Dr. Robyn Eversole, Senior Researcher at the University of Tasmania, Australia, is an anthropologist whose work delves into development issues and processes. She studies participatory and place-based development, development governance, cross-cultural development processes, local and community economic development and social enterprise, the role of university in regional development, microenterprise development, microfinance, and migration.
Participation: “a discourse: a way of speaking, signaling (in and implicit binary) that we-as-professionals believe that they-as-communities have something important to contribute to the process of social change” (30).
Participation has a long-held, long-respected tradition of the bottom approach.
“For practitioners deep in conversations about enabling participation, growing social capital, community strengthening, community engagement, or any of the other myriad of terms for local/community participation in development, participation becomes the problem we cannot live without: embedded in our best practice, yet inextricable from it; a central idea, yet unachievable” (31).
Legitimate critiques show participation obscures power asymmetries, understates real difference, and empowers elites and their agendas. However, this totalizing critique isn’t fully appropriate, and in fact the participation problem goes actually deeper than that, bespeaking how formal development agencies see their role as change agents and about development itself. Namely, participation is still about institution to people. The literature shows “how formal institutional leadership continues to define desirable development trajectories” (31).
If community participation is a “mirage” (32), where does this leave community development advocates? Gaventa (2005) says that for community development to work, the development organizations must change with the communities themselves, to reconfigure “the interactions about communities, professionals, and institutions into a truly ‘participatory space'” (32). Participation has really worked in just one direction to date, so the real focus should be on making it multi-directional.
That said, here are the challenges to participatory development processes. First, determining whose knowledge counts. The situated knowledge of the local does what the expert’s cannot possibly, which is the stock of possibilities and constraints. The community also sees the interrelationships, the “seamless fabric of lived experience” (Latour, as cited on 34). Even though their relationships are permeable, there remains the sticking point between communities and experts, namely that the latter are the only ones with valuable knowledge. Second, deciding whose institutions to use. Communities do have their own institutions, though formal development often perceives itself as having “best practices.” The desire for bottom-up change is sometimes hindered by participation fatigue or strategic exclusion, when community members distance themselves from well-intended projects. Third, remaking participation. One can’t make another participate, so the challenge is how to make the practitioners participants.
“…there is a need for translation agents who are comfortable in the circles of both the powerful and the powerless, and who are able to facilitate the journeys of both” (37).