Buzzwords in development fill me with terror. Thrown haphazardly through grant proposals to appeal to the distant ears of big donors, they are often no more than conciliatory nods towards the desires of out-of-touch agencies with unrealistic agendas that will never marry with the reality on the ground. ‘Participation’ is one of the worst offenders. At the very best, it offers communities a real say in how development projects function, or wards off their worst failures by providing genuine local knowledge in the place of one-size-fits-all development orthodoxy. In the worst cases, participation entrenches local inequalities or is merely a box-checking technique that manipulates communities into agreeing to projects they do not understand, legitimising bad development practices and allowing local people to be blamed when they inevitably fail.
Like all development buzzwords, ‘participation’ emerged with the best of intentions. This latest development fad recognised that previous projects had parachuted in international ‘experts’ clueless to the local context and had implemented projects that ignored the desires of the communities they were supposed to be helping. All too often these projects had ended in disastrous failure. A friend once told me a story about an international agency who decided they were going to dig a well in the middle of an African village, as they recognised that women in this village had to walk miles just to collect water from a river. When they returned a year later to see how the villagers were getting on, they were horrified to see that they had poured concrete in the well and the women were once again trekking miles just to collect water for the day. When they development workers asked the locals why they had blocked up the well that had been built for them, it eventually transpired that the only time the villagers ever got to have sex was when they women went to collect water, as they lived in large communal huts with many different generations. When they women went to get water, their husbands would wait for them somewhere inconspicuous along the route. Realising the opportunity to have sex with their wives was being snatched away from them by the new well, the men had quickly conspired to fill it in as soon as the agency had left. A mere consultation with the village before the project would have meant the well could be built slightly further from the village, mitigating this problem.
Participation can also mean entrenching local inequalities. Another friend tells me of a remote Colombian village she visited while travelling where the government had asked the locals whether they wanted electricity or water, as state development funds would not stretch to both. The women had wanted water for cooking, cleaning, toilets and to assist with other essential daily chores that it was their role to carry out. The men had wanted electricity to watch television. The men won, and the town was put on the grid. The women were forced to continue trudging to a local well for water. Participation in this case had merely reinforced patriarchal control in the community, and led to the wrong choice being made.
So what makes for good participation in development projects? Consultation must take place over a longer period of time, and involve local people at all levels, to ensure people are not just happy with the project, but understand all aspects of it and feel in control of what is going on. In the case of projects that could have negative consequences, such as community microfinance, they must also be aware of the potential downsides should the project fail. It’s simply not acceptable to lead a village to bankruptcy through some bungled microcredit scheme, then blame them because they ‘agreed’ to the project in a half-an-hour focus group. A meeting where you tell people what you are going to do does not count as participation. Consultations should recognise potential imbalances within communities and try and alleviate them, for example by consulting men and women both separately and together, to gauge the changes in dynamic. Perhaps most crucially, development projects should involve directly as many local people as possible in paid roles; they will always have a greater understanding of community relations, needs and potential problems, speak the local language, and be more trusted by those who are supposed to be benefiting.
At its heart, participation in development is a buzzword with genuinely good intentions. As is always the case, the reality on the ground is a mixed picture. At one end, there are the World Bank ‘experts’ who stay in five star hotels before being parachuted in to see a successful project, before jetting home again to report that neoliberalism is still saving Africa because they spoke to one old lady. At the other are grassroots approaches that promote genuine partnerships between communities who recognise problems and are best placed to understand the context in which they live, and international experts who have the finance and development expertise to make development gains a reality. Like all buzzwords, the word is not what’s important; it’s the methodology behind it that makes all the difference to people’s lives.