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Participatory community development is a slow and complicated process in any context.  It is particularly complex in conflict regions.  In Colombia, conflict continues in some regions while other areas—like San Carlos—are slowly rebuilding after violence.

Below are some difficulties and dangers involved in conducting a project like social stoplighting. Some are specific to situations of on-going conflict while others apply to collaborative projects in general.

Security:

Several aspects of Colombian conflict must be taken into consideration when planning any initiative that involves public gathering and display of information.

  1. The Dangers of Participation
    Social stoplighting relies upon local leaders to gather information. It is primarily a tool to strengthen local governance and make it more collaborative and participatory.  Armed actors, however, target local leaders in order to control the same spaces of governance that participatory tools such as social stoplighting seek to strengthen. Participatory methodologies and processes do not guarantee good governance. Instead, they can do just the opposite. Participatory processes are only as good as the individuals and organizations that participate. If armed actors still have a strong presence in an area, it is possible they will use these methods to further their goals. In such a case, participatory practices like social stoplighting would serve as a means of legitimizing and solidifying armed actors’ control of political, economic, and social power in a community.
  2. Local Intelligence as Military Resource
    Armed actors often target physical and social infrastructure. Thus, these maps do not provide precise geographic locations but instead serve as a tool for illustrating general information at the village level. However, providing clear information about the quality of infrastructure in particular areas—even without providing the exact geographic location–could serve as a road map for armed actors to prioritize sites to target.
  3. The Mobility of Conflict and Fragility of Peace
    The fact that a region is stable at any given moment does not mean it will stay this way. Any participatory data collection project should consider how this information could be used militarily, regardless of whether conflict has stopped or not. These considerations are particularly difficult in situations in which the lines between military and civilians are unclear. Such is the case in Colombia and many other contexts of long-term conflict. This begs the question: what is worse—doing something that could have a negative result in the future or doing something imperfect but possibly helpful in the present? There are no easy answers. Those engaging in such projects must weigh the severity of possible negative results with the level of positive impact of the actions, and act accordingly.

The Politics and Power of Measurement

Indicators

One of the biggest problems with the project as first conceived was the meaning of the indicators was not clearly defined.  Instead, the colors and rankings represented a qualitative perspective that varied greatly according to village. Before doing such a project, it is usually best to establish a clear and standardized meaning for indicators.

We later attempted to create simple, general indicators in consultation with various stakeholders from the municipal government and community leaders. When applicable, we also adapted the indicators Distrito Agrario uses. This process was fruitful, yet incomplete. A list of the indicators we established can be found here (in Spanish).

While we were not able to create indicators for all resources measured in the development plan, the consultation processes illustrated several ways the method could be improved, which are outlined here. It also illustrated the problems and limitations of standardized indicators.

Establishing indicators for crops was particularly difficult. Municipal officials, agronomists working with NGOs, and farmers often had different priorities and thus different perceptions of what should be measured and what “quality” meant. This is logical. While the subject matter overlaps—crops, farming, land—these three groups have different needs because they have different jobs. Success for an agronomist supporting farmers might be measured by the number of participants in a program, funding acquired, or the meeting of project goals while the farmer might measure success in the ability to feed his family and not be in debt.

The scale on which standardization can occur is a choice. A broader based standardization will allow for greater replication and transferability of measurements. Yet, the meaning and utility of these indicators is weakened if these definitions do not apply to local communities.

Several possible approaches are:

  1. Use standardized indicators established from a national entity such as the National Planning Department or the Department of Social Prosperity or from a regional one such as the Distrito Agrario in Eastern Antioquia. Modify these indicators so they are easy to explain and understand.
  2. Consult with municipal and institutional officials and community leaders to make locally specific indicators before workshops.
  3. Keep the responses qualitative. Let the community decide what they perceive good, average, and poor quality of resources to mean. A general conversation around what the indicators mean when communities are filling out the forms is useful. Locally specific examples worked the best for us. Asking communities to create their own definitions—while time consuming– would provide rich qualitative data and provide useful groundwork for later conversation on goal setting and planning for the future.

All of these options have strengths and weaknesses. It is helpful to understand community perceptions of their resources. Yet standardized indicators are necessary for policy-making. It is possible to combine approaches. Institutions can use standardized indicators while communities can provide more qualitative responses. This allows for a comparison and conversation around these results between communities and institutions. It also allows the two results to be averaged and used in further analysis.

Some of the most important aspects of quality of life cannot be measured with standardized indicators.

Putting information in boxes is inherently limiting.  Some things resist boxes. Emotions, for example. This became evident when we discussed what kinds of indicators could be used to measure the quality of psychosocial support.

This is often measured through the number of workshops provided. Yet, upon conversation, this did not seem like a good way of measuring people’s sense of psycho-social well-being. Beyond this fact, however, we were at a loss. What to do when that which is supposed to be measured resists measurement and is a malleable and moving target? Our solution was to not try. This is not necessarily a good solution.  The kinds of metrics possible for something as subjective as psychosocial support is worth careful consideration.

There is no such thing as an objective, value-neutral indicator. All forms of measurement have their own forms of subjectivity. This subjectivity itself has value.

Technology

Social stoplighting uses multiple media to facilitate participation across a wide range of education levels and access to technology.  Most media—paper, markers, notebooks, spreadsheets—are easy to access.   The technology used to make the digital maps, however, requires a high level of expertise and can be prohibitively expensive.   Open source mapping software like QGIS offers an opportunity for individuals and institutions that cannot afford the expensive ArcGIS site license to collect and analyze geographical data.

Yet all of this technology has a sharp learning curve.  While some municipalities have officials who know how to use mapping software—often in the Planning, Public Works, or Agriculture and Environment department—if only one or two people in a municipal government know how to use a particular tool, they can control it for political, personal, and financial reasons.

It is important to remember that digitizing can both increase and restrict access to information. This depends upon a variety of factors, including the cost of a particular technology, the level and kind of knowledge necessary to use the technology, and the manner in which the final product is produced.

Time

Participatory processes are inherently time consuming. Adding a technological element, particularly one as complicated as most GIS software, is particularly time intensive.  We were able to do this work as a class project in which two students had the time to experiment with different tools as part of their class responsibilities. Municipal and institutional officials, however, already have specific responsibilities and accounting mechanisms for their work. Unless a method such as social stoplighting is seen as complementary to or an improvement upon pre-existing methods, it will not be adopted nor should it be.

Data and the Illusion of Fact

Many of the strengths of such a methodology and tool are also weaknesses.  The ease of understanding information can also lead to an over-confidence both in its validity or comprehensiveness.   The ease of illustrating information must be weighed with the ease of falsifying it and the implications of such actions.

Geography and the Illusion of Stability

The borders between villages are often not clearly defined and can be in flux.  Turning fluid divisions into fixed places on maps can provide an illusion of stability that inaccurately reflects local reality.  Maps simplify space.  This has costs and benefits. Viewers and creators of maps must always be aware that reading and making maps are political projects that can create a geographic stability that did not previously exist.  The contentious and violent on-going process of defining land ownership in Colombia further complicates this process, heightening the stakes of map-making and the politics behind such a project.

The Specificity of Local Needs

In San Carlos, the development plans were initially created for villages. During a municipal meeting, however, town leaders asked for help creating neighborhood-level development plans.  Municipal government responsibilities, however, are different in town then in the villages.

We had to make new forms for neighborhood development plans.  The process of gathering people together and the level of participation are very different in town than in the rural villages.  The population of many neighborhoods is also much larger than most villages.   If conducting a similar project in an urban area, facilitators should look for community units that are a manageable size. This might require dividing a neighborhood into several groups if it is particularly large and if logical divisions exist.

Successful participatory projects need to be modified to fit the reality of local needs. Yet, this requires more work on the part of the facilitators and makes it difficult to use the same forms and indicators. Thus, facilitators need to strike a balance between modifying materials enough to make them applicable to local realities while still maintaining a certain level of replicability and external intelligibility.

Politics

Even in areas where armed actors do not dominate the local political landscape, this tool can be used to further the goals and careers of certain politicians to the detriment of large-scale community participation and collaboration.   Ideally, the tool can be used as an overview to help multiple organizations and entities with their planning, monitoring, and evaluation of projects. Individual politicians, however, may seek to control the information in development plans and withhold it from others. This only furthers the clientelistic politics that has traditionally fueled conflict in Colombia.