3.7 Tools and approaches: being inclusive
Interest in promoting inclusion of potential beneficiaries, particularly ‘the poor’, has come to characterise the approach taken across sectors and types of organisation in both the North and South, and could be interpreted as heralding a significant shift in the focus and priorities of development agencies and institutions, a new orthodoxy. From the promotion of local-level NGO initiatives to engage multiple stakeholders and listen to local voices, through the use of participatory tools and practices to the World Bank's emphasis on the ‘participatory’ dynamics that underpinned the development of Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers, the discourse of inclusion and empowerment can be seen informing action across the development arena.
However, if you look behind the rhetorical similarities to how terms are applied and interpreted, the picture becomes somewhat more complex and contested. As Cornwall notes:
Participation in development has gained a new respectability and legitimacy, and with it the status of development orthodoxy. For some, the proliferation of the language of ‘participation’ and ‘empowerment’ within the mainstream is heralded as the realisation of a long-awaited paradigm shift in development thinking. For others, however, there is less cause for celebration. Their concerns centre on the use of participation as a legitimating device that draws on the moral authority of claims to involve the poor to place the pursuit of other agendas beyond reproach. According to this perspective, much of what is hailed as ‘participation’ is a mere technical fix that leaves inequitable global and local relations of power, and with it root causes of poverty, unchallenged.
(Cornwall, 2003, p. 15)
Interest in promoting participation is framed in relation to a range of concerns. For some, it is a question of social justice and the ‘reversal’ of existing power differentials and inequalities (e.g. Chambers, 1983, 1997), for some a matter of efficiency and effectiveness. Links between the promotion of wider inclusion in projects, programmes and processes and the reduction of poverty are also made. Importantly, these concepts are not confined to development or DM, but are found in a wide range of public and private organisations.
Participatory approaches have also achieved prominence over the last thirty years in investigating and designing interventions. The argument for participatory approaches is that they are more ‘empowering’ and give the beneficiaries a direct stake in the direction and running of a project. But what does this actually mean? And what issues does it raise?
It may mean a quite radical rethinking of what a project is about and what its goals are. It certainly means finding out what is important for people. This requires approaches that are qualitative and personalised. These can take a lot of time, as you not only have to find people willing to discuss such issues, but sitting down for an hour or more may be too much given their busy schedules. Such problems could be overcome by interviewing while doing another task, such as food preparation, or respondents could be paid for their time.
A different kind of problem arises in relation to who gets included. Even amongst the ‘marginalised’ as a whole, some groups are more accessible than others. They may not be representative. Seeking less accessible groups out may take special effort since their lack of power or confidence means they may purposefully absent themselves from any consultations. This might mean visiting their homes, but this in turn creates problems of access and ethical issues around investigating poverty or unemployment.
There are other pitfalls in seeking to enhance participation. Even the most sensitive and appropriate participatory approach needs some form of ‘translation’ into policy circles, which is where the development manager often plays a pivotal and powerful role. The challenge is how to ensure that the voices of the marginalised are expressed in ways that do not empty them of meaning. Such exercises can also raise false hopes, since they often ask participants to discuss problems, but lack of resources or institutional barriers mean that these cannot be adequately addressed. Participation can also be time-consuming as it requires people to be directly involved in affairs that affect them. In principle, you can fully support participation and direct democracy, but often lack the time and energy to do as much as you would like.