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Between cup and lip

A VOICE FOR THE EXCLUDED Matthias Stiefel and Marshall Wolfe Publisher: Zed Books Ltd, London and New Jersy Price: Not stated

 
By Soumya Sarkar
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

-- AMONG the many grand schemes consigned to the commodious dustbin of the 20th century, a special place belongs to an oxymoron called democracy. Its disenchantments have directly given rise to the call for "another development", the notion of participatory movements on the ground which can, in theory, undermine existing power structures and determine national policy from below. But even the advocates of such alternatives are beginning to realise that bringing the word to the world is quite another matter.

The vision and inspiration of Andrew Pearse, founder-director of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development's (unrisd) Participation Programme, has today spread to many parts of the developing world. A Voice for the Excluded, subtitled Popular Participation in Development: Utopia or Necessity?, is the official document of the programme, taking stock of more than a decade of activities centered in Latin America, where it all began.

The concept of popular participation has come a long way since Pearse articulated it in Seeds of Plenty, Seeds of Want, way back in 1980. The unrisd research strategy, with Pearse as the mainspring, grew in a 3-pronged direction -- the struggle for livelihood, development policy and participation. It was predicated on the belief that participation always implies a struggle for greater empowerment, inevitably at odds with the policies of the state and the extra-national "developers".

A key term in this perspective was "incorporation". As Pearse saw it, the dominant social processes of our times are characterised by the whirlwind incorporation of hitherto self-sufficient communities into city-based national and international production labyrinths, uprooted from their traditional lifestyles into a lightning-paced, bewildering mode of existence generated by the late-capitalist world system.

UNRISD's primary concern lay in attempting to lessen the agony of incorporation in specific situations, so that ordinary working people could improve their livelihood and shape their aspirations. But if the tone of the book is anything to go by, the "participatory" scenario is hardly very bright. The success of the programme has been limited at best, with many initial gains drowned by volatile socio-political conditions in countries like Peru, Nicaragua and Grenada, where the programme was implemented.

The "participatory" experiment in India has also shown that tall claims have to be ingested with more than a pinch of salt. "Other development" has been found to spawn an "other bureaucracy", with more than its share of bungling and an emphasis on formalising power structures that kick out the very people being empowered.

Whether participation is a necessity or not, depends on which side of the fence you are on. No power structure will hand over empowerment on a platter to the "excluded". Experience, confirmed by the case studies in the book, has shown that local participation is successful only when outside agencies intervene on behalf of the locals. But who are the people who run these agencies? Certainly not the "excluded". Here lies the major faultline in the notion of local participation. It is assumed, often arrogantly, that local communities have to be "taught" how to manage themselves sustainably, thus paving the way to empowerment. Shades of the white man's burden?

It is indeed difficult to find a way out of the participatory cul-de-sac in the prevailing world system, where power tends to concentrated in the hands of a few. The vision that the votaries of "other development" espouse is uncomfortably similar to the vision of the now debunked socialists. One can only hope that they don't go the same way.

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