Participation as an approach to development is about giving beneficiaries the ability to take part, plan and implement development projects. It also gives them increased awareness and knowledge so they can assess and analyse their lives and hopefully improve them. “Outsiders do not dominate… (and) do not impose their own reality;” (Chambers 1997 p103). By allowing local people to express their own view and maintain their autonomy and difference participation attempts to avoid the pitfalls of top-down impositionary approaches. The greatest challenge is for facilitators not to stray from the ideals of giving power, or ‘handing over the stick’ and refrain from taking control.
Facilitators normally approach projects from a more dominant position than the beneficiaries and must monitor their behaviour accordingly. Techniques should be informal in the sense that they are flexible and open. The methods used should be as open and varied as possible to avoid limitations imposed by cultural constraints from the dominant facilitator that would conflict with empowerment. This involves listening carefully to beneficiaries, whilst bearing in mind that complex power structures exist within the communities they intend to help.
There is a danger that project workers may have misconceptions about the people they are intending to help, labels of ‘traditional’ and ‘homogenous’ alongside preconceptions about limitations of ‘local knowledge’ can reduce the understanding about communities and seriously undermine work (Green 2000). An open-minded approach that takes into account that people live within complex communities that may involve hierarchy and struggle, alongside historical awareness, is necessary for effectiveness. It can be difficult to ensure that those who dominate, such as a male elite, are not empowered at the expensive of others, but the nature of participation and its careful use should enable the identification of such groups and avoid this trap.
Participation has burst quickly onto the scene of development and its rapid spread has brought dangers that may undermine its positive potential. The first of these is (mis)using participation as a label. Donors might instruct project managers to used participation but close inspection could reveal abuse of the technique. Unqualified personnel are placed to carry out methods with little skill and therefore poor effect.
More than methodological techniques attitudes and behaviour by facilitators are imperative, particularly the avoidance of dominating those intended for assistance. (Chambers 1997 p212). Participation should be just that, not a process of teaching or lecturing. Both those who facilitate and those who train others to do so should always be aware that participatory approaches are learnt through experience more than anything, and that manuals and text books can often inadvertently be constraining creating routines and ruts, whereas work in the field should always be open to new methods and techniques.
Participation itself faces challenges from without that increase the need for those engaged in it to be on their guard. Whilst ideally participatory techniques would be slow and relaxed, pressure from donors can try to push and rush projects and threaten their quality. Donors can also put other pressures on projects that do not align with ideal practice in the field. If beneficiaries are to be highly involved in project planning then it can be hard to set out guidelines to those who would be potential project funders. Another problem might be that donors often require tangible quantitative results that can be very hard to draw out when attempting to empower people.
One important way in which this might happen could be the development of local formal or informal social institutions that create alternative power structures to existing governmental bureaucracy or traditional hierarchy. This might involve negotiating tricky issues due to the challenging of existing structures but ultimately the formation of accountable non-government institutions, particularly if they engage with scaling up (linking between other regions), can provide a real opportunity for marginalised people to empower themselves in the way that Escobar referred to, and create counter-power sources (Scoones and Pretty cited in Nelson and Wright p13).
The tyranny of participation is a very real and dangerous threat to a method of development that is potentially highly effective. However, I do not think that it is inevitable. Whilst facilitators can never be free from their backgrounds, their social and cultural influences, it does not mean that they are unable to facilitate an empowerment of beneficiaries. Tyranny is the illegitimate use of power, yet those who engage with participation in the true sense of the word by ‘handing over the stick’ and letting beneficiaries set out projects themselves, allowing them to assess and analyse processes, are not abusing their position of power.
Empowerment that occurs by locals increasing engagement with social, economic and political structures, or alternative creating new ones, can be seen as legitimately facilitating an increase in control over processes which affect them. Whilst the participation is potentially an effective technique those who use it must be vigilant and remain aware of the challenges and pitfalls that exist. Abuse of the methodology and incorrect practices endanger the positive potential of the field and it is not easy to be the perfect facilitator, but then the nature of the method is about learning through experience.