Three events, three perspectives on community participation, one week…

This week I attended three different events – variations on the common theme of community engagement and participation:

Each event was dealing with the concept of engaging communities in development or government, but each had very different perspectives.  One was a group of mainly ICT4D practitioners, one UK based civil servants and activists, and the last primarily academics.  Given this there are of course significant differences but some surprising commonalities between all three.  Each event and some common themes are explored below, in particular focusing on some key tensions or contrasts that people at each event identified.

Citizen Voices UK (19th March 2013)

While some of this event was familiar ground, some interesting topics were discussed and debated.  The first contrast which was apparent to me was simply how valuable having academics and practitioners together can be, similarly for ICTers and Ders (techies and social development people), as the perspectives and insights are often different and give rise to helpful debates.

Contrast of Participation / Democracy
Some interesting thoughts on the tension between participatory and representative democracy, in particular the role and value of intermediaries.  How can/should they be involved, what is different about local/international intermediaries, advocates vs. representatives etc.  While bottom-up seems most desirable, there is some value to an external/top-down perspective to appreciate the bigger picture, benefit of scale and ability to step outside local power structures…

Contrast of Government non-response / Citizen non-response
Some observations that in some cases despite a responsive government, people simply don’t engage…  And some surprise at this, despite relatively clear reasoning that 10-20 years of being ignored are clearly not going to be reversed by one well-meaning ICT4D project!

Also interesting highlighting of what is actually new in new technology – pretty much just two things, the fact that everyone is potentially a creator (not needing to spend a fortune to buy a printing press) and the granularity of data…  Everything else may seem new, but has probably been done before in other technologies.

Most interesting take-aways for me, or thoughts the event gave rise to were:

Iteration across multiple programs
Iterative approaches are beginning to be recognised as preferable (e.g. Agile as discussed in my recent blarticle).  However when a community has multiple projects happening over a long time-period, perhaps with different NGOs, governments and partners, how do you ensure the benefits and learning of an iterative approach can be embedded in this complex scenario.  It’s clearly needed!

Depoliticising through participation?
While it is possible that participation can lead people to become more engaged and active and move on to bigger challenges, it is equally possible that by participating in the micro-level things they CAN control, they end up ‘satisfied’, depoliticised and stop trying to change the bigger things.  It’s hard to know which is more likely, but a look at Bolivia is interesting.  There were very high levels of participation for 10-20 years enshrined in the constitution, but fundamentally changing nothing as the government ignored the people.  Then in a short period of time, the group excluded from participation (MAS) became a major social force and were elected as a highly developmental government.  Would this have happened earlier without the ‘fake’ participation or did this galvanise groups to organise.  Given that MAS was mostly excluded from the participatory programs, it seems that the former is more likely and perhaps supporting social movements is a better alternative than establishing participatory projects that serve to depoliticise the population.  While generalising from this experience is clearly difficult and dangerous, it is nevertheless interesting food for thought.

Role of champions in government
The power of the individual was also highlighted as extremely important.  The idea of identifying and nurturing people within government who have a genuine desire to change and power to implement or influence things seems plausible, achievable and a powerful tool to increase the chances of participation being successful and empowering.

Engaging Communities & Local Government (19th March 2013)

Ironically, the highest profile (hosted at the House of Commons) event, focusing on the mature democracy of the UK, which could have been expected to have the most mature and well thought out proposals for community engagement, was actually the least interesting of the three.  There were still some useful tensions to consider however:

Cooperatives / Outsourcing, Representative vs. Participatory Democracy
One model discussed was the co-operative council model, set against the ‘Barnet’ model of government outsourcing.  They sound very different but the discussion (with Steven Reed MP and Heather Wheeler MP) betrayed surprisingly similar results.

The Co-op model talks about encouraging local communities to take ownership, while the outsourced model emphasises saving money through efficiency, but there are fundamental questions over whether either are actually giving up power in any way, or just outsourcing to slightly differently constituted non-democratic institutions.  The rhetoric may be around participatory democracy but is the reality just handing power from elected to unelected ‘community leaders’, and in such a way that it can be reclaimed at any moment..?

Having said that, a local council’s commitment to supporting, establishing and working with co-operatives can only be a good thing, it should perhaps not be confused however with any genuine and fundamental change in power and local democracy, but seen for what it is – a potentially welcome and interesting way of delivering services under the inevitable slashing of local government funding.

Localizing Development – Does participation work? (20th March 2013)

The final event was the most interesting and surprisingly lively and fun.  The main speakers ( Ghazala Mansuri and Vijayendra Rao of the World Bank) were introduced by the Sussex celebrity-academic Robert Chambers, and were followed by a lively and challenging debate.

It appears that, while there is some evidence that participatory approaches are better at targeting funds, and better for key public service delivery (health and education), this is only true when they are also accompanied by additional resources.  There is little or no evidence that participation on its own accomplishes anything, and it seems especially ineffective in highly unequal societies or where there is a corrupt/ineffective state.  While the participatory process is said to have an intrinsic value, we still don’t understand how this might work, what the theory of change underlying it is, or have any real evidence of this truth.   Many of us still think participatory approaches are a clear improvement and a better way of working, but this is not nearly so clear cut as we might like!

Some of the more interesting key tensions and learnings discussed and my own thoughts on them are summarised below:

Organic vs. Induced Participation
This seems a critical and useful distinction.  Organic participation generally happens naturally (e.g. social movements and uprisings) whereas Induced participation is generally external and funded (e.g. World Bank participatory projects).  The confusion between these very different concepts is perhaps responsible for much of the mixed feelings around participation.  An interesting suggestion is the idea that the latter should learn from and mimic the former.  Or in my view perhaps a greater role for seeding, identifying, supporting and nurturing organic participation and less focus on seeking to create it from the outside.

Government & Market Failure / Citizen Failure
The concepts of market and government failure are well known, but there appears to be a common view that citizens, communities and civil society are immune to this.  In reality they can (and often do) also “fail”, they are volatile and unpredictable and should be recognised as such not assumed to be impervious to the same problems all institutions can fall victim to.

Some other key lessons that emerged that are worth highlighting were:

A need was identified to sandwich bottom-up participation with a top-down protection of the rights of the marginalised to combat corruption and elite capture.  Without this top-down state-protection, it is difficult for the local community to have any power to enforce its decisions or combat corruption and elite capture.

Long-term capacity building
Nothing new here, but yet again the idea of long-term flexible projects that seek to capacity build local people and institutions was identified as one of the critical factors behind participatory approaches being successful or not.  It remains clear that short-term pre-planned “projects” are clearly not suited for what is in effect a major transformative societal process

Participation not necessarily a route to social movements or civic capacity
Echoing the discussions in the previous event, the researchers found that in much induced participation, people did NOT increase their collective action afterwards in different areas, but actually just came together to get the project monies on offer.  This is a serious challenge to the idea that participatory projects seed new ways of communal working that might last in to the future.


As is often discovered, it appears that while participatory approaches may be a little better they yet again do not appear to live up to the transformative potential that is sometimes claimed for them.

Why could this still be the case?

Rather than re-hashing well-known arguments, there are a few core ideas that emerged from the events and are echoed in my own previous work, which include:

          • Local-level participation works as an addition to representative democracy and in the context of a genuinely developmental state.  In the absence of these it is not a viable alternative.  That is not to say it has no value but it is not the answer to failed states.  This raises difficult questions for the role of both participation and development in general, in such states and in both totalitarian and highly unequal regimes.
          • A key driver from the 3rd event, hinted at in the others and in previous work is the abiding importance of power and inequality.  These seem to have an enormous impact on both the transformative potential of participatory approaches, and their success as projects.  So perhaps the core goal of all participatory work should be the challenging of entrenched power structures and the reduction of inequality – not as a side-line but instead of goals around poverty, health, education etc.
          • The importance of the state and wider environment is becoming evident as critical.  Local approaches can only thrive with the support and protection of an external force from above (e.g. a mandate for inclusion of women and minorities, enforcement of anti-corruption).
          • Participation must seek to empower individuals and build capacity of communities as a core part of its purpose, otherwise they cannot take part effectively and are unlikely to continue to organise to tackle other issues beyond the limited and time-bound project.
          • Long-term, iterative and incremental development is key to ensure the flexibility to early and constantly changing needs and environments

Perhaps as a reminder we can boil this down to a not very snappy, but helpful, one-liner.  Any project that meets these needs has a much better chance of being effective than one that doesn’t, this could be a useful guideline for deciding what to support and where to direct funding:

We [project X] seek to combat inequality of power by empowering individuals, building capacity of communities with the support of government, through a long-term flexible and iterative participatory approach…

Any offers to re-word this into a snappy slogan, please get in touch!

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