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Since the early 1980’s participatory methods of development have become increasingly prevalent, replacing what has been widely conceived as ineffective technocratic top down forms. However, it appears that participation is not without its dangers. Cooke and Kothari in ‘Participation: The New Tyranny’ (2001) bring together a collection of critical reflections both from within and outside of the development field. While there has been widespread discussion of the dangers of participation malpractice from those engaged in the field, Cooke and Kothari also draw out some deeper theoretical and conceptual criticisms of participation.

One of the core themes is how the empowerment that participation is supposed to provide for its beneficiaries may be seen as contradictory when deeper understandings of power are taken into account, the ‘tyranny’ of participation being the misuse of power. I intend to set out the case of tyranny argued against participation and how it should be a cause not for disillusionment with the practice but as a guide to its most effective use.

I also intend to engage with some methodological discussions and critiques made from within development that should enable an avoidance of some of the pitfalls outlined. Ultimately I argue participation is not necessarily tyrannical as although the facilitating group will always initially have more power than the beneficiary, this is not too say that the use of power is illegitimate or that the method as not worthwhile because in the long term they can increase the balance of power.

It is necessary to begin with the most fundamental criticism of participatory development and its claims of empowerment, for if these cannot be dealt with then further theoretical and methodological discussions are far less meaningful. The word itself, tyranny, implies a rule under which people are oppressed, coerced, live in fear or are subject to unjust authority. Underlying is the abuse or illegitimate use of power, and this is where we find the crux of the critique. Participatory methods that are used to generate empowerment, Cooke and Kothari argue, have not correctly understood or scrutinised the power structures and dynamics that are at work and so are inadvertently abusing power and hence behaving tyrannically. Before engaging in a reply to this accusation it is necessary to analyse the nature of power itself.

We can define three models of power useful for analysis (Nelson and Wright 1995). The first of these is identified as ‘power to’, power as exerted in social relations. This can grow and is expressed as confidence, behaviour and negotiation. It can be exerted as an individual or through a group who increase their power collectively. The second model of power is ‘power over’ which incorporates political decision-making and institutional access to resources. It also sees an understanding of ‘non-decision making’ (Bachrach and Baratz cited in Nelson and Wright) and agenda setting, where those in power can exclude parties and issues from entering the political arena.

Nelson and Wright also include Lukes’ (1974) third dimension of power into this category although it might fit into the last. Lukes identifies power as ‘real interests’ whereby power comes in the form of shaping peoples beliefs and values contrary to their real interests, although defining real interests is a highly arbitrary process. The final model of power follows from Foucault and sees power as divorced from actors but embedded in systems, “power is subjectless and is an apparatus consisting of discourse, institutions, actors and flows of events.” (Nelson and Wright pg10).

In terms of participation and empowerment, we can see that those working within the development field are directly attempting to empower their beneficiaries in terms of the first two notions of power, both in terms of individuals and communities, and also to allow them greater say in the political arena that they are marginalised within. What these development facilitators fail to recognise are the limitations imposed by the third concept of power, the larger social, economic and political structures that they as development workers are incorporated into. Whilst attempting to ‘develop’ groups are they not actually incorporating them into distant centralised power structures of the West? Or if the facilitators of development are embedded in the system, and therefore inevitably have power over their beneficiaries, how can they be empowering them and not at the same time making them a part of another system?

This is the central argument set out by Cooke and Kothari. At some level this will always retain some weighting as, however hard they try, facilitators of participatory development will be coming from a greater position of power that includes preconceptions and attitudes that do not necessarily align with those they intend to help. The need to address this problem is fundamental, and it is necessary for a self-awareness of the position that fieldworkers operate in and the background that they have to attempt to overcome this. Escobar (1984) takes up the same themes as Cooke and Kothari, but in an opposite stance.

Whilst they have argued that the systems of power which the West are so embedded in are too encompassing to be escaped, it seems that at the same time many others believe that methods of participatory development are exactly the right approaches which can allow, when practiced correctly, a break from imposed power structures and discourse and to allow empowerment of those who are marginalised. Foucault saw that society is controlled and organised through certain discourses and procedures, the power structures of which can only be challenged through historical understanding.

Escobar draws out how the developing world has been conceptualised historically by the West and has become enveloped by the discourse of development for social control. As a counter to this he cites PAR (participatory action research) (Escobar p391) as a counter power that generates Southern popular power and is a direct challenge to the culturally hegemonic influence of the West. The method and approach of participation is on opposition to reproduction of Western control. Escobar is arguing that the nature of participatory methods allows the formulation of alternative power structures, not incorporation into new ones.

It seems that the argument is being fought with the same weapon being used on both sides. If this is the case then is it resolvable? The actual techniques used and the approaches taken by facilitators of empowerment are crucial to its effectiveness. We now turn from theory to method and the actual practice of participatory techniques, for if these are carefully used and monitored I argue that people can become empowered.

Participation is widely accepted to have increased the effectiveness of development projects both in terms of quantitative measures and sustainability (Greene 2000, Chambers 1994). When correct methodology is used in techniques of participation then development objectives can be met. The challenge is to whether facilitators can engage with and maintain the correct attitude towards participation. There has been widespread critique, including self-criticism, of various projects within development and I shall deal with some of the most important issues.

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