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Is Participation In Development Still A Tyranny

Over the past thirty years “Participation has become development orthodoxy” in both theory and practice (Cornwall 2003: 1325). The basic aim of participatory development (PD) “is to increase the involvement of socially and economically marginalized peoples in decision-making over their own lives” (Guijt, 1998: 1). PD approaches claim to ‘empower’ local communities and recognizes rural poor themselves as the primary agents of change with the capacity to transform their lives (ESCAP, 2009). In recent years, however, there have been an increasing number of criticisms from policy makers, practitioners and academics regarding the widely applied ‘participatory’ approaches to development. Many elements of this approach have been challenged “on the basis that participatory approaches often failed to achieve meaningful social change”, due to its inability to engage with problems of power relations and underlying politics (Hickey and Mohan, 2005: 237). Questions have been raised regarding the methods of participatory development and the impact of policies on various aspects of development, such as community relations, power structures, social conditions, rights of the poor, the role of grassroots civil society organisations in rural development, and the nature of knowledge (ESCAP, 2009).

In this context, important publications have emerged representing different views and critiques of the participation approach, one against: Participation: The New Tyranny? (Cooke, and Kothari, 2001), and another more positive assessment: Participation: From Tyranny To Transformation? Exploring New Approaches to Participation in Development (Hickey, and Mohan, 2004), which scrutinizes the various arguments. These works have generated heated debates about the concept of participation which some argue carries within it an inherent ‘tyrannical potential’ for marginalising those who are already less vocal, but whom it seeks to empower (Cooke and Kothari, 2001). Later, more optimistic publications discuss, “what can be done around participatory development and social change” (Chambers, 2005b: 718).

In order to address the question at hand, this paper examines the current debates on participation in development. The essay will consider a case study that uses participatory approaches in their project. This intervention has been implemented with varying degrees of success. The case chosen focuses on a project entitled the Rural Water Supply Management Programme in Rajasthan, India, in order to illustrate some of the different effects of applying this approach.

The paper is divided into four sections: The first section begins by discussing the emergence of participation in development from both the historical and conceptual perspectives. It then proceeds to the second section which analyses participatory development in practice. The length of the paper does not allow for a detailed discussion on the methods of participatory approaches, such as participatory poverty assessment, rapid rural appraisal and participatory rural appraisal (PPA/RRA/PRA). Therefore, this section will only provide a brief overview of these approaches and their use in development projects. In the third section follows a discussion on what is meant by the ‘tyranny’ of participatory development. The fourth, concluding section seeks to draw some lessons from the discussion and analysis of the case study and provides a hint of what the literature suggests may be in store for participatory development in the future.

1. Emergence of Participation in Development:

First let us consider how participation in development has emerged and what are some of the contentious interpretations of this concept.

“The emergence of the participatory development is tied into critiques of both theory and practice” (Mohan, 2002: 50). In the late 1950s, the term ‘participation’ or ‘participatory’ was coined for the first time in the field of development (Rahnema, 1992: 117). The inception of ‘participatory development’ is linked to colonial times and the mission to bring ‘modernity’ from the west to the then developing countries. Thus, there was an increasing trend to equate development with modern western knowledge and practices by means of a top-down approach to countries in the south (Schuurman, 1993: 187-191).

Critiquing this trend, social activists and field workers observed that non-inclusion of the people concerned in a development project from its inception to the implementation stage led to limited benefits of the development venture (Rahnema, 1992:117). This top-down approach carried Eurocentric and positivist’s ideas which disempowered beneficiaries (Escobar, 1995; Peet and Watts, 1996: 20-25; Chambers, 1997; cited in Mohan, 2002: 50). This concern was raised in the 1970s, by Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator, who argued that development should not be “the privilege of some few persons, but the right of everyone” (Freire, 2003: 88). He promoted participatory development approaches, in contrast to top-down practices, by arguing “I cannot think for others or without others, nor others can think for me” (Freire, 2003: 108). In his Pedagogy of Oppressed Freire emphasized knowledge creation of the marginalized by increasing their awareness about their rights and establishing networks of solidarity to encourage dialogue which would enable people to express their needs and give them a sense of ownership of the projects.

A similar view was echoed by Robert Chambers who challenged the various biases of development polices and interventions that make the poor ‘invisible’ by distinguishing between ‘uppers’, i.e. the powerful practitioners and ‘lowers’, i.e. the powerless beneficiaries (Chambers, 1983; 1997: 2005a; Williams, 2004: 560). He argued that “this [top-down approach] implies uppers empowering lowers between all levels. To do this, they must individually relinquish degrees of control themselves” (Chambers, 2005a: 72). Thus, for Chambers, participatory development is a new paradigm, which will lead to empowerment of the beneficiaries, and a shift from hierarchical top-down development projects. He advocates open power structures which will bring personal and institutional change (Williams, 2004: 560). Hence, participation of local communities was stressed to end the ‘top-down’ approach in development projects and participation became widely practiced.

1.1 Participatory Approaches:

There are a myriad of methods for conducting participatory development in practice. However, the most extensively used methodology is Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA). The other approaches include Participatory poverty assessments (PPA) and Rapid rural appraisal (RRA). The PRA approach is based on achieving change and a reversal of roles, behaviours and relationships. Though, this may be carried out by external development practitioners, their role is limited to facilitating the focus group, by listening to them and sharing methods with the local people to help them reflect on their on own knowledge. The outsiders do not transfer technology. The strength of the PRA method lies in understanding the local needs; providing local ideas; extracting, developing and investing local resources; and generating development ideas (Chambers, 1997: 103, 2005a:87, also cited in Mohan, 2003: 52). PRA collects and records data on local customs and practices for a predefined development issue, whereas the RRA approach is used by outside practitioners to plan, and target the improvement of a given intervention. Finally, PPA, influences policies at the ‘macro level’ in relation to ‘poverty reduction’ development projects (cited in ESCAP, 2009: 13; for original see Norton et al., 2001). Thus, PRA is considered to be the more important approach to promote empowerment.

The participatory development method involves all stakeholders who are affected, by the policies, decisions, and actions of the system. This may include individuals, groups, communities, local government institutions, local and international institutions, self-help groups (Chambers, 2005a:87). This approach is used by the World Bank, non-governmental organisations, aid agencies and academicians, which for instance have applied PRA for climate change adaptation projects.

2. Participatory Development in Practice:

This section will examine (the) participatory development in practice through case study. The aim of this example is to illustrate different aspect of participation in development and how it can lead to potential tyranny.

Case Study: Rural Water Supply Organisation in Rajasthan, India:

This case study, which looks at the Jal Bhagirathi Foundation (JBF) situated in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, demonstrates how “Gender is dynamic and gender norms can be altered when matters as significant as social participation are negotiated and water management is put into practice” (Berry, 2010:48). Social participation is associated with gender in the conduct of this non-governmental organization in water supply management.

India is the one of the largest consumer of water today. Water is considered to be a women’s resource in large parts of rural India, as women have the responsibility to fetch water for domestic purposes 86 per cent of the time (Bhatia, 2004; cited in Berry, 2010:49). Women seeking water often have to travel long distances, and sometimes are confronted with reduced water supply availability. This means that women having to spend more time in storing and preventing contamination of water. This predicament applies to rural women in many regions. For example, women in Nepalese villages are house bound with domestic responsibilities in juxtaposition with men engaged in economic activity, which may put women in a situation where they are excluded from participating in water management decision making. Moreover, a lack of electricity hinders women from collecting water from the water pumps (Shah, 2006; Berry and Mollard, 2010: 49).

The household shapes gender relations, as well as playing key role in the use of water. Domestic water use connects women with women of other households (Cleaver, 1998). These household dynamics and local customs reinforce gender inequities (Cleaver, 2001; cited in Berry, 2010: 50). Thus, because of their low social status, women are perceived as being uneducated and unable to take official decisions, which constrains their participation in water user associations. Barriers to institutions and political engagement make women dependent on ‘informal forms of participation’(Mohan and Hickey, 2004; and Berry, 2010: 51). Thus, when women go to fetch water, they meet other women socially and engage in informal discussions about their lives and information sharing.

In South Asia, and specifically in India and Nepal, caste, race, religion, age and family play a significant role in defining how gender affects and is reflected in water management practices. Thus high caste women are likely to be involved in decision making due to their interest in the quality of water, whereas, lower caste women may be more supportive of having easy access to the water supply. It is also important to note that since most of the rural women are poor and are likely to lead the kind of life mentioned above, they will be less interested in participating in water supply management due to their already busy schedules.

Given these types of social scenarios, JBF a non-governmental, has taken initiatives to empower women in water management decision making and provide public space for their participation, as women are the real stake holders. In addressing the above issue, JBF is required to develop relations with governments, aid donors and work within the customary practices of the local communities. UNDP has been actively involved with JBF to promote women’s participatory water initiatives and make governance more participatory. A UNDP sponsored evaluation in 2008 acknowledged the progress made by JBF by building wells and tanks closer to houses, resulted in a reduction of the four kilometer average walking distance in the targeted regions and decreased the time spent by women for collecting water (Berry, 2010: 54). JBF also helped these rural women by establishing self help groups and linking them with banks for small house loans. Even though the JBF project resulted in varying degrees of success, criticisms were raised, regarding the “lack of convergence between water initiatives undertaken by mainstream village institutions dominated by men and women’s self help group” (ibid.).

JBF recognizes that women’s role is central to the community water management practices. Communities may also manifest themselves as sites of conflict and shifting alliances influenced by power and social structures, both exclusionary as well as inclusive (Berry, 2010: 58). JBF faced the following problems in the case of Rajasthani women, such as their having low autonomy even in their own households and often being unable to work out of the house, due to cultural norms. The women often did not attend meetings, as they were illiterate, and therefore it was difficult to get them involved in village water practices, as they also felt shy to talk in front of men. These rural women are facing two contradictory problems. Firstly, patriarchal society and traditional customs exert pressures geared to maintaining privileges associated with the prevailing social and gender hierarchy, and, secondly, they have been faced with the introduction of modernity which is transforming rural economies. Hence, traditional understandings of gender, and local power structures have come into conflict with the externally disseminated strategies. As a result of this conflict, JBF projects have provided little benefit to rural women although they were meant to promote “gender equity and participation on one hand and reifying traditional cultural practices on the other” (McCusker and Oberhauser, 2006; cited in Berry, 2010: 63).

3. ‘Tyranny’ of Participation in Development:

Much of the discourse on participation in development has been challenged over the past two decades. Criticisms have been raised about the “participatory approaches and demand at best their rethinking, if not their abandonment” (Cooke, and Kothari, 2001:2). The critiques mainly emerge from within the field of development itself (ibid. :5) after the failure of current forms of “‘participatory development’ to engage with the issues of power and politics raised by its language of ‘empowerment’” (Hickey, and Mohan, 2005: 241). These criticisms are viewed by Cooke, and Kothari (2001) as ‘tyranny’ in development practice. Tyranny here means, “Illegitimate exercise of power” in participation. The authors have identified three types of tyrannies; first, ‘the Tyranny of decision making and control’; second, ‘tyranny of the group’ and third, ‘tyranny of method’. However, there are other points of criticism raised by academics and practitioners which will be referred to in relevant parts of the following discussion.

3.1 The knowledge claims of Participatory Development:

Participatory development is designed to uncover the local realities of the poor and ensure their involvement in decision making (Cleaver, 1999: 599-600). This claim to understanding the local knowledge and particularly PRA approach has been highly criticised by field practitioners. Chambers (1994) makes claims in support of the reliability and accuracy of the knowledge obtained through PRA approach. However, Campbell (2001) rejects these claims, and argues that whilst approaches, such as RRA and PRA, were aimed to generate more or less accurate information, practitioners have been using them as the only model for undertaking research. Hence, Campbell proposes an integration of PRA approach with qualitative and quantitative methods to generate ‘in-depth’ understanding which would not be possible to achieve through techniques of observation (ESCAP, 2009: 22-23).

3.2 Tokenism

Reference to participatory models have become an attractive slogan and strategy for governments to acquire political advantages and foreign aid. These slogans generate the impression that governments are sensitive to all the local needs (Rahnema, 1992:118). Participatory methods in development process are increasingly viewed as an important tool to effectively avoid the past mistakes by undertaking projects which require awareness of the local knowledge of the field; access to networks which help to succeed the ongoing project and provides avenues for future investments in rural areas; and cooperation of the local organisations to carry out development initiatives. In this view, grassroots organisations play significant role in providing technical and human resource assistance in the field, and by acquiring investments for the projects (Rahnema, 1992:119).

The foreign assistance agreements with recipient countries show the willingness of the latter to participate in the global efforts of their developed associates. This collaboration has helped developing countries governments with ‘sophisticated systems of control over their populations’ (Rahnema, 1992:117), as this approach allows governments to be present everywhere to manage ‘democratic participation’. Thus, this approach to participation results in exploitative practices contrary to the wishes of the majority of the population, whereas development polices have a tendency to influence the minds of the people to become dependent on modern services. In this manner, their participation in policymaking and decisions is sought to confirm the support for the same needs. Thus, development projects which benefit only a few obtain majority support due to misperception that these advantages will soon be accessible to them as well (Rahnema, 1992:118).

3.3 Tyranny of the Group and Tyranny of Method:

The participatory development approach is critiqued for considering communities as socially homogeneous rather then distinguishing the heterogeneous groups of people in a society or community. This view does not take into account the embedded inequalities within the communities, and ends up reinforcing the existing marginalization and power conflicts between ‘uppers’ and ‘lowers’ (Cleaver, 2001: 44; Kothari, 2001: 140; Mohan, 2002: 53). Others, Mosse (1994, 2001) and Guijt (1998), have raised concerns about the nature of knowledge and reliability of the information. Although, this approach may have empowered a given local community to some extent, the literature suggests that “support for ‘community’ has meant that funding and authority” is transferred to the already privileged whilst the oppressed are further excluded (Mohan, 2002: 53). However, in this context, gender differences and community need to be distinguished as separate groups in applying PRA and other approaches, as conflating these conceptually could be problematic.

Mosse argues that local knowledge is generated in a social context which is influenced by power, authority and gender inequality (ESCAP, 2009: 23). Mosse further highlights that the problem of knowledge generation via PRA approach is likely to be influenced by the predefined agenda of the ‘outsider’ and their interaction with ‘insider’ community members. This space of interaction is “where each group repeatedly tries to anticipate the other’s wishes and intentions” (ESCAP, 2009: 23). This supposition is a matter of concern to Mosse and he discusses how the process of acquiring the “local knowledge” shapes the relationship between beneficiary communities and development institutions. Thus, “this makes local knowledge, compatible with bureaucratic planning” (Mosse, 1994; ESCAP, 2009: 23).

The case study discussed on gender equity in this paper shows that local village men do not share the same, nor are they willing to cooperate. They are caught up in local politics. Often decentalisation and participation cause the more vocal in the already advantaged group to remain in their position, which defeats the very purpose of participatory development by preventing the flow of contextualized knowledge, and diminishing the effectiveness of interventions (Perret, and Wilson, 2010:196).

Criticisms have also been levied against the methods of Participatory Development. Stirrat (1996) raised concerns about the idea of dual forms of knowledge local and scientific knowledge. He argues that in the age of globalization, knowledge cannot exist in isolation but is mutually dependent on interrelationships.

3.4 The Myth of Community:

According to Cleaver (2001: 603) the ‘community’ in participatory approaches to development is often viewed as ‘natural’ social entity characterized by shared values. It is believed that these values can be ‘manifested in simple organizational form’. This view is refuted by many. The assumption that the community as a natural entity and is identifiable in any location with defined boundaries and rights to membership appears to be simplistic. This imaginary view of a community or “myth” can have wider implications and lead to generalizations about all communities as having similar characteristics. As Stirrat (1996) notes, communities are physical spaces where people interact socially.

3.5 The Tyranny of Decision Making And Control:

This view of Participatory approaches which emphasizes consensus building -and shared values is rather illusiory. Stirrat (1996) argues that these approaches with their supposed cooperation and solidarity is a new form of Orientalism, which ties in with ideas of domination and power relations. It is evident that in practice the power of decision making ultimately lies with the development agencies (Mosse, 2001). Therefore the participatory approach is criticised for not recognizing the social diversity and conflicts which pave the way for social exclusion (Cleaver, 2001; ESCAP, 2009: 24-25). It is argued that the approach is used in the name of empowering people and “represents external interests as local needs, [and] dominant interests as community concerns” (Mosse, 2001:22). This perception of participation has the potential of oppressing the beneficiaries and leading them to challenge the social hierarchies in the society (Kothari, 2001: 143).

3.6 The Bureaucratic organizations:

When the organizational interests clash with the ideals of empowerment this leads to bureaucratisation of participation (Richards, 1995: Mohan, 2002). This conflict can lead to withdrawal of the project (Mosse, 2001). The civil society organisations can create competition with local organizations, as large amounts of aid money are chanelled through such organisations. This competition can sideline the weaker organisations, which will further undermine their development projects. In order to seek better funding, these organisations develop alliances with the donor organisations in the North. This perspective shows how the local governments’ authority is by-passed and that these grass roots agencies focus on increasing their capacity. Many such partnerships between northern countries’ organisations and those of southern countries come with a price. The delivery of aid money comes with an agenda (Mohan, 2002: 53). Thus, in effect, the development project of such organisations subjugates those who are supposed to be empowered. As these civil society organisations are accountable to their donor originations, they are also time bound and have certain targets and objectives to achieve in order to continue the source of their funding, which may affect the development of the projects (Stirrat ,1996; ESCAP, 2009).

3.7 From tyranny to transformation:

This section briefly examines the present state of participatory approaches from the works of Hickey and Mohan (2004) and other literature produced in the aftermath of criticisms about the shortcomings and tyranny of participatory approaches. They argue that participation has expanded its role in development, with new methods appearing in theory and practice, and note that, in recent times, developing countries are engaged in formulating creative strategies to express their needs and are better aware of their rights. They stress the transformative approach to development by means of gaining an understanding of the power structures and politics of participation in development. Hickey and Mohan propose the creation of synergies between local projects and political action and governance at the state level. They claim that this synergy will help to overcome the potential tyranny of localized projects and promote social justice and rights based approaches through radical political action. This view proposes changes at the institutional and hierarchal level in order to provide oppressed citizens with an opportunity to take charge of the decisions which affect their lives and advocates promoting the agency of active citizenship by ‘relocating participation’ within the wider realm of sociopolitical practices. It is assumed that this model of participation in development discourse will provide increased opportunities to the poor to exercise their rights as active members of the society and give them better control over socioeconomic resources (ESCAP, 2009: 25).

4. Conclusion:

Participation has become a popular approach in contemporary development discourse. To draw some tentative conclusions from the above analysis, it is evident that empowerment through development has not been fully achieved. Although participatory development has benefited some local communities, the literature suggests that the participatory approach has a patronizing relationship to development. It has been abused by different stakeholders for various ideological and self-serving purposes (Stokke, Mohan, 2000: 263), and provided little or no gain to those whom it seeks to empower. As the evidence from the case shows, in the struggle for power observed in the rural water management programme in Rajahstan India, the unequal status of women meant that they had little access to participation in the water management incentives.

It seems reasonable to conclude that many theorists and practitioners may be justified in their claims that participation is disempowering those who are already oppressed because of its inherently tyrannical nature. It can undermine the role of state and powerful transnational development organisations. However, it is important to note that studies on the subject, such as Participation: The New Tyranny?, and similar work, does not discourage the use of participation in development per se. The debates on participation rather suggest that issues of inequality and social structure must be addressed to overcome current problems and improve the participatory process.

Although the tensions discussed in this paper continue to hinder development, they also present opportunities for the effective use of participatory approaches. Continuing efforts to challenge and transform local power relations by participatory practitioners and agencies with similar interests can bring them on the same platform to work together for effective local participation to the benefit of development. In recent times, many development agencies have changed their focus to incorporate the broader questions of citizenship and sovereignty. Many of these organisations are now seeking avenues for building institutional and state capacity (Mohan, 2002:53-54). Thus, as Cornwell argues: ‘participatory approaches have much to offer, but will only make a difference if they are used with sensitivity to issues of difference’ and diverse social realities (Cornwall, 2003: 1338).

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