chapter  4
26 Pages

Reconstruction through Participatory Practice?

BySue Kenny (Deakin University)

One of the most significant changes in the aid and development industry over the past two decades has been the growing commitment to a peoplecentred, participatory approach to development projects and programmes (Chambers, 1983; Bhatnagar and Williams, 1992; Eade and Williams, 1995; Long, 2001; Nederveen Pieterse, 2001: p75; Bennett and Roche, 2002; Groves and Hinton, 2004: p4). This shift has accompanied the idea that development is more than just externally driven and managed technical and economic interventions (Robb, 2004), but involves respecting, listening to and working with local people (Hinton and Groves, 2004; Fukuda-Parr et al, 2002). By the end of the 20th century this new development paradigm, which was concerned with establishing methods for participatory development and promised the empowerment of local people, was beginning to permeate the programmes of large international institutions, non-government organizations (NGOs) and donor governments alike (Godinot et al, 2006; World Bank, 1996). The participatory, empowering approach to development is premised on

the view that the people who are affected by a problem or issue should participate in the development process. In its strongest form it means that people are empowered to own the development process. Local participation in, and ownership of development programmes is deemed essential for effective processes and outcomes, because local people can grasp the local context in which change is being promoted; they understand best ‘what will work’ and ‘what will not work’ and they clearly have to ‘wear’ the decisions they make. The people-centred, participatory approach is linked to two key discourses which have begun to shape development policies in recent years. These are the discourse of civil society and the discourse of human rights. Since the early 1990s there has been increasing global interest in civil

society as the site which offers the best leverage for sustainable development

(Edwards and Gaventa, 2001). In its most common usage today, civil society is identified as a sphere in which people come together freely and independently to discuss issues and to work collectively to influence and shape society (Cohen and Arato, 1995; UNDP, 1997; Van Rooy, 1998; Howell and Pearce, 2001). The sphere of civil society can be contrasted with the sphere of the state, which is organized around political power, and the sphere of the market, which is organized around the quest for profit. In the development context, state-driven change has often been marked by corruption and incompetence and works to (further) disempower the populace. People tend to be suspicious of, and alienated from the top-down methods of government officials. Similarly, the quest for market success in development programmes has usually benefitted elites more than ordinary people, and has often damaged a whole country, such as in the failed ‘structural adjustment’ programmes of the 1990s. What is particularly interesting about the centring of civil society in development discourse is how it draws attention to the idea of people as active agents in their society, rather than passive recipients of aid. Importantly, people will only become active citizens when they believe in the efficacy of human action. Moreover, as Edwards and Gaventa (2001: p2) point out, people come together in the arena of civil society ‘because they care enough about something to take collective action’. People-centred policies are linked to human rights principles (Eade and

Williams, 1995: pp9-10). The ascendancy of human rights discourse has reinforced commitment to the empowerment of ordinary people. For example, the rights-based approach means that aid agencies are accountable as much to ‘beneficiaries’ as to donors (Eyben and Ferguson, 2004). The human rights agenda draws attention to what Chandler (2002: p2) identifies as the ‘normative project of human progress’. It prioritizes the value of human dignity over other drivers of development, such as narrow selfinterested politics, the quest for economic growth and opportunistic policies of national governments.