Participation has grown in popularity since the 1970s and has become a catchword in development studies and practice (Hjortso 2004; Midgley, Hall et al. 1986; Sanchez, Cronick et al. 1988). Nelson and Wright (1995:2) suggested that participation has become a ‘warmly persuasive word … [that] can be attached to very different sets of relations’. Lane (1995) supports this, stating that ‘participation is dangerously close to becoming a buzzword, rhetorical term without theoretical clarity or practical content’. Chambers (1995) credited the new popularity of participation to several origins:
- the recognition that many development failures originate in attempts to impose standard top-down programs and projects on diverse local realities where they do not fit or meet needs;
- concern for cost-effectiveness, recognizing that the more local people do, the less capital costs are likely to be;
- preoccupation with sustainability, and the insight that if local people themselves design and construct they are more likely to meet running costs and undertake maintenance; and
- ideologically for some development professionals, the belief that it is right that poor people should be empowered and should have more command of their lives (Chambers 1995).
Davis (1996:2 cited in Buchy, Ross et al (2000)) added to this discussion citing that the interest and application of the concept has grown due to a mixture of circumstances: increased access to information; a more intrusive media; alienation from traditional structures; protest movements; and a new sophistication amongst interest and lobby groups. In the literature, the commonly cited reasons for participation’s popularity are; failed development projects, misused resources and disillusioned communities (Buchy, Ross et al. 2000; Chambers 1997; Rahman 1993).
The popularity of participation is evident from the diverse application and acceptance of the needs for participation, in fact many authors have found that it has become mandatory for development strategies to be participatory (Agarwal 2001; Chambers 1995; Cleaver 1999; Eyben and Ladbury 1995; Holcombe 1995; Kelly and Van Vlaenderen 1995). Literature on participation and empowerment cuts across disciplines, including economics, anthropology, sociology, politics and geography (Holcombe 1995). Macnaghten and Jacobs (1997:6) identified that participation is one of the principals of the global action plan Agenda 21, suggesting that ‘the involvement of ordinary citizens in both decisions about and the implementations of social and economic change’. Some authors see participation’s biggest application being to poverty alleviation (Holcombe 1995). Other applications include health, education, housing, social work and urban and rural development (Midgley, Hall et al. 1986).
Buchy, Ross et al (2000:3) have identified a number of assumptions that explain the enthusiasm for participation that has been outlined above:
- better participation of local communities in the management of their own resource will lead to better (ie more sustainable) environmental management
- local communities are willing and enthusiastic about engaging on a voluntary basis in the management of their own affairs
- local communities, while engaging in a participatory process are seeking a transfer of power from government agencies to the benefit of communities, or at least equal power in the decision making process
- at one extreme of the spectrum, participation may be considered as a useful tool to achieve a specific management aim, while at the other participation will lead to empowerment and greater social justice.
Citing this article
This report was prepared for Social Capital Research. You should reference this work as:
Claridge, T., 2004. Designing social capital sensitive participation methodologies. Report, Social Capital Research, Brisbane, Australia.
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