There is no better way to kill a joke than to over-analyse or explain it. Nonetheless here’s a more earnest reflection on the recent post I wrote for the Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like. “Having better participation than you” is a riff on the combination of principles, guilt, fear of being perceived as a neo-colonialist and obligation to adhere to rigid funding conditions that make “participation” such a unique concept in the world of aid and development workers.
Discussions on the importance of participation in aid and development efforts have been around for a long time; and critiques have been around nearly as long. Some critics have called the participation movement “tyrannical” emphasising, among other things, the absolute nature of the principal of participation. In my SEAWL post, by talking about aid workers always thinking they are more participatory than everyone else, I was hinting at this. The reality is that because it is unlikely that there is any service or project or policy that is going to keep all of the people happy all of the time, it is always going to be possible to find someone whose views and needs are not properly accounted for. It is always going to be possible therefore to chide others for not being participatory enough. Similarly it might be possible to chide others for being too participatory. I sometimes wonder about initiatives that aim to get poor people – who are busy enough just getting by – to identify and resolve their own problems with their own resources, or to provide extra hands when local amenities aren’t working. Sometimes it sounds perilously like poor people being told to get on their bikes by people who take the same amenities for granted back home. The other side of the tyranny of participation is the near obsession with “participatory tools”, maps and pie charts drawn out of sticks and stones in the dirt, and the shunning of anything that looks like technology. I remember colleagues telling me about an aid worker they nicknamed “Mrs Bean” because she went round villages with a bag of dried peas that she insisted the villagers used for voting on priorities (that is, if she could convince them to put their mobile phones on silent for long enough). (The funniest thing about Mrs Bean, by the way, is that in participatory rural appraisal practice, the idea is that you use locally available materials – perhaps including dried peas – not that you bring your own special rustic bits and bobs with you).
Another common criticism of participation is that it is often little more than a cover for manipulation. Or facipulation. “Beneficiaries”, or programme participants, are encouraged to participate and listened to just so long as they give the right answer to the donor or NGO that is actually taking the final decisions. This is all the more problematic when, as is often the case, the “communities” that are being asked are largely imagined communities, defined by their poverty or behaviours or epidemiological status rather than by any common purpose or identity. Demanding consensus or compliance from this sort of community is oppressive.
Both of these critiques point to genuine problems in aid practice. The first suggests that there are limits to the concept, and the second refers to the fact that the widespread capture of the language of participation in aid practice doesn’t necessarily bring with it a solid understanding and application of the principle. Although the problems are genuine, however, it doesn’t mean they can’t be fixed or that efforts to engage people more, and to be more accountable to them, should be abandoned.
I’m not going to discuss these two critiques further. Instead I’m wondering whether the thinking about development might be turning a corner that makes some of the principles of engagement and participation more realistic. Some of the biggest problems with participation, including the ones I was having a go at in the SEAWL post, are that it is most often operationalised within a fairly old-school view of what development is. To simplify the old school, this is how it goes: aid comes from the public or charities or governments in richer countries, and gets given to the public or charities or governments in poor countries, to produce development. And this is done in the form of projects, which generally combine fairly unspecific objectives (in terms of impact) with highly specified financial monitoring and management mechanisms, designed to reassure the donors that the money has been spent on the right sort of things and hasn’t been stolen.
As long as that version of development is the space within which we try to get poor people to engage and participate, with the best of intentions, there is always going to be compromise, and it is always going to be possible to point to a given initiative and say that it is not participatory enough. The rare cases of meaningful, fully compliant participation, even if they do exist, are likely to be very, very small in scale.
This doesn’t mean we should get rid of project based aid, particularly humanitarian aid. It doesn’t mean that aid ventures aimed essentially at financing infrastructures or services shouldn’t make sure they are responding to what people need and what people say will work. On the other hand, sometimes the specific nature of problems is quite hard for communities to identify. Health systems, to be functional, need a multi layered structure that enables effective supplies, procurement, and specialist support. Community knowledge and engagement is crucial to figuring out how to deliver those services at local level. But it is also important to have strategic, synthesised information about the regional or national picture in order to design and resource the systems that make that happen. The “I’ve got better participation than you” response to this might be that it is elitist, or that it limits community engagement to tokenistic consultation on priorities. But consultation is only tokenistic if nothing is done with the results.
Is the “new school” thinking on development any better on these issues? Actually I think so. For starters, the very acknowledgement of the limited role played by aid in development implies an acknowledgement that there is a lot more going on. And that other stuff that is going on, although it is happening alongside remarkable gains that humanitarian aid has helped to produce, is happening independently. And it is coming from people themselves. If anything, participation is proving itself, even though it may not be the version of participation that the aid sector has been designing, redesigning and ritualising for decades.
The growing emphasis on information and transparency, not just within aid-funded projects but within public and social policy in general also helps support this trend. And if aid funding is to go beyond providing for basic needs and to contribute to development I think these are the dynamics it needs to support, even if the processes are harder to monitor and the outcomes harder to predict.