Christina Keyser, Student at University of Minnesota, Twin Cities (Volunteer At RECONCILE)

On a recent trip to Baringo County with the Participatory Rangelands Management (PRM) team, I had the opportunity to observe the bottom-up approach to community development at work.  Spending time in each of the  Rangeland Unit; Irong Community Conservancy , Koitegan Community Forest, Kabarion Community Conservancy  and Paka Hills Rangeland,   allowed me to see how inclusive  decision making and collaboration unfolds at the community level and understand how a program like PRM uses this community input to guide its priorities.

Having participated in the launch of the Participatory Rangelands Management  Project in Baringo County, and a meeting to define the Rangelands unit ,where the Project is to be implemented enabled me to compare the bottom-up processes common to local organizations like RECONCILE with the top-down approaches common to international agencies. As a student in the United States, I have had more exposure to the top-down development models commonly employed by International Non-Governmental Organisations in the United States.

Some of my coursework has involved discussing the problems and inefficiencies of one-size-fits all approaches, contending that top-down provision of services runs counter to the principles of participation, ownership, accountability, and sustainability, which are essential for empowering communities to sustain their own development.  Further, the sheer size of international agencies and their distance from communities leaves little opportunity for staff to speak directly with communities about their capacities, needs, and priorities.  Often, when community members are invited to voice their opinions, it is usually in the form of a survey or assessment.  A lack of meaningful engagement and honest conversations with communities in favor of the imposition of top-down ‘expertise’ ultimately undermines local initiative.

With the Participatory Rangelands Management Project team, however, local initiative is at the forefront of project activities.  As a local organization, RECONCILE and its partners can connect more easily to local communities and sustain meaningful, continuous engagement throughout the phases of implementation. Simply listening and giving community members opportunities to make their voices heard is critical to informing appropriate, long-lasting resource management solutions that are sensitive to local political and social dynamics.  This inclusive participation guides PRM; the project team ensures that conversations with rangeland communities are at the center of the decision making process.

Already, the project team has conducted several visits to rangeland communities to discuss local challenges and capacities, analyze the unique context of each rangeland unit,  and discuss strategies for addressing these challenges.  This system integrates the resources and technical expertise of RECONCILE with the capacities and local expertise of community members, allowing for meaningful collaboration on PRM strategy.

PRM’s emphasis on collaboration and inclusive participation ensures that nuances among the communities are considered and that solutions are contextually appropriate.  Although the stresses from resource insecurity and mismanagement are generally similar in each rangeland unit, accounting for subtle differences in the context of leadership, natural resources, and local needs is critical to individualizing PRM for each conservancy.  Prepackaged programs developed from the top-down can translate poorly in practice because they may not consider these subtleties.  Visiting each community made clear the differences among the communities, reinforcing the idea that PRM cannot apply the same resource management approach to each rangeland unit and expect effectual outcomes.  For example, it is important to consider the patriarchal nature of the Paka Hills community.  Women are not allowed to participate in any discussions, so the project team must take additional measures to afford them representation in decision making processes and allow them to voice their unique concerns, such as the burden of water collection.  Another key difference is that Koitegan Community Forest already has a leadership group in place.  Through the Community Forest Association, Koitegan is better poised to implement management strategies and may prefer more autonomy compared to Paka Hills, which may need more technical support from RECONCILE.

If a land use and management program/project was implemented using a pre-packaged, top-down strategy, it would overlook the unique context of each rangeland and neglect the specific concerns and local expertise of community members.  In order to effectively build the capacities and wellbeing of communities, initiatives ought to promote interaction and dialogue at all levels.  Starting from the roots is the most effective way to pinpoint problems, ensure buy-in and commitment, mobilize local assets and knowledge, and promote local innovation in order to achieve holistic development and problem-solving.  PRM is a model example of what bottom-up participation should look like.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the position of RECONCILE.