Mixed emotions about “concursos”

One of the hardest parts of integrating into the CEDAP office and learning their methods is all the new vocabulary. I consider my Spanish conversational, but my vocabulary is still decades (almost literally) behind my English. As a result, I realized that I had totally misunderstood one of their main methods: the concursos.

Upon first hearing concurso, I figured it was a type of course in development offered by CEDAP. Essentially, people could enroll and learn about more productive sustainable farming practices or how to clean their water. Contextually, that made sense. Tulia had spoken about inter-aprendizaje (inter-learning) between campesin@s in different communities.

Yet as I looked over the paperwork associated with one concurso, called Pachamamanchikta Waqaychasun, a Quechua phrase meaning “Let’s conserve our Mother Earth” in English, I saw that there were premios (prizes) of S/. 1,725.00 ($600) for first place communities and S/. 250.00 ($87) for first place families. Likewise, there was detailed criteria for scoring on a 100-point scale. Was that for a test as part of the development coursework? That’d seem right.

If you are familiar with this word, you’re likely shaking your head at this point or possibly shouting, “JUST SAY WHAT IT MEANS!”

As it turns out concurso means “competition.” CEDAP is sponsoring competitions at the family, communal, and community delegate level, which started in March and ends in November. Communities are graded on the following criteria:

Community activities to evaluate Maximum Points*
1 Organization and Planning 15
2 Management and Conservation of Natural Pastures 30
3 Management and Conservation of Soils 25
4 Appropriate management of Seasonal Water 10
5 Health – Population Center or Community 10
6 Education – Population Center or Community 10

I’m still learning a lot about CEDAP and how they work, but right now I have very mixed emotions about competition for the purposes of developing. And I have found that mixed emotions make for great blog posts, so lucky me and (hopefully) lucky you!

As I get started let me preface this with one disclaimer. I am still learning. These are initial reactions and many may come to be unfounded, but I still thought it was worth sharing them below.

First of all I am struggling with whether competition directly contradicts some of CEDAP’s attitudes toward development. Central to CEDAP’s mission is cooperation between communities and creating opportunities for campesin@s to teach each other their different methodologies. So where does competition fit into cooperation models?

And what does inter-community and family competition encourage? Is the goal to develop better than everyone else? To make it into the top bracket of the top 5 communities or top families in your community?

CEDAP does offer very clearly detailed criteria as part of admission into the competition. Each criteria is broken down for communities and families. Top-scoring communities should encourage learning between campesin@s, rotate fields between grazing and crop-growing, plant forests, use irrigation technologies, and improve health services for children and families. Families that teach others about new technologies they have used, use organic fertilizers, feed and clean their livestock well, maintain a family farm, and take an interest in children’s education will receive top scores. There’s other criteria as well, but the scoring is clearly holistic and encourages well-rounded, sustainable development.

Yet all of these criteria come from CEDAP. I trust CEDAP. I admire most of their practical approaches to development. And the criteria promote participative development over more paternalistic models, which is essential at the micro level. It gets groups involved such that development lasts and recognizes the autonomy of those in poverty. Unfortunately, CEDAP puts out the criteria and judges how well everyone meets it, which is a little paternalistic.

I do credit CEDAP with offering full disclosure and breaking down the judgment of each criterion into very specific categories. At minimum, a criterion is scored on seven different mini categories on a scale of 0-3. In total there are 52 of these mini categories. And I believe this scoring information was disclosed to participants.

So competitors know exactly what they need to do to get a high score. At the same time this incentivizes competitors to develop exactly as CEDAP wants, which is inadvertently paternalistic.

I’m also concerned that competition could create a principal-agent problem where in groups will try to project that they have developed far more than they have. This could go as far as cheating, but it may also be that on evaluation day they portray a well-developed village, much like a restaurant working to be extra clean when a health inspector visits. That analogy isn’t perfect, but it gives an idea of a possible concern. Instead of investing in lasting development, communities and families may find it more cost effective to appear developed enough to get an award. That’d be concerning and counterproductive.

Still, I admire the criteria. The competition encourages the use of sustainable farming technologies and a focus on campesin@ standards of living. CEDAP does not ignore where science can assist agricultural output, but acknowledges that people’s well-being, not output, should be the primary goal. While the two often correlate, I value the people-first mentality, though it isn’t as easy to quantify or work towards.

So I’m conflicted. And more than anything this adds new motivation to evaluate this project. What is the outcome of this competition? Have all participants become more sustainable? Have incomes increased aside from the prize money for competition winners? Do participants continue using new technologies and following the criteria even after the competition is over?

Essentially, I want to know: Did it work and how well? It’s pragmatic, but more important to the funders and policymakers. We can debate all day about whether this is the right thing to do. And I bet members of CEDAP did just that, but at the end of the day, I know of no perfect strategy. I do know that there have been highly successful localized solutions that fail in other locations.

On another note, this competition has helped me move towards how I might be able to perform a useful program evaluation. The scoring card will provide a metric for comparison across levels of development. I can see whether higher development translates to higher economic success in income levels, health, education, etc.

Granted, this scoring card is not perfect. And I’ll run into the problem that the scoring captures not only the level of development, but also the competitive or entrepreneurial skill of the competitors. The higher score doesn’t just translate to more development, but also just more of a competitive spirit. Perhaps the more competitive or gifted in competition you are, the more likely you are to be more economically successful. Opposing that, those who overemphasize participation in the competition may lag behind in other areas of economic well-being, which the score also would not capture. Remember the principal-agent problem I mentioned?

So essentially, I’ve also got mixed feelings about the metric itself. It’s a start and one that could be very helpful in offering a more informed evaluation, but it’s only a piece of the puzzle.

Overall, I’ve got a lot of mixed emotions about this competition. More than anything else, I’m eager to learn more. That process will be slow, not just because of my aforementioned vocabulary limits, but also because it’s a huge operation.

Next week, I will likely start heading out to visit rural communities and be a bit more involved in the workings of CEDAP. I’m hugely excited for the change of pace, but also for the chance to see these participating communities firsthand. To see how much the competition is part of their lives and interpret, at least qualitatively, how founded my mixed emotions are.

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