Tag Archives: participation

On the Tyranny of Participation

Participation: The New Tyranny? was so good. I so rarely find books on international development so good, Hamdi and Kaplan are maybe rare exceptions, but this raised so many of the real issues with participatory  development and action. Above all, the way it has been stripped of its radical, emancipatory content and understandings of structural power (though interwoven here is more discussion of some of the micro-levels of power as well, what we internalize…). I would hope that we could now start discussions of community development with this book in mind and just build on it — whether international or home grown. I am still bemused at how little the two talk to each other, another enduring effect of racism and empire. Sadly, too, I was listening to a panel on international development all about co-production just a few weeks ago, and really ‘co-production’ is just this repackaged. You hear it all over the damn place these days. But no one there really spoke at this level of thinking, I don’t think they could have read it. They stumbled in this direction instead. Rather tragic.

Anyway.

Cooke, Bill and Kothari, Uma ‘The Case for Participation as Tyranny’, 1-15

The editors write:

Our primary aim with this book is to provide a set of more rigorous and critical insights into the participatory development discourse than has hitherto been the case, through a conceptual and ideological examination of its theory, methods and practices. (2)

They identify three sets of tyrannies (their words, my bullet points):

  • Tyranny of decision making and control – does it override existing legitimate decision-making processes?

  • Tyranny of the group – do group dynamics lead to participatory decisions that reinforce the interests of the already powerful?

  • Tyranny of method – Have participatory methods driven out others which have advantages participation cannot provide? (7-8)

These are the questions everyone should be checking their practice with, right? Especially when an ‘expert’ is coming into a new community they don’t perhaps fully understand, and where there is no trust.

Some of the potential overarching problems they identify:

…the naivety of assumptions about the authenticity of motivations and behavior in participatory processes, how the language of empowerment masks a real concern for managerialist effectiveness; the quasi-religious associations of participatory rhetoric and practice; and how an emphasis on the micro level of intervention can obscure, and indeed sustain, broader macro-level inequalities and injustice. (14)

Exactly right. I thought perhaps I might stop here with the intro, that the case studies from around the world wouldn’t be as important. But they are amazing, and I am fascinated with their range, and how each of them illustrates one or another of the basic issues that arose for us working in LA, though of course with a richness all their own and very different specifics around the context and politics and the kind of requirements on funding (though somehow not that different) and the exact brand of prejudices development figures might be starting with. So. The chapters.

David Mosse: ‘People’s Knowledge’, Participation and Patronage: Operations and Representations in Rural Development’, 16-35

I liked the summary from the introduction:

‘local knowledge’, far from determining planning processes and outcomes, is often structured by them. For example, what in one case was expressed as a ‘local need’ was actually shaped by local perceptions of what the agency in question could legitimately and realistically be expected to deliver. Indeed, participatory planning’ may, more accurately, be viewed as the acquisition and manipulation of a new ‘planning knowledge’ rather than the incorporation of ‘people’s knowledge’ by projects. 8

That catches it in a nutshell, but to add some more depth because I loved this interrogation of both knowledge and planning:

The critical point is that what is taken as ‘people’s knowledge’ is itself constructed in the context of planning and reflects the social relationships that planning systems entail. As Long and Villareal point out, knowledge must be looked at relationally, that is, as a product of social relationships and not as a fixed commodity. (17)

Mosse describes participatory processes as particularly ‘subject to the effects of dominance’ because they are public, often with authority figures and outsiders present, and there is a lot at stake in controlling the outcomes. (19) He continues to look at how local hierarchies operate, how communities try to use the language of planning and work within a project framework and their understandings of both its limits (what solutions or resources are available) as well what kinds of action it considers to be legitimate, these can be manipulated to address what they feel are the real needs, though this may not be openly discussed. Because of course people do this, they aren’t stupid.

What Mosse describes is how people manipulate a system to their own ends, but pf course the organizations facilitating that system are doing likewise — this process is used to legitimate and advance their own agenda and of course must quantify its successes, number its activities, justify its spending. It’s complicated. ‘Participatory’ does not always mean better. It can serve to advance technocracy and bureaucracy as much as to combat it.

Cleaver, Frances ‘Institutions, Agency and the Limitations of Participatory Approaches to Development’, 36-55

Cleaver writes of participation as an act of faith with three main tenets:

that participation is intrinsically a ‘good thing’ (especially for the participants); that a focus on ‘getting the techniques right’ is the principal way of ensuring the success of such approaches; and that considerations of power and politics on the whole should be avoided as divisive and obstructive. (36)

Blimey. Not wonder shit is going wrong. She notes how different this is from roots in radical empowerment a la Freire:

associated with both individual and class action, with the transformation of structures of subordination through radical changes…The model of ‘participation’ implied is of development practitioners working with poor people to struggle actively for change.

But she continues:

Sadly, such ideas are ‘rather out of fashion in development’ outside of feminist scholarship and the Latin American participatory tradition. (37)

So sad. I loved too how she lists just how much else is missed, where the focus is misplaced. This is particularly apt for communities I’ve worked in:

‘Participation’ in development activities has been translated into a managerial exercise based on ‘toolboxes’ of procedures and techniques…This limited approach to participation gives rise to a number of critical tensions… While we emphasize the desirability of empowerment, project approaches remain largely concerned with efficiency. While we  recognize the importance of institutions, we focus attention only on the highly visible, formal, local organizations, overlooking the numerous communal activities that occur through daily interactions and socially embedded arrangements. … The time is ripe for a critical re-analysis of ‘participatory approaches’. (53)

Hildyard, Nicholas; Hegde, Pandurang, Wolvekamp, Paul and Reddy, Somasekhare ‘Pluralism, Participation and Power: Joint Forest Management in India’, 56-71

I loved this one, connecting the very different ways people understand both their relationships to their environment and to society. I’m reading a collection of essays by Winona La Duke at the moment, and this rings so true…

For Forest Department officials, forests may be what pass across their desks, for villagers they represent secure water supplies, the availability of fodder for animals, medicines for friends or family, places to play or sources of spiritual power. Similarly, ‘participation’ covers a spectrum of meanings: for many project managers, it may signal a means to cut costs, secure cheap labor or co-opt opposition; for marginalized groups, by contrast, it is a right–both a means to an end and an end in itself. (56)

The authors brilliantly shows how the most ‘participatory’ processes occurred where villagers were already organized and had already ‘taken matters into their own hands’, a kind of after the fact legitimization (62). Part of this victory has involved showing the corruption and inefficiency of the Forest Department, but in turn this has been manipulated by other interests desiring privatization — how the issue ultimately gets framed will be a political battle and determined by power and will…

John Hailey ‘Beyond the Formulaic: Process and Practice in South Asian NGOs’, 88-101

This, to me, is both brilliant and painfully stating the obvious. An obvious thing that can never be stated too often. It points to the way that formulaic use of tools and techniques can result in formulaic responses — that more depends on relationships as well as personalities than the tools in the box. (59)

The case studies presented here show the importance of long-term commitment to communities and to such relationships, the need for years — YEARS — of building trust and ‘walking and talking’ with communities. Of course, I say, of course it takes years. But it just needs to be repeated and repeated and repeated, because funders never like you to work this way.

The article goes on to look at what discourse of participation says about those promoting it and why they might do so — it’s not pretty, because of course it emerges from the cold war, discourses of Western democracy. It is essentially designed to undercut more radical interpretations and participatory action and to wipe out any leanings towards revolt. No wonder a model is promoted that won’t work.

Taylor, Harry ‘Insights into Participation from Critical Management and Labour Process Perspectives’, 122-138

They discuss how the word ‘participatory’ is being used to give:

the “sense” and warm emotional pull of participation without its substance, and thus an attempt to placate those without power and obscure the real levers of power inherent in the social relations of global capitalism. (125)

Instituting participation at a certain, limited level shuts down more radical demands and potential for more radical democratization. They give the example of the move from direct control of Taylorization to more internalised control involved in more participatory post-fordist structures. I liked this:

Participation is only radical if there is a ‘challenge from below’ (136)

Kothari, Uma ‘Power, knowledge and Social Control in Participatory Development’, 139-152

More about the constructions of knowledge, and more in the sense of a warning, how it can all go wrong. Which is needed, and its needed to be mindful of it:

…knowledge is culturally, socially and politically produced and is continuously reformulated as a powerful normative construct. Knowledge is thus an accumulation of social norms, rituals and practices that, far from being constructed in isolation from power relations, is embedded in them (or against them). However, the creation of dichotomies of power within participatory discourse (the haves and the have-nots) allows the revealing of power not as a social and political discourse or as embodied practice, but only as manifest in material realities. Thus participatory approaches can unearth who gets what, when and where, but not necessarily the processes by which this happens or the ways in which the knowledge produced through participatory techniques is a normalized one that reflects and articulates wider power relations in society. (141)

Participation can thus lead to continued dominance, to the

reification of social norms through self-surveillance and consensus building, and that it “purifies” knowledge and the spaces of participation in terms of how it demands certain kinds of performances to be enacted’. (142)

On the other hand, Kothari notes a:

general failing among development practitioners to recognize or acknowledge the capacity of individuals and groups to resist inclusion, resist projections about their lives, retain information, knowledge and values, and act out a performance and in so doing present themselves in a variety of ways. (151)

I think evolving a genuinely emancipatory practice over years in the community can overcome all of this, is in fact the only real way to do so, but that superficial processes run by people with such blindnesses…well. It is hard to find hope in them. This leads us to the penultimate chapter:

Mohan, Giles ‘Beyond Participation: Strategies for Deeper Empowerment’, 153-167

It looks at postcolonial critiques and imagines a new participation:

‘Participatory development could follow these notions of hybridity that acknowledge that inequalities of power exist, but looks at this productively rather than attempting to minimize a differential which cannot be readily removed. the first move is to acknowledge that those we view as powerless are not (cites Rahnema 1992, and Scott 1990) (164)

This helps us move beyond patronizing attitudes, imagining resistance as only a subject outside of and against power structures.

Over all a brilliant volume to return to, because I didn’t even get to everyone in this post…

[Cooke, Bill and Kothari, Uma, eds. (2004) Participation: The New Tyranny. London: Zed Books.]

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