Imagine a severe drought. People are dying. The international community sends planes full of drinking water to be distributed to the most needy. Instead, a rich local man in charge of the local humanitarian organization takes the water for himself to fill his swimming pool.
Community participation in development has many positive outcomes, but also negative ones – like the exclusion of the most marginalized. That is why one of the main problems of participatory development is targeting the poorest. Very often the benefits of development are not shared with the poorest, but only go to local elites. Elite capture refers to the domination, including acts of malfeasance, by elites which negatively affect community development outcomes (Dasgupta and Beard, 2007 cited in Classen et al 2008: 2404). Collecting water to fill one’s swimming pool in the middle of a drought is an extreme example of elite capture, where more often than not there is only very little left to trickle down to the community. Participation should lead to more accountability to beneficiaries, but elite capture decreases accountability, which results in reduced access to services for certain segments of a community. Elite can be understood in a broader sense and includes the wealthiest and most powerful in a community that can still be relatively poor.
Elite capture is also present in the decentralization of government power. Decentralization implies the transfer of decision-making and resources from the center of an organization/authority to its sub–units or lower level authorities that are relatively independent. Decentralization leads to better allocation of resources and targeting of the poor. However, local elites can manipulate their independent discretion and divert community resources and funds for their own benefit.
Why do the elite benefit more than others in a community? The reasons depend on many contextual factors. For example, the elite often control the flows of information and tend to be better informed than the poor. The wealthier are better networked, are able to read documents (or are in general literate) and communicate with outsiders. In rural areas, some elite capture is inevitable since they have earned or are are given moral and political authority; the elite are seen by the poor as having the right to benefit since they have brought the development project to their community (Platteau, 2004). Elite capture is not always ‘bad,’ however. We have to therefore, acknowledge the difference between elite capture and elite domination. The elite can dominate in a certain community, but not necessarily capture all the benefits.
What could be done to eliminate or mitigate elite capture? First, we should find out why a particular group is marginalized so that we can include it in the development process. We should establish spaces where the poorest have a voice. For example, linking them to external organizations. But participation of the most marginalized is only symbolic if people are not well informed (Winters, 2009). Even if you empower the poorest, they will still have to confront and deal with people from the community who hold different levels of power. Such asymmetrical power relations can only be balanced with making sure people have access to information, participation networks and decision-making processes.