds or known to not possess the resources necessary to implement projects[19].  Each proposal group was allowed to pitch their project in a five minute presentation with extra time for questions and clarification before the committee scored each project.  The committee selected 20 projects for voting.

Voting on the pre-selected projects occurred over the course of two days.  First, program staff explained the purpose of the program and explained the voting rules: (1) each person could only cast one vote on the ballot and (2) project group members could not vote for their own projects.  Then, each village nominated and elected a Voting Committee comprised of representatives of public institutions or village councils who would then administer the tabulation of votes so that the process was transparent to villagers and they felt ownership of the results of the vote[20].  Then in each village, project groups pitched their project in five-minute presentations followed by a short question and answer period.  Finally, votes were cast and voting committees publically opened the ballot box and counted the votes in front of villagers.  Of the 20 projects voted on, 14 projects received grants.

Contracts were drawn up and awards were disbursed.  Program staff established bank accounts for each project group in order to disburse funds and ensure transparency by monitoring withdrawals and matching them to receipts[21].  Awards were dispersed in tranches that were 1/3 the value of each award.  In order to receive the next tranche of funding, project groups had to submit a financial report and a request form.    

Results

The fourteen projects that received funding ranged from improving interaction between Tajik and Kyrgyz through playing sports, to establishing a Tajik-Kyrgyz women’s sewing collective to generate income by selling embroidered goods and to employ young women in the villages who would otherwise migrate[22].  The admirable intentions of the projects notwithstanding, the real value of the program is the manifestation of public trust in the democratic processes of project selection.  In community reflection meetings held three months after the completion of the micro-projects, residents indicated that they would not have trusted the program if selection did not include the broad participation of the community[23].  Additionally, participants indicated that convening a grant committee and voting committees from community members greatly increased their trust in local institutions and the NBN[24].  However, participants indicated that the timeline of 3 months was too short and that the requirement to contribute at least 20% of the award amount through cash/labor/or in-kind contributions was too onerous[25].  Finally, program staff did not need to cancel any of the projects due to financial mismanagement[26].  These preliminary results certainly point towards the conclusion that giving communities substantial powers of design and selection of grants greatly increase these communities’ willingness to follow through on implementation and their trust in local institutions. 

These results appear even more significant when compared to evaluations of more customary USAID programs, where small grants were selected by program staff rather than through democratic processes and awards were disbursed in cash rather than bank transfers.  For example, USAID’s Leadership Development Program (LDP) implemented by Counterpart International in Bangladesh suffered many issues of financial mismanagement, lack of motivation, elite capture and rent seeking[27].  While the situations on the ground differ greatly between Bangladesh and Kyrgyzstan, it is not unconceivable that the Micro-Grant Program would have suffered similar setbacks if RDF projects were selected by program staff and awards were disbursed in cash.  

Impact

What effect has the Micro-Grant Program had on preventing conflict over resources in Batken?  According to Micro-Grant Program Coordinator Erlan Karypbai-uluu, a stakeholder conference hosting local government leaders and representatives of land management and agriculture agencies publicized the results of the Micro-Grant Program along with other components of APMNR[28].  At the conference, leaders of Village Governments in Leilek Raion expressed interest in developing a Neighborhood Building Network of their own, while national government officials expressed an interest in developing a micro-grant program through the Kyrgyz government[29].   Such steps would make great strides towards resolving resource conflicts in the region. 

Despite these favorable signs, conflict continues to plague Batken, including the Vorukh Area.  Most recently in 2014, 120 Tajiks and 80 Kyrgyz clashed in Kök-Tash, one of the villages included in the Micro-Grant program, over the construction of a road on disputed territory[30].  Just a few months after the program was completed, an RDF implemented project funded by the National Endowment for Democracy found that residents of the region had clashed over disputes involving planting apricots, destroying canals, and stealing cattle[31].  Fortunately, in another newsletter published a year after the villagers had voted on micro-projects, RDF reported that villagers in Ak-sai and Ak-tatyr villages had elected a commission of Ak-Sakals to resolve disputes in bazaars and elected a neighborhood watch to look out for cattle thieves[32].  As mundane as these issues sound, the fact that the villagers resortedto elections to select watchmen and ak-sakals indicates increased trust in democratic institutions that was un-thought of a few years ago.

Lessons Learned

Studying the Micro-Grant Program of USAID’s APMNR has yielded the following lessons learned:

  1. It is possible and even desirable to give local communities substantial powers of design and selection of development projects.  All program participants indicated that they never before voted on development projects implemented in their communities and responded positively to this method of selection.  Doing so helps to resolve the literature’s critique that development aid “undermines accountability processes”[33] and fulfills Carothers’ recommendation to include social and economic issues in order to encourage participation in democracy. 
  2. Community Voting on Development Projects fosters an increased sense of local ownership over projects and trust in the democratic process.  Participants were enthusiastic about the Program to the extent that staff noted that information and awareness of the program spread in part because project applicants vigorously campaigned for their projects in village bazaars.  Even a year after the project, villagers used democratic processes to resolve the issues of conflict in bazaars and cattle theft. 
  3. Opening a bank account for the disbursement of grant awards rather than using cash payments increases transparency and accountability.  No micro-project had to be canceled by Program staff due to issues of financial mismanagement.  Although banking infrastructure in developing countries may be insufficient enough to warrant the use of cash payments or wire transfers in order to disburse grant awards, opening a bank account on behalf of grant recipients where possible will greatly improve accountability. 
  4. Including traditional forms of civil societies into public institutions encourages participation in public affairs. Program staff worked to ensure that traditional forms of governance and civil society were included in the Neighborhood Building Network and Grant and Voting committees.  Doing so encourages participation in local governance by traditional groups that have historically been marginalized by civil society programs targeted at advocacy NGOs and instills democratic practices in groups that aid has historically believed to be anti-democratic.

Conclusion

While in the past developmental aid was considered to have no correlation with quality of democracy in developing countries, the Micro-Grant Program of USAID’s Approach to Participatory Management of Natural Resources provides a promising example of the ability of developmental assistance programs to contribute to the spread of democratic norms and values.  Simultaneously, the program also illustrates the utility of employing traditional forms of civil society and locally-based NGOs to implement democracy assistance programs.  The concept of allowing program participants to democratically select which projects foreign aid should implement could improve beneficiary participation in and acceptance of programs across the menu of democracy assistance.

Work Cited

Akimov, Turat. "Batken Conflict Returns." Institute for War and Peace Reporting. February 21, 2005. Accessed November 25, 2016. https://iwpr.net/global-voices/batken-conflict-returns.

Carothers, Thomas. "From the Bottom Up: Civil Society." In Aiding Democracy Abroad: The Learning Curve, 207-51. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1999.

Finkel, Steven E., Anibal Perez-Linan, and Mitchell A. Seligson. "The Effects of U.S. Foreign Assistance on Democracy Building, 1990-2003." World Politics59, no. 03 (April 2007): 404-39.

Karypbai-uluu, Erlan. "Interview with Micro-Grants Program Coordinator Erlan Karypbai-uluu." E-mail interview by author. December 2, 2015.

Knack, Stephen. "Does Foreign Aid Promote Democracy?" International Studies Quarterly 48, no. 1 (2004): 251-66

Putz, Catherine. "Kyrgyz and Tajiks Clash Along Disputed Border." The Diplomat. August 04, 2015. Accessed November 25, 2016. http://thediplomat.com/2015/08/kyrgyz-and-tajiks-clash-along-disputed-bo....

Rural Development Fund, and National Endowment for Democracy. "Newsletter August 2011." Peer Learning of Kyrgyz Local Governments on Conflict Management in the Kyrgyz Republic (August 2011).

Rural Development Fund, and National Endowment for Democracy. "Newsletter May 2011." Peer Learning of Kyrgyz Local Governments on Conflict Management in the Kyrgyz Republic (May 2011).

Rural Development Institute, and Rural Development Fund. Conflict Situational Analysis Report Ak-Say and Ak-Tatyr Aiyl Okrugs, Batken Oblast, Kyrgyz Republic. Report. Washington, D.C.: USAID, 2010

Temirkulov, Azamat, and Daniel Passon. Analysis of Peace and Conflict Potential in Batken. Issue brief. Berlin: Analysis Research Consulting, 2004.

United States of America. United States Agency for International Development. Mid-term Performance Evaluation of the Leadership Development Program. By William Cartier, Shantanu Majumder, AKM Saifullah, Kazi Maruful Islam, and Naim Mostofa. Washington, D.C.: Social Impact, 2015.

United States of America. United States Agency for International Development. Office of Conflict Mitigation and Management. Approach to Participatory Management of Natural Resources Final Report. By Nurzhan Dzhumabaev and John Leckie. Bishkek: Rural Development Fund, 2010. Accessed November 25, 2016. http://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/pdacu840.pdf.

 




[1]Temirkulov, Azamat, and Daniel Passon. Analysis of Peace and Conflict Potential in Batken. Issue brief. (Berlin: Analysis Research Consulting, 2004), 2.

[2]Akimov, Turat. "Batken Conflict Returns” (London: Institute for War and Peace Reporting, February 21, 2005).

[3]Rural Development Institute, and Rural Development Fund. Conflict Situational Analysis Report Ak-Say and Ak-Tatyr Aiyl Okrugs, Batken Oblast, Kyrgyz Republic. Report. (Washington, D.C.: USAID, 2010), 11.

[4]RDI and RDF, Conflict Situational Analysis, 6.

[5] RDI and RDF, Conflict Situational Analysis, 6.

[6]Finkel, Steven E., Anibal Perez-Linan, and Mitchell A. Seligson. "The Effects of U.S. Foreign Assistance on Democracy Building, 1990-2003." World Politics 59, no. 03 (April 2007), 422.

[7]Carothers, Thomas. "From the Bottom Up: Civil Society." In Aiding Democracy Abroad: The Learning Curve, 207-51, (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1999), 228.

[8]Carothers, Aiding Democracy Abroad, 230.

[9]United States of America. United States Agency for International Development. Office of Conflict Mitigation and Management. Approach to Participatory Management of Natural Resources Final Report. By Nurzhan Dzhumabaev and John Leckie. (Rural Development Fund: 2010), 17.

[10]RDI and RDF, Conflict Situational Analysis, 22.

[11]RDI and RDF, Conflict Situational Analysis, 22.

[12]United States Agency for International Development. Office of Conflict Mitigation and Management. Approach to Participatory Management of Natural Resources Final Report, 13.

[13]United States Agency for International Development. Office of Conflict Mitigation and Management. Approach to Participatory Management of Natural Resources Final Report, 13

[14]United States Agency for International Development. Office of Conflict Mitigation and Management. Approach to Participatory Management of Natural Resources Final Report, 17

[15]United States Agency for International Development. Office of Conflict Mitigation and Management. Approach to Participatory Management of Natural Resources Final Report, 17.

[16]United States Agency for International Development. Office of Conflict Mitigation and Management. Approach to Participatory Management of Natural Resources Final Report, 17.

[17]United States Agency for International Development. Office of Conflict Mitigation and Management. Approach to Participatory Management of Natural Resources Final Report, 108.

[18]United States Agency for International Development. Office of Conflict Mitigation and Management. Approach to Participatory Management of Natural Resources Final Report, 116.

[19]United States Agency for International Development. Office of Conflict Mitigation and Management. Approach to Participatory Management of Natural Resources Final Report, 110.

[20]United States Agency for International Development. Office of Conflict Mitigation and Management. Approach to Participatory Management of Natural Resources Final Report, 117.

[21]United States Agency for International Development. Office of Conflict Mitigation and Management. Approach to Participatory Management of Natural Resources Final Report, 118. 

[22]United States Agency for International Development. Office of Conflict Mitigation and Management. Approach to Participatory Management of Natural Resources Final Report, 114.

[23]United States Agency for International Development. Office of Conflict Mitigation and Management. Approach to Participatory Management of Natural Resources Final Report¸ 23

[24]United States Agency for International Development. Office of Conflict Mitigation and Management. Approach to Participatory Management of Natural Resources Final Report, 23.

[25]United States Agency for International Development. Office of Conflict Mitigation and Management. Approach to Participatory Management of Natural Resources Final Report, 23.

[26]United States Agency for International Development. Office of Conflict Mitigation and Management. Approach to Participatory Management of Natural Resources Final Report, 118.

[27]United States of America. United States Agency for International Development. Mid-term Performance Evaluation of the Leadership Development Program. By William Cartier, Shantanu Majumder, AKM Saifullah, Kazi Maruful Islam, and Naim Mostofa. (Washington, D.C.: Social Impact, 2015), vii.

[28]Karypbai-uluu, Erlan. "Interview with Micro-Grants Program Coordinator Erlan Karypbai-uluu." E-mail interview by author. December 2, 2015

[29]Karypbai-uluu, Erlan. "Interview with Micro-Grants Program Coordinator Erlan Karypbai-uluu.”

[30]Putz, Catherine. "Kyrgyz and Tajiks Clash Along Disputed Border." (The Diplomat. August 04, 2015).

[31]Rural Development Fund, and National Endowment for Democracy. "Newsletter May 2011." Peer Learning of Kyrgyz Local Governments on Conflict Management in the Kyrgyz Republic (May 2011), 5.

[32]Rural Development Fund, and National Endowment for Democracy. "Newsletter August 2011." Peer Learning of Kyrgyz Local Governments on Conflict Management in the Kyrgyz Republic (August 2011), 7.

[33]Knack, Stephen. "Does Foreign Aid Promote Democracy?" International Studies Quarterly 48, no. 1 (2004), 251.