Why residents in Ngada district are exceptionally eager to take part in village meetings
Participation is one of the key principles in the 2014 Village Law. The underlying assumption for participatory development is that when a wide range of actors participate in decision-making, the process will lead to more broadly shared and sustainable development outcomes. Particularly in contexts where non-elites have been previously excluded, the community voice is expected to improve a government’s performance.
Participation in decision-making has increasingly been recognised as an important aspect in development programs in Indonesia, especially after years of experience implementing community-based programs. The latest was the National Community Empowerment Program (Program Nasional Pemberdayaan Masyarakat, PNPM). Surveys about experiences in PNPM have shown mixed results in participation. On the one hand, participation rates of women and the poor in decision-making were relatively high at around 45–50 per cent. Poor villagers were also heavily involved in PNPM construction activities, with more than 70 per cent of workers coming from the poorest segments of the village. This high participation rate is not surprising since PNPM guidelines included minimum requirements for women and poor people’s participation. On the other hand, there are reports indicating that the poor and women, despite coming to meetings, rarely participated in decision-making, which continued to be dominated by elites. Nonetheless, PNPM surveys in 2012 and 2015 indicated that 90 per cent of PNPM beneficiaries – regardless of gender and poverty level – agreed that they had benefited from PNMP investments. .
These experiences make us wonder how participation will change under the current and coming implementation of the Village Law. The new village development planning process is largely based on PNPM experience. That means it includes a village meeting that is open to all community members as a deliberative forum to make decisions on priorities for development funding. Will the new situation attract more of the poor and more women to participate in village decision-making? How can that be measured adequately? It is also interesting to see how participation is played out in villages across Indonesia and to assess whether participation principles can bring about more equitable and sustainable development outcomes, as expected. The World Bank Social Development Unit in Indonesia commissioned the ‘Sentinal Villages study’ (2015–2017) in five districts in three provinces across Indonesia (Jambi, Central Java and East Nusa Tenggara) to observe various elements in Village Law implementation, including participation.
Initial findings from the study showed that on average, participation rates in village meetings in all five districts were around 24 per cent. Participation is measured by percentage of respondents who reported attendance at village level meetings in the past year. This rate was lower than in the PNPM era, but given that participation was mandatory in PNPM, this could well be a more natural rate of participation in villages. There was wide variation, though.
Ngada: an outlier
The villages in Ngada, a district in Flores, East Nusa Tenggara, were a distinct outlier with a participation rate of 64 per cent, while the other four districts had a participation rate of around 18 per cent. Women’s’ participation rate in Ngada was also high, at 60 per cent. In terms of participation in implementing village projects, Ngada also had the highest rate at around 85 per cent, compared to 60 per cent in the other cases. Seventy-four per cent of respondents in Ngada were positive about the usefulness of development programs, compared to only 49 per cent in other areas.
The research team also compared development outputs in two villages in Ngada between October 2015 and November 2016. Around 50 per cent of village funds were used for infrastructure such as roads and irrigation facilities. With increasing budgets due to village funds (dana desa), the research team observed improvements in the two villages for infrastructure, especially roads, clean water and electricity. In fact, electricity was introduced to one of the villages for the first time since Indonesia’s independence. When asked whether things are different now compared to the past, villagers in the two villages generally thought that the situation had improved because they enjoy more development programs, from infrastructure to economic support to health subsidies and scholarships.
The World Bank’s research team conducted a deeper dive into participation experience in Ngada. They conducted in-depth interviews and focus group discussions, while one field researcher who lived in Ngada since during the study provided insights from direct observation.
Explaining Ngada’s high participation rate
Several factors emerged as key ingredients for Ngada’s high participation rate. First, the long history of institutionalising participatory development in the local government system. Since the PNPM era, the district government, especially the community empowerment agency (BPMD), had worked on integrating participatory development approaches into Ngada’s development system. The district government had seen that involving villagers in planning and implementing development activities often resulted in higher satisfaction towards the outputs as well as better value for money – outputs often have higher value compared to those using typical government contractors.
Hence, the district government developed various local regulations and operational manuals to guide participatory development planning, implementation, and monitoring evaluation at village, sub-district and district levels. The government adhered strictly to these regulations, emulating the PNPM era when violation of these regulations could be brought to court. Villages continued their PNPM-style accountability meetings every year. In addition, the district government promoted participatory development among the village communities, in the sense of involving villagers in building the basic infrastructure for their own villages.
Ngada villagers discussing village development plans - Source: Lily Hoo
A second reason for high participation is a supportive district government with strong leadership at the highest level. When the current district head, Marianus Sae, was elected in 2010, the BPMD team informed him about how participatory development approach had been successfully practiced in the district. Marianus Sae concluded that involving villagers in building activities was the best way forward to fulfill his promise to “build Ngada from the villages”. The district government then developed their own participatory development projects using the district budget (Pelangi Desa and Pelangi Kawasan) in 2012, using PNPM principles and implementation rules and manuals. To date the district government continues to maintain similar principles and rules in implementing the Village Law.
A third ingredient is an engaged community that understands what participation means for their daily lives. Over the past two decades, villagers themselves have witnessed that when they participate in the development processes (from planning, implementation, to monitoring and evaluation), they receive the infrastructure that they want and need. Villagers said that they have made suggestions in village meetings on what the priority development needs are for their villages. They have also joined in voting on priority needs included in the annual village development plan. Villagers in Ngada think that in order to get what they need, they must continue to participate in the process from planning to implementing and monitoring the results.
Fourth, villagers feel motivated to participate when they trust the local government, in particular the village head. In Ngada, 77 per cent of villagers said that village heads are reliable in village development planning, of which 27 per cent went as far to say ‘very reliable’, compared to 65 per cent in other districts, where only 6.4 per cent of people described their village heads as ‘very reliable’. Both the community and the local government stressed the importance of transparency, openness and accountability to build and maintain trust between community and government. When there is no trust, the community is less inclined to participate – or they participate to ensure that they are not being cheated.
Finally, we found that a strong social network or kinship structure within a village stimulates participation. Typically, a village in Ngada consists of households that are closely related. Almost all villagers share the same religion. Such homogeneity and strong kinship ties allow for easy mobilisation of the community by local figures. It also allows villagers to come up with agreements on representation and reciprocity in case some villagers cannot participate in meetings or implementation of activities. In addition, the weekly religious gatherings function as a natural forum for the village government to share news and information on village development.
Although there are many factors that influence village development processes and outcomes, the experience in Ngada provides an example of what could happen when participatory development works well. With increasing resources going to villages in the coming years, it is important for other districts and villages to be able to learn from Ngada’s experience to improve the development process and outcomes in their own areas.
Lily Hoo (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Monitoring and Evaluation Specialist with the World Bank Social Development Unit in Indonesia. She leads analytic work related to the Village Law.