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Unpopular Participation
by Rene Wadlow
2018-04-27 08:04:00
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New forces arose that drove us to the masses in the villages, and for the first time, a new and different India rose up before the young intellectuals who had almost forgotten its existence or attached little importance to it.  It was a disturbing sight, not only because of its stark misery and the magnitude of its problems, but because it began to upset some of our values and conclusions.  So began for us the discovery of India as it was, and it produced both understanding and conflict within us.  Our reactions varied and depended on our previous environment and experience.  Some were already sufficiently acquainted with these village masses not to experience any new sensation; they took them for granted.  But for me it was a real voyage of discovery.
Jawaharlal Nehru  The Discovery of India

Development is inescapably connected with peoples, their working and living conditions and their dignity.  Thus in the consideration of the U.N.'s Sustainable Development Goals, there is an emphasis on peoples' participation in creating a cosmopolitan, humanist society. However participation, especially in rural areas is difficult to put into practice. Rural life has always been something of a ‘voyage of discovery’ for the urban-oriented elites that govern most of the countries of the world.  Such elites may have been born in rural villages, but to acquire positions of power, they have passed through the military or urban educational institutions.  They way the elite react is ‘varied’ but usually negative.

part1_400Thus, the interest of the governing elite toward efforts at popular participation in development efforts has always been ambiguous.  On the one hand, there is a widespread recognition that “top-down” rural development has often failed or stagnated after a few initial successes.  However, when one is on ‘top’, a “top-down” strategy seems like the best approach to goal setting and implementation.  A “top-down” approach usually recognizes that there has to be some participation in any rural reform, but basically such participation means some deliberation initiated, designed or controlled from the ‘top’.

Participation in such cases is a way of selling a product, of getting people to agree to carry out the project decided upon at the level of a Ministry or other governmental level.  However, there have always been ideas of “bottom-up” development.  In such a process participation is considered to be an active process in which individuals take initiatives and assert their autonomy to do so.  This process gives expression to creative faculties and becomes self-transformation.  The basis of this self-transformation  is ‘conscientization’ or growing awareness.

The perception and understanding of the people are the most important variables of a participatory effort.  The world of the rural poor as perceived by them is different from what it looks like from the outside.  The question is “Can there be a meeting between the visions of the local, rural poor and the vision of the urban elite which may have a wider vision and more knowledge of the inter-relatedness of factors?”  Hopefully, a convergence is possible through dialogue, a sharing of life experience, and a collaboration in social action.

Participation is a process whose course cannot be determined from outside; it is generated by the practice of the people.  This is what makes the process a peoples’ movement as opposed to people being mobilized, led or directed by outside forces.  Participation is a taking of initiatives, a spontaneous creative act, but it can also lead to directionless endeavour.  Thus, there should be creative acts of the people within a framework of agreed codes of social responsibility.  This dynamic balancing between spontaneity and organization is a delicate task.

However, participation may reinforce local patterns of power and class structures.  Hopefully, participation contributes to the protection of individual rights and strengthens the self-confidence of vulnerable groups such as poor women and landless labor. Yet, participation can also reinforce existing power structures.  The local poor are not all equality poor.  There can be what are locally-significant differences in wealth even if, from the distance of the urban elite, they all look equally poor.  There are also differences in power based on social standing and social networks.

Too often, a class and gender analysis is not made of rural areas.  The assumption  of social planners is often one based on the homogeneity  of needs and assets or a feeling that some are “too poor” to be able to make a contribution to the development project’s success.  Even in ‘poverty-focused’ programs, little is done to remove the feeling that people are unable to discuss meaningfully the issues which affect them.  Yet only the rural poor themselves have the inside knowledge about the problems of their area and the skills that are needed to cope with these problems.  Only the locals know the local structures of power and standing.

Popular participation can pose a threat to the conventional “top-down” planning and project control.  A well-organized local group, deciding for itself, means lesx power for  the governmental bureaucracy and its local allies.  Once participatory groups start to link up and become a force to be reckoned with on a national level, official opposition to popular participation efforts can become greater.  There is a passage from popular participation to “unpopular participation.” This is particularly the case if the group in question is an ethnic group or tribe not in political power.

The full and genuine participation of the rural poor offers a new dignity and a chance for true development.  We can envisage a continuum.  On one end of this continuum, the poor are viewed as beneficiaries — the recipients of services, resources and development interventions.  At the other end of the continuum, people are creative agents of their destiny —  the owners and managers of their assets and activities.  We have to see where organization, access to information, access to resources fit on this continuum. By placing new programs on this continuum, we are likely to see where conflicts are likely to arise.  Services to the passive poor are not as likely to raise opposition as measures of empowerment and greater autonomy. By analysing the steps that are more likely to produce opposition, conflict resolution measures can be put into place.

Popular participation is more than a technique.  It is part of a broad movement for the liberation of peoples and their ability to choose their avenues for harmonious development.


René Wadlow, President, Association of World Citizens

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