Participatory development is not a recent phenomenon. Democratic forms of decision-making have existed in most cultures including religious communities and political dissident movements. Participatory principles were central to the international cooperative movement, many nationalist and some socialist movements. In the 1950s and 1960s postcolonial and postrevolutionary governments employed a wide range of measures at local and community level in attempts to mobilise their populations for national development.
In the 1970s and 1980s there was widespread institutionalisation of the rhetoric of participatory development in response to evidence of the failure of large numbers of expensive large-scale, top-down projects in both capitalist and socialist countries. In the 1980s this emphasis on participatory development was also part of the move to 'roll back the state' and to put greater emphasis on non-governmental organisations as providers of services previously supplied by the state.
By the end of the 1980s participatory development had become an established umbrella term for a new style of development. There is a plethora of manuals on techniques for participatory development produced by a wide range of organisations. Most international donor agencies have official statements about the need for beneficiary participation, project guidelines for participatory projects.
Participation as Transformation?
Participatory development has been promoted on the basis of a number of arguments:
Rights argument: Participation, and particularly and explicitly participation of the poorest and most vulnerable participants is a human right and an inherent and indivisible component of pro-poor development strategies and empowerment.
Effectiveness argument: Participation of the main stakeholders increases the accuracy of information and relevance to the realities of peoples' lives and policy decision and implementation processes.
Cost-efficiency argument: Involvement of the main stakeholders increases ownership of the development process, better use of resources and is likely to enable mobilisation local resources to augment or even substitute those from outside
Process argument: the participatory process, through building skills, capacities and networks is a contribution in itself to pro-poor development, civil society and empowerment.
Participation as Tyranny?
Since the mid-1990s, parallel to the rapid expansion of participatory methods, have been a series of critiques of both practice and the underlying theoretical underpinnings of these methods. Many of the theoretical critiques of participatory development have their roots in very much earlier debates about the nature of democracy and political systems for representation.
Participatory development cannot be seen as a substitute for strategic policies to address poverty, inequality and empowerment.
Participatory processes, even those initiated from the 'bottom-up' are not necessarily either inclusive or egalitarian. People's Movements frequently exclude or marginalise the very poor, women and other disadvantaged groups.
Outsiders may further reinforce existing inequalities because of their ignorance of local inequalities and/or their dependence on these power structures to gain access to 'communities'. Reference to 'cultural sensitivity' and the need for 'community participation' are often cited as reasons for not addressing gender issues without even consulting women or men about gender concerns they may have.
A key concern in critiques of participatory methods from the empowerment/rights perspective has been the ways in which development agencies (from multilateral agencies to NGOs) and politicians have used the rhetoric of participation and participatory development to mask processes in which participation is extremely superficial and/or unequal and/or manipulated to support their own ends.
participatory development: key questions
'Participation' in the sense of 'taking part' in collective forms of action and decision-making at some level and between some individuals is an inherent part of all social life. Even slaves 'participated' in the building of ancient and recent empires. Many people 'participated' in the Nazi rebuilding of Germany and in ethnic cleansing of minority groups. There is nothing inherently desirable about 'participation' per se.
Participatory development which aims to make a significant contribution to poverty eradication and empowerment must be constantly reflecting on the following questions:
Why is participation being advocated
Who is participating
When they are participating
How they are participating
Who benefits from the participatory process
Who benefits from the outcomes.
The goal of participatory development needs to be clearly this last issue ie ensuring that the poorest and most vulnerable people benefit most from the outcomes of the participatory process. It is this concern which should determine decisions about who participates, how and when and not any inherent commitment to 'as much participation by as many and at any cost'. It is also crucial that these people should benefit directly and as far as possible from the time and energy they give to the participatory process and not treated as unpaid labourers for agendas determined by outsiders.