Global Conversations Beyond Discipline

Participation in Development: How the Cake can Crumble

Image by Elliott Tester

Participation is viewed as a fundamental and necessary element in development, however one also frequently absent. Imagine you have requested help baking a chocolate cake with pink icing. You hope to oversee this process and to assist in creating this cake. You prepare a helpful list detailing what has been successful in the past, what has failed, your wishes and your dislikes. However, you are promptly shunned from the kitchen. When the cake emerges some time later; it is vanilla, the icing is green, and it embodies many elements you find distasteful. Further, when you go to pick up a slice, it breaks apart, falls to the ground, and even your ravenous dog refuses to eat it.

Development is similar to cake; it has become more desirable and proliferate in the global community, however it can also be unsatisfying dependent on how it is produced. Development deprived of participation, or utilising fictitious participation, is unsatisfying cake; unsuccessful, undesirable and crumbly.

However for academics, participation is slightly different to a nightmarish cake.

For Rahnema, participation implies ‘the recovery of one’s inner freedom – that is, to learn to listen and to share, free from any fear or predefined conclusion, belief or judgement’. ((Rahnema, M., ‘Participation’, in The Development Dictionary, Zed Books, 2010, p. 140))

For Freire, participation fulfils its intended premise within development when those considered as objects, subjected to the whims of the elite, transform to become subjects, and therefore control their own social destiny. ((Freire, P., Pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2000))

Considering these definitions, participation refers to what should entail a positive process in development. However, although participation is considered a positive process, and one which adds legitimacy to development projects, it can easily be manipulated. Rahnema explores how ‘participation could be either transitive or intransitive; moral or immoral; forced or free; manipulative or spontaneous’, ((Rahnema, M., ‘Participation’, in The Development Dictionary, Zed Books, 2010, p. 127)) and therefore can be designed to inhibit or assist, dependent on the developer.


Designing participation

Participation can be organised by the elite (government or project developers), by the local populace or by a third party (NGOs). The origins of participation can determine the level of authenticity and effectiveness.

It is widely recognised that participation can be co-opted for manipulative benefit. This is especially evident where project designers purposefully control and limit participation to claim project legitimacy. Participation can be tightly controlled, so as to fictitiously claim community involvement, yet designed to the designer’s advantage. Such manipulation is a failure to institute authentic development, and is in truth fictitious participation, with participation functioning as an instrument to fulfil the desires of the developers.


Types of Participation

As stated by Uphoff, ‘[t]here are many possible kinds of participation, and who participates and how may be more crucial to project success than any purely quantitative expression of participation’. ((Uphoff, N., 1985, ‘Fitting projects to people’, Putting people first: Sociological variables in rural development, 19, 359-395, p. 369))

For example, functional participation, involves enlisting ‘people in projects or processes, so as to secure compliance, minimize dissent, lend legitimacy’. ((Cornwall, A., 2003, ‘Whose voices? Whose Choices? Reflections on Gender and Participatory Development’, in Institute of Development Studies, p. 1327)) Simply, intended project-beneficiaries are viewed as objects to achieve the goals of the developers, who can manipulate the process to fulfil their designs. In comparison, facilitating a transformative mode of participation, refers to an attempt ‘[t]o build political capabilities, critical consciousness and confidence; to enable to demand rights; to enhance accountability’. ((Ibid., p. 1327)) Ensuring accountability and inclusion of community perspective can assist in facilitating constructive compromises between project-related parties, and also successfully facilitate the premises of development; social and material progress. Such genuine community inclusion is a facilitation of authentic participation.


Benefits of Participation

Participation can act as a cost reduction and effective information gathering exercise. Local inhabitants can possibly offer what foreign experts lack; specific field knowledge. While it is naïve to believe the local populace will be able to replace experts entirely, neither should it be assumed that those living in the specific area have nothing to contribute. Local expertise can be crucial in terms of historical information; past project successes and failures, community issues, and suitable construction materials that are readily available. ((Uphoff, N., 1985, ‘Fitting projects to people’, Putting people first: Sociological variables in rural development, 19, 359-395)) Further, where cost-sharing is implemented, the community can reduce the overall expense of development projects. Cost-sharing is most effective where the community is involved in decision-making and a power-sharing agreement has been utilised. These elements are clear benefits for developers.

In terms of the local communities, Goulet begins with three distinct benefits for the “voiceless”; ((Goulet, D., 1989, ‘Participation in Development: New Avenues’, in World Development, 17 (2), pp. 165 – 178)) guaranteeing non-instrumental government treatment of the populace, producing valuable mobilization and organization of the local population to assist in problem solving, and to function as a channel through which movements gain access to macro-arenas of decision making. Further, local institutions can be strengthened through adoption in data gathering, and development project cost-sharing encourages feelings of community possession and accountability. Where a local populace has been active in participating towards designing and implementing development projects, overall satisfaction is likely to be greater.


Final thoughts

Local knowledge, expertise, problem solving and possible cost sharing, can assist in relieving the burdens of development projects. Further, where a local populace has been active in participating towards designing and implementing development projects, overall satisfaction is likely to be greater.

However, participation can easily be manipulated. A stringent effort must be made to enact authentic participation, through genuine participatory processes (local institution data collection, power-sharing agreements and maintaining active and genuine consultation).

Undoubtedly, authentic participation can be an ambitious goal, and one which can be difficult to realise. Participation will often be viewed as an opportunity to legitimise a project with no true consideration of the local population, however, whether participation is designed to assist or inhibit those affected depends ultimately on the developer.

Participation in development means you can have your cake and eat it too. The community is involved in the process of development (which will undoubtedly affect them), they lend benefits (in terms of cost sharing and local expertise), and they stand to benefit (as they undeniably should).