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UNDP report stresses people's participation


By Amit Mitra
Published: Saturday 31 July 1993

-- (Credit: Om Prakash Misra)The United Nations Development Programme's third and latest report acclaims participation as the cornerstone of human development. This springs from its recognition that "people's participation is becoming the central issue of our time."

The emphasis is on people and the "impatient urge that they have to participate in the events and processes that shape their lives." Cliches like "more than a billion of the world's people still languish in absolute poverty" and "the poorest fifth find that the richest fifth enjoy more than 150 times their income" are interpersed with concerns that "women still earn only half as much as men -- and despite constituting more than half the votes, have great difficulty securing even 10 per cent representation in parliaments."

Concern is also expressed for rural people because in developing countries, they "still receive less than half the income opportunities and social services available to their urban counterparts." Similarly, "many ethnic minorities still live like a separate nation within their own countries. And political and economic democracy is still a reluctant process in sevaral countries." The report magnanimously admits that "our world is still a world of difference."

Not that the concerns and problems are not genuine -- in India and other developing countries, we are familiar with these problems. What is intriguing is UNDP's sudden awakening to them and hiding the solutions to these problems behind rhetoric. While lip service is paid to decentralisation, greater privatisation and marketisation are seen as the ultimate manifestation of democratic forces and the panacea for all evils of the contemporary world.

All the caveats, like the necessity of making markets more people-friendly and having them free and open, do not detract from the report's basic premise: Heads we win, tails you lose. It's Uncle Sam again, telling the developing world that it knows what is best for us and telling us to comply, for that's democracy and that's participation. Of course, if you don't toe the line, your aid could get cut off. The decision will be solely Uncle Sam's.

The report tries to conceal its sleight of hand by making stray references to "the disturbing phenomenon of jobless growth in the world" or the plight of the blacks in the US, street children or women. Visually appealing graphs and gut-hitting charts are strewn like confetti all over the report.

But a closer examination reveals the banality of the ideology behind the arguments. Participation, an age old phenomenon, has always been rooted in a local, socio-cultural context, and is synonymous with people's control, not only over resource use but over lives and futures. Localised decision-making was intergral to it. Reducing participation to the act of partaking in the objectives of the supra-local economy and the societal arrrangements related to it essentially erodes people's control.

Participation has been transformed into a set of manipulations that go against what the vast majority of people the world over want. It is now being seen merely as one of the resources needed to keep the world market economy alive. The economisation of life and its political, social and cultural implications very subtly manipulate people into believing that by expounding their biases, they not only express their freedom but also think they have a greater freedom to achieve. This also masquerades as human rights.

But in this jugglery, the substantive right -- the freedom to control -- is appropriated and manipulated. Uncle Sam and the plethora of international bodies appear as knights in shining armour, the guarantors of world freedom.

The report says, "Participation is, after all, a process, not an event." But then, if it is interpreted in its true sense -- that of control -- the process means to live and relate differently. The process should entail the freedom to learn to listen, to share, to live with others, free of fear and a priori conclusions.

But do the authors care for such subtleties and niceties? It's not convenient, certainly not when reinforcing the hegemony of industrialised nations, in which participation has to be made fangless and still appear a powerful weapon. A toothless cobra is quite capable of striking terror in the hearts of the weak.

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