When the international development community speaks about citizen “participation”, “involvement” or even “empowerment” they usually express this as the “last mile” in development programs. At its best, this represents a fear of getting involved in what is perceived as the sticky work of “stakeholder dialogue” which muddles up clearly defined results frameworks. At its worst, it represents a form of manipulation where citizen consultation is used as a form of tokenism in order to push through a solution.
Last mile solutions plan for the poor, first mile solutions plan with the poor. “The poor” have long demonstrated their ability to organize, learn from others, contribute resources, and implement solutions. And until the development community recognizes this and factors it into the first mile of programs, residents will continue to be marginalized and solutions crippled.
The Pune Municipal Corporation in India got it right when they recognized that they could contract local NGOs to design and redevelop housing with the city’s slum residents instead of evicting, demolishing and rebuilding housing more quickly in the city outskirts.
The Society for Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC), with affiliates Mahila Milan and the National Slum Dwellers Federation, accepted a contract from the local government to plan, design, and rebuild subsidized houses as part of the Yerwada Slum Upgrade project which includes six dense Yerwada-area slums in Pune, India. Through CHF International, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation supported this program by hiring an architecture team to go door-to-door to collect ideas about what the community wanted, using housing models and life-size replicas, community meetings and broad engagement with the residents. These designs were on view earlier this year at the United Nations headquarters in an exhibit titled, “Design with the other 90%: Cities.” The program left more than houses, it left a legacy of community dialogue, debate, engagement and empowerment, the things that make democracies work. The Pune government demonstrated how to flip the development paradigm and let the first mile start in the community by delegating power and citizen control over program resources.