Journal Issue

Can local participation help development?: Yes, according to the Mexican experience

International Monetary Fund. External Relations Dept.
Published Date:
December 1984
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Michael M. Cernea

Mexico’s PIDER program shows it can improve the selection and execution of local development projects

The participation of beneficiaries in development projects is frequently advocated but seldom put into practice. Development practitioners could, with some justification, suspect “local participation” as being simply a fashionable slogan. One way to persuade them of its merits is to point to empirical evidence. A sequence of three World Bank-assisted rural development projects in Mexico provides some.

The Programa Integral para el Desarrollo Rural (PIDER) channels central funds to local communities for investment in small-scale irrigation, livestock, fishery ponds, rural roads, village social infrastructure, and so on. Local participation was conceived as a way of improving the quality and effectiveness of these investments. In many cases, decision making without the involvement of the beneficiaries misdirected funds, while the participatory approach succeeded in improving their allocation. Where the latter approach has been taken, the local communities participate in selecting priority investments; in better mobilizing local resources for development purposes; in implementing projects; and in monitoring the performance of agencies and contractors working on the projects.

The benefits of popular participation in the selection and execution of investments do not often lend themselves easily to quantification or aggregation, because of the problems inherent in comparing a project with participation to the hypothetical situation without it. Yet close examination of various cases indicates that the economic performance of projects with local participation is superior. Some of the benefits, however, will remain forever “invisible,” since the amount saved from farmers screening out unsuitable projects is very real, although uncomputed. In sum, the opportunity cost of not involving farmers is unaffordable; the penalty is reduced effectiveness and increased failure rates.

Need for participation

Mexico’s PIDER was designed as a nationwide program to finance investments at the community level in low-income, underdeveloped rural areas. Located within the Federal Secretariat of Programming and Budgeting, PIDER does not execute the investments itself, but coordinates the activities of many technical agencies in implementing PIDER investments. Over the course of the decade ending in 1983, Mexico spent some two billion dollars under the program in 139 areas or “microregions”—all of them regarded as “poverty pockets.” The program has reached more than 9,000 communities, with approximately 12 million inhabitants.

PIDER funds are not invested in a handful of large, high-cost projects, but in a great number of small productive or social-infrastructure projects, tailored to the needs of small villages or even to subgroups within these communities. It is of paramount importance to identify, from the large number of possible local investments, those that will make the best use of local resources and those that are of the highest priority for local needs. Soon after the beginning of the program, however, it became clear that nonlocal officials and planners did not have the necessary local knowledge to select and design projects of this type.

The sad story of a village diversion dam in Baja California Norte is a telling example of the deficiencies of conventional approaches to planning. Several days of torrential rains completely destroyed the El Chocolate dam wall. The floodwaters swept away many irrigation wells and several fruit tree plantations, some of which were PIDER investments. The experts who had been responsible for the dam’s construction explained to the central inquiry team that its collapse was an act of fate; the planners had consulted the hydrometric series for rainfall and surface run-off for the previous 15 years. The inquiry team, however, also consulted the villagers. Their answer was that the experts had not paid attention to local experience. The oldest villagers recalled clearly that 30 years earlier it had rained for two complete days, and the stream had risen to a level two meters higher than the maximum calculated by the experts.

The decision to organize beneficiary participation in the selection and execution of PIDER projects was, therefore, not motivated just by political or humanitarian reasons but also by the need to improve the efficiency and technical and economic quality of investments. Little knowledge was available at the outset on how small rural communities could participate in the identification, planning, design, and execution of local projects. In cooperation with a research center studying rural development (CIDER), PIDER set out to design a sociological methodology for involving beneficiaries’ participation, based on understanding the groups involved in, or left out from, the process of investment planning. CIDER’s sociological approach also comprised a sequence of planning experiments and actual pilot applications, followed by revision and improvement of the proposed methodology. Thus, PIDER and the research center moved the participation issue away from the area of ideological exhortation to the realm of concrete procedures applicable by project and agency staff.

From the premise that officials do not necessarily have a better perspective than the local people on the latter’s problems and best interests, PIDER’s participatory methodology aims to introduce the farmers’ perspective into selecting and planning local investments. One example will illustrate what the farmers’ perspective means and how it can differ from the planner’s viewpoint. The technical planners in a PIDER area received from a village—and promptly rejected—a written request that was, they thought, both illogical and wasteful for an investment fund to build a dance hall. After the rejection, however, a research team, intrigued by the application, decided to visit the village that had proposed the unsuitable expenditure. It found that many of the farmers in that village were musicians. Their musical reputation was so good that on Sundays and holidays rural inhabitants from the surrounding area came to dance on improvised, open-air grounds. Most of the local council members felt that a dance hall would be the best way to attract more visitors and sell local products, thus bringing in money and generating employment. The research team concluded that the application for a dance hall was more justified than many of the white elephants included by “experts” in PIDER programming.

Three planning phases

The central aim of PIDER’s approach to local participation is to bring the planners and decision makers out of their offices and into the concerned communities. There, in consultation with villagers and through a joint assessment of local potential, available options, and perceived needs, the priorities are sorted out and investment proposals are formulated and readied for secondary screening, technical preparation, and final funding.

The methodology recommends a sequence of three phases: (1) field community assessment, (2) preliminary programs, and (3) final programs. In each phase, the roles of technical agencies and local groups are carefully defined. Specific procedures ensure that both the sociological and the technical aspects of investment planning are taken into account. They prescribe what must be done at the grass-roots level and also what technical-economic feasibility analysis should be undertaken by the specialized agencies.

Several activities must be carried out during the first phase of field assessment: data are collected regarding the population, infrastructure, and resources in the area; an assessment is made of past programs; each selected locality is examined physically; meetings are held with local groups; investment proposals are chosen; and an assessment report is prepared of the proposed strategy. The planning team begins with a familiarization trip through the village when it also informs the residents of the objectives of the study. A survey is then conducted orally of local needs and priorities, using a broad spectrum of informants. Meetings with the community are the next step, when either selected issues are discussed with separate groups or all the information of community interest is discussed with a large group.

In Oriente de Morelos, for instance, three different consulting groups were established for a regular investment programming exercise: farmers with irrigated land, those with rainfed land, and those with wage earnings. As might be expected, investment priorities were different for the three groups. Those with irrigated land emphasized the need for technical assistance and marketing; those with rainfed land gave priority to irrigation; and those with no land but cash earnings proposed investments that did not involve landownership, such as agro-industry and hog farms.

Not surprisingly, investment requests put forward by farmers during such field diagnoses are often different from those proposed by the technical experts. This is where getting the farmer’s perspective proves crucial. A significant example can be drawn from an investment planning exercise in Baja California Sur. The experts from the Department of Agriculture and Livestock responded to the farmers’ requests for breeding from Zebu cattle—a local breed—by recommending the purchase of Swiss cattle, on the basis that a cross of Swiss and the local Chinampo cattle would raise meat and dairy yields. The villagers nevertheless insisted on the Zebu. During the public meeting a heated argument ensued, which ended only after one determined farmer described his past experience with the imported Swiss cattle. Following the recommendation of the experts, he had purchased two Swiss breeding cows from his own funds. One died during the first dry season; the other was so sick he had to keep it in his home. The farmer observed that during the dry season, local cattle have to eat the topmost leaves off the bushes, walk enormous distances to find water, and at times are reduced to drinking seawater. The Swiss cattle with their short legs, he said, could not get food and water in this way; the Zebu, which have long legs, could. This explanation ended the argument about which cattle to buy with the new PIDER investment.

The second phase—preliminary programming—is the direct responsibility of the technical agencies. They must also make a careful economic and technical analysis of the investment proposals, to ensure that they are technically feasible and economically profitable. During phase three—final programming—the individual proposals are consolidated into the local PIDER program according to a set of strategy criteria for integrated area development. (For more details on these see A Social Methodology for Community Participation in Local Investments, World Bank Staff Working Paper, Number 598.)

Implementation and financing

Once priority investments and projects have been selected, and implementation begins, local participation is also important. Although PIDER has been somewhat slow to take advantage of it, significant progress has been made recently in working out innovative and effective procedures. Local participation in the actual execution of an investment is of exceptional importance for mobilizing supplementary financial and physical resources. This takes on a special urgency in circumstances of financial restraint, when the state funds that fuel PIDER are constrained or slow to arrive.

PIDER has worked out arrangements under which local communities contribute to the total cost—in cash, in labor, or in locally available materials—of PIDER-funded projects. The amount of the local contribution varies by the type of project. For productive projects, PIDER has set a level of 10 percent of the value of the public investment; for potable water systems and the construction of public buildings, the local contribution is set at 15 percent of the total investment; for village electrification projects, it is between 5 and 15 percent of total investment, according to a quota system based on local economic levels; for housing improvement projects, at least 50 percent of the total cost of the work is raised locally through labor, cash, or local materials.

A standard agreement form (Acta de Acceptacion de la Comunidad) has been devised to formalize the commitment to such cash or labor contributions. It is signed by PIDER and the intended beneficiaries before the project begins. Although this standard agreement is often not sufficiently refined to reflect the different needs and varying contributory abilities within heterogeneous communities, formalization of both agency and community obligations is a step forward in institutionalizing the participatory approach.

An example may help clarify the mechanism of local resource utilization. With the help of PIDER, La Marina, a fishery cooperative with a membership of 54 fishermen in the state of Tamaulipas, developed a new shrimp farm. The total investment required was about 39.1 million pesos. The standard agreement signed by the cooperative and PIDER provided for a PIDER investment grant of 13.2 million pesos, while the membership was to contribute a total of 26 million pesos; of this total, about 2 million pesos were to be contributed immediately and directly through cash, labor, and materials (representing about 5 percent of total costs, or 15 percent of the public investment). This was above the share set by PIDER for immediate local contributions to productive projects. The additional funds, totaling about 24 million pesos, were a credit to be repaid by the cooperative (6.3 million pesos in short-term and 17.6 million pesos in long-term loans). This credit was also facilitated through PIDER funds, but was to be repaid gradually out of the cooperative benefits, thus increasing resource utilization and building up the fishermen’s equity.

The beneficiaries’ financial contribution to this project was remarkably high. Without PIDER’s financial and technical assistance, however, it could not have taken place: PIDER provided the working capital for nets, engines, pond construction, and made possible the credit as well. Benefits accruing to the fishermen were estimated to be seven times the local minimum wage; however only about 50 percent is to be distributed to the membership. The rest is to be used by the cooperative for reinvestment and credit repayment.

This type of mobilization of local economic resources extends the consultation process carried out in the planning stage to a more concrete level of participation. And participation in execution sets the stage for when PIDER hands over projects entirely to beneficiaries.

Monitoring by beneficiaries

Participation is also of crucial importance for monitoring the physical execution of PIDER investments by contractors or state agencies. The involvement of local communities in selecting and executing investments is logically complemented by empowering them to monitor execution effectively.

There is wide agreement that there has been much waste in many of PIDER’s early community projects—through cost overruns and incomplete or “complete” but unusable projects. The dismal state of routine administrative monitoring, which did not involve the beneficiaries, was revealed during the mid-term analysis of the Bank’s first loan to PIDER, when it appeared that its central management had lost track of the correct numbers and sites of many local projects and a full-scale inventory had to be undertaken. One of the most efficient ways to curb this waste was to involve local communities in monitoring the real progress and quality of projects by working hand in hand with PIDER administrators rather than following the usual pattern of administrators working alone.

Achieving efficient participation in monitoring requires that village communities be regularly informed about the objectives, execution timetables, and costs of local investment programs. Beneficiaries have a particular advantage in their ability to control and monitor construction and delivery, since they are always on the spot. Therefore, PIDER and its sponsoring ministry have insisted on formalizing the obligation of all agencies to provide information to beneficiaries on the schedule, costs, characteristics, and completion dates of projects (an obligation not all these technical agencies were too happy to fulfill). Knowing what they should expect (and when) from the various local projects, and from the contractors in charge of executing them, enables the direct beneficiary groups to report to PIDER staff on the physical progress and qualitative adequacy of these works.

The interests of both planners and beneficiaries require that when investments are wasted, construction is delayed, or quality is sacrificed, those responsible should be taken to task. However, more parochial interests frequently prevail, and monitoring project implementation seems to be inherently conflict-prone. Local political influence is felt much more often during project monitoring than in project formulation, and it is all too easy to exclude entirely politically weak communities from implementation procedures. The reluctance of many technical staff or agencies to release information on execution timetables is an attempt to circumvent effective monitoring by the beneficiaries and to hamper the grievance mechanisms. Therefore, providing communities with formal rights to monitor PIDER-financed projects is an important step in actually empowering communities to participate.

Constraints on participation

Among the rural development projects assisted by the Bank, the three PIDER projects stand out as some of the most systematically concerned with participation. Within Mexico itself, compared to other large-scale development programs, PIDER has achieved, by and large, a much higher degree of participation than the “normal” programs. Nevertheless, despite its large-scale efforts and undeniable achievements, the experience with participation also teaches some sobering lessons.

To begin with, constraints on the scope of local participation are inherent in the very body and routines of the huge apparatus of the bureaucracy—a leviathan that is not easy to turn around. In any country, a bureaucracy is reluctant to absorb and practice new approaches. Obstacles to participation range from institutional to socio-cultural, from technical to logistical—the spectrum is seemingly endless. Every agency has them; they are likely to be recurrent and are unlikely to disappear after only one successful first round with a new approach.

Second, cultural constraints to promoting participation are often overlooked, but they are nonetheless a major slowing factor. A specific expression of these constraints is the reactions of the army of technicians, planners, bureaucrats, and others who, in the case of PIDER, are called upon to embrace a new style of planning and interact with new (for them) clients. PIDER is addressing this limitation by training the staff of executing agencies in participatory programming. Realism and actual experience, however, suggest that this limitation cannot be removed by training alone. It is important in reorienting the bureaucracy and in learning the lessons of experience, but agency commitment to the new approach and firm enforcement and monitoring by PIDER management are critical variables as well.

A third problem frequently encountered is that participation in investment decision making and execution is politically and culturally sensitive. The allocation of investments does not occur within a political vacuum—on the contrary, it usually takes place within a highly politicized environment. Openly or surreptitiously, groups with vested interests are likely to oppose the involvement of the poor, marginal, and small farmers in making decisions and setting priorities. While introducing participatory programming is, in effect, an attempt to empower the local communities and to transfer to them some authority over resource allocation, the overall power structures and authority systems remain the same. They are beyond PIDER’s reach and objectives. Therefore, popular participation in investment selection and execution has to operate under the constraints of existing rural political structures.

Finally, community participation must be self-perpetuating, not dependent on visits by outsiders. Where community-based groups and organizations do exist and act collectively, this may not be a problem. But, to sustain participation in the long run, PIDER should explore ways to help build more stable structures within the local communities. Such structures—farmers’ organizations, cooperatives, associations etc.—would be a powerful means for fostering both community participation in government-sponsored actions and more assertive productive and marketing activities.

The participatory approach is not yet generally applied, even by PIDER; it is being extended gradually to more PIDER areas. While the formulation of the participatory methodology is a major step forward, PIDER is still far from having all current local investments planned and implemented in this way. There is still much waste to trim and there are many failures to correct. The high staff turnover and the frequent administrative reorganizations of PIDER jeopardize the continuous enforcement of, and adherence to, the new participatory planning methodology. Even where the approach is applied, it does not run smoothly, unhampered by bureaucratic routines, and at times application is not consistent with the intentions of the methodology. Given the large size of the PIDER program, it is only to be expected that a wider use of the approach will require years to achieve. However, as the quantitative and qualitative evidence on the new approach gradually accumulates, there is a widespread feeling that the participatory methodology marks a major step forward in the effective design and implementation of local development projects.

Because of its innovativeness, its achievements, and its difficulties, the PIDER experiment in Mexico provides a useful lesson for development planners elsewhere. The participatory methodology reflects Mexican conditions and institutional settings and, while it cannot be extrapolated wholesale to other environments, it does offer, mutatis mutandis, relevant lessons that are applicable more generally.

Food Policy Analysis

C. Peter Timmer, Walter P. Falcon, and Scott R. Pearson

An innovative attempt to link issues of food production and consumption. Stresses the need to understand the food system in order to solve the hunger problem.

“[The authors] have undertaken a very ambitious project: to treat in one volume the micro and macro aspects of food policy in a fashion useful to both market economies and socialist countries. Do they bring it off? In the opinion of this reviewer, they do.”

Don Paarlberg

Purdue University

from a review in The American Journal of Agricultural Economics, February 1984

Analyzes the behavior of food consumers and producer households, the effects of macroeconomic forces on the performance of the food system, and the role of markets in linking household issues in the micro sector to policy issues in the macro economy.

The Johns Hopkins University Press/The World Bank


  • production of agricultural commodities

  • transforming commodities to foods

  • marketing to meet the needs of consumers

  • how food systems function in different environments

  • policy interventions that can improve access to food

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