"Who's Local Here?" The Politics of Participation in Development


Participatory approaches to development have become de rigeur once again in recent years. Popular in the community development schemes of the 1950s and `60s, and again in the 1970s turn to "basic needs" and "bottom up" philosophies of development, it has been resuscitated yet again in a current context concerned with human rights, democratization, civil society, and popular social movements. Some claim the superiority of "local" accountability and authority in managing resources and guaranteeing security, while others promote participations as doing more with less in a situation of economic strain and dwindling foreign aid. While "participation" and "participatory" are ubiquitous terms in current discussion of development, especially in natural resource management projects, their meanings and practical embodiments are so various as to be in danger of being just another development fad.

Participation ideally connotes the ability of people to share, influence, or control design, decision-making, and authority in development projects and programs which affect their lives and resources. In a participatory environmental management project to rehabilitate a watershed, for example, this should translate into people who live in the area being fully involved in defining the problems and the feasible solutions, and in selecting the chosen remedies, designing the work, allocating responsibilities, and sharing in the benefits. All too often, however, participation has been part of the rhetoric of governments and private agencies without the reality of involvement and influence. State-organized "participatory" development initiatives may be mobilization by another name and "participatory" projects may resemble old-style corvée rather than people's empowerment. One colleague was told by a minister in a recently "democratized" country that his ministry relied on the participatory approach: "We decide what is to be done and we tell the people to do it". Much of the time, the situation is ambiguous - partial participation, degrees of participation, and thus disputes over when "real" participation occurs.

Belief in the advantages of participatory development in the last decade has produced a large number of manuals for facilitating community participation and for conducting participatory research. These can be extremely useful and have generated a search for new ways of conducting development and political organizing (see CSQ 18-4 on map-making). It is essential, however, to remember that participation is a political process involving contestation and conflict among different people with different interests and claims rather than a methodology or a set of facilitating techniques. To assume that participation is new, that it is absent from local communities, and that it needs to be taught, ignores the vigor of social associations that exist in most communities and, more critically, obscures the ways in which the latter are affected by national and international political processes. The tendency to separate participation from politics is just another reflection of the widespread tendency in development discourse and practice to bracket off politics. Yet participation or the lack of it is fundamentally a political process and only a political analysis can reveal what does or does not take place and why. This is demonstrated clearly in the following articles.

Longer versions of the articles appearing here were among papers presented at a workshop on Participation and the Micro-Politics of Development Encounters organized by Pauline Peters and Frederick Cooper (University of Michigan) in May 1996. The workshop was one of two held at the Harvard Institute for International Development with funds from the Rockefeller Foundation. The core questions posed at the workshop were: what constitutes participation? who participates? whose voices are heard and whose stories are accepted? These, in turn, led us to issues of representation and accountability of individuals and organizations as spokespersons, to enquire into the phenomenon of the "non-governmental organization" (NGO), and to debate the myriad meanings given to "community" and "local" in participatory development approaches.

Many at the workshop stressed the need to look inside "the black box" of NGOs, especially those espousing participation as a means or an end: how do they define themselves, what connections do they have with other NGOs within and outside a country, what constitutes the accountability of an NGO as spokesperson? The current love affair of aid donors with NGOs, often in the name of cutting back the state to size and encouraging "civil society", and the subsequent flow of aid to NGOs have led to the proliferation of new organizations. Some are, or strive to be, representative of the people for whom they serve as lobbyist or intermediary with state and other powerful agents. Others are opportunistic attempts to benefit from aid flows, and little more than "briefcase NGOs". Some organizations act as catalysts, able to mobilise resources to lever change on behalf of and with the participation of certain sectors of a population. At other times, however, an NGO becomes a new type of patron with all the problems of dependency this entails. Even if an NGO facilitates a change in the distribution of rights and privileges to benefit an excluded group, to what extent can such a change be sustained if the NGO leaves? Lasting change requires institutional procedures being put in place. Here, the negative descriptor - non-governmental organization - obscures a critical point that consideration of what NGOs do is impossible without enquiring into the relations between the NGOs and the state.

The workshop also interrogated "local" and "community", both common terms in discussion of participation. Although much participatory development is assumed to take place among "local" populations, the workshop discussions problematized a single focus on the local. Action, whether participatory or not, in any locale, has its own dynamics peculiar to that place and time; but these dynamics are also part of wider processes over space and time. The need to trace connections, linkages, and flows was recognized in several papers. Similarly, deployment of the term "community" should be carefully examined. Participation is usually assume to concern a community. A number of the papers discussed how internal differentiation (of class, caste, ethnicity, gender) renders participation difficult to achieve. In showing the danger of assuming an unproblematic community, they echoed the cogent conclusion of anthropologist Peter Little: "community is commonly misused to invoke a false sense of `tradition', homogeneity, and consensus ... [whereas] most rural communities are not free of conflict, nor are they homogeneous".

Just as "community is not a place but an ideological construct", as Silverman and Gulliver remind us, so the following articles show that participation is not a technique but an ideal.

From his vantage point of long experience working in Seva Mandir, a major NGO in India, Ajay Mehta sees villagers seeking to improve their lives through seeking to improve their lives through patronage rather than lobbying the state to create entitlements. In this context, the role of NGOs is to help poor and politically powerless groups to gain more direct access to the political process, and to help them devise ways of developing communal and other resources. Definite successes have been the result of collaboration between the NGO and marginalized groups. However, the NGO should not remain a black box. Seva Mandir has been developing a self-reflective procedure to deal with the "internal contradictions" of an organization dedicated to helping the poor, yet subject to its staff becoming part of the collusive oppression of villagers or of diverting resources for private gain. Just as the villagers' full participation in beneficial development depends on ensuring accountability of their leaders, so an NGO has to find ways of making itself and its staff accountable to their clients.

Ann Forbes reflects on the way that participation is often assumed to be inherently "local". She interrogates this definition in the case of the groups organized to oppose the construction of the Arun dam in Nepal. A central question that needs to be posed in assessing "local participation" is who is to be defined as local and why? The most "local" in one sense were those village people high in the mountains, living in close proximity to the proposed dam and to the road that would lead to it. But it was precisely these who faced a range of difficulties in expressing their "local" opinions: socio-political pressures from those in favor, and the lack of information on which they could base a considered opinion and hence the possibility of manipulation of their views by an interested party. Large projects, like dams, have multiple effects over space and time so that there are many locales that can constitute the proper domain of the "local" voice. These reflections on the specific case of the Arun dam raise similar issues of representation and accountability as in the other articles.

Two articles consider the example of participatory forestry management, one in India, one in West Africa. Sivaramakrishnan argues that the participatory "joint forest management" program in Bengal should be seen as part of a process of "state-making". He clearly articulates a theme in all the papers - the unavoidable political character of actions taken in the name of participation. Participatory development, he states, is both a global discourse embodied in internationally funded development and the outcome of local politics and national state-making. A further lesson of the article is the utility of listening to different stories. The narratives constructed around the origins of joint forestry management - whether as local initiative or state enlightenment - are shown to reveal implicit premises and hidden social differences as well as the explicit rationales for espousing participatory methods.

Jesse Ribbot also finds that assessing the degree to which West African states' policies and projects undertaken in the name of "participation" actually translate into real benefits for a wide range of people has to take careful account of the political structures and process in place. What is being devolved and to whom? What can different categories of local people participate in? How is a community defined and by whom? How are decision-making and rights over resources actually distributed? In several of the west African countries discussed, participation takes place without locally accountable representation. One has to enquire into the relation between spokespersons and those they speak for. Participation without locally accountable representation becomes charity at best and indirect rule at worst. And when decision-making authority over valuable resources is devolved to non-representative groups, "participatory" approaches facilitate private monopolies. The key issues to be faced, then, are the nature of representation, the role of governance structures, and the constitution of community.

In her paper, Henedina Razon-Abad tries to capture the political dynamics internal to a nation-wide coalition of political and voluntary organizations formed to lobby the Philippines state on land reform. Participation in the process of influencing the politics of policy, then, takes place in this case through the member organizations formed around specific issues or groups (eg. peasants) or ideologies. Abad stresses the facilitating role of a diverse group of non-governmental organizations who, in collaboration with peasant and political organizations, formed in historic coalition for challenging the power of a class of landlords and that of the state. Nevertheless, the achievements of the coalition have to be set against its demise in the face of internal differences based on both ideology and interest (e.g. the diversion of funds and energies from one administrative level to another). Consensus and coalition-based politics, through which participation of the powerless is channelled, are vulnerable to both internal conflict and external forces. Here, the Philippines example resembles the tensions experienced in the Amazonian indigenous federations and constituent organizations described by Benavides.

Margarita Benavides describes how Amazonian indigenous groups' experience of colonization has included loss of territory, exploitation, and subjection to cultural imperialism. In the face of these threats, new types of indigenous political organizations have arisen, especially national and international federations. In lobbying for greater participation in the decisions over the use of the natural resources from which they live, the indigenous groups have developed the idea, new to them, of "territory". Like the Basarwa organization described by Mazonde, the Amazonians insist on the equation of cultural identity with territory in defining their separate but equal status in a state. But they also experience the same tensions of internal differences - relations between the groups and various outsiders have been through young men with some education and/or familiarity with the wider society, and the distinct opinions of women or elders without such exposure may go unrecognized. The role of NGOs like that of OXFAM, for whom Benavides works, is to help indigenous groups and sub-groups to find ways of improving their organization and of resolving some of the tensions and conflicts that threaten them.

Isaac Mazonde's paper on the Basarwa (their adoption of this label, long considered pejorative in Botswana, recalls other examples of appropriation and valorization of negative terms - "black" and "queer") discusses a group at a much earlier stage of political organization than the Amazonian indigenous federations discussed by Benavides. Nevertheless, the Basarwa, like the Amazonian groups, are struggling to define their fuller participation in their respective countries' policies. In doing so, they are engaged with debates and negotiations among themselves, with groups within Botswana, and with groups in Africa and Europe. Moreover, both the Basarwa and the Amazonian groups face a similar question - how representative are the leaders of the organizations formed to lobby for their members' rights? How real is a people's participation if their leaders are not accountable? How does a group ensure that financial and other aid from external organizations does not smother rather than enhance a group's agency? For the Basarwa, the formation of lobbying organizations has facilitated their political visibility but the question remains whether structures of patronage and donor funds determine leadership and agendas rather than these emerging out of a representative community politics. Finally, both Basarwa and the Amazonian groups are faced with the task of ensuring their full "integration" into the political economy of their countries but not at the cost of sacrificing their separable identity. Here, surely, is a dilemma at the heart of "participation".

In the last article of this issue, Ted Macdonald draws from three quite different contexts - Nicaragua's Miskito Coast, the Ecuadorian Amazon, and the Galapagos Islands - to suggest first that participation, or lack of it, can better be understood by shifting terms such as "beneficiary" and "project" to "stakeholder" and "interest". Second, he suggests that many development and conservation projects unknowingly appear amidst on-going conflicts and micro-political disputes. By working to identify and define these various interests early on, many projects could enhance participation. In addition, he argues that, in many areas, organized sectors of the local population are eschewing short-term gains in favor of an "institutional" approach, which provides them with the political power essential for participating with parity. References Hoben, Allan, Pauline Peters, and Dianne Rocheleau n.d. Participation, Civil Society and Foreign Assistance to Africa: a Discussion Paper. (forthcoming, World Resources Institute). Little, Peter D. 1994. The Link between Local Participation and Improved conservation: a Review of Issues and Experiences. In Natural Connections: Perspectives in Community-based conservation, ed. David Western and R. Michael Wright, pp. 347-72. Washington, D.C: The Island Press. Rocheleau, Dianne E. 1994. Participatory Research and the Race to Save the Planet: Questions, Critique, and Lessons from the Field. Agriculture and Human Values. Silverman, Marilyn and Philip H. Gulliver ed. 1992. Approaching the Past: Historical Anthropology through Irish Case Studies. New York: Columbia University Press. Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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