Rhetoric vs. Reality
When it comes to participation, the gap between rhetoric and reality yawns wide. How many of us have written project proposals peppered with phrases like ‘bottom up’, ‘self reliance’, ‘empowerment’, ‘citizen control’, and ‘local participation’ without fully grasping to what we were committing ourselves? While ‘participation’ has become fully and widely embedded in development speak, it has a long way to go in actual development work.
I suspect that many development practitioners assume they understand and ‘do’ participation because they get the meaning of the words and phrases associated with it and feel philosophically aligned with them. Most of us know that there are actual methodologies that have been developed and tested by others and written about in published papers and books. But, let’s be honest, how much of the development literature do practitioners actually read, and how much of what little we know do we actually put into practice?
The reality is, our actions in a community are constrained primarily by what our organizations consider their mission and core competencies, what our donors are willing to fund, and what we have time to do. Anything outside of these constraints just isn’t going to happen, so what good are truly participatory methodologies to us? How many development organizations are really ready to deal with local wishes once expressed, to deal with local knowledge once articulated, to use local resources once identified, to deal with local capability once mobilized, …in other words, to deal with local participation once invited?
Are we really interested in sharing power with (or releasing power in) the community? Are we operationally prepared to reverse the flows of information and accountability? Are our agendas and timelines, our people and processes, our standards and policies even capable of adjusting for the mess of self-mobilized, empowered, and initiative-taking stakeholders? I don’t think so. And that’s too bad. Talk is cheap. (Or in the case of writing project proposals, talk is lucrative.) Participation, on the other hand, is messy, slow, unpredictable, and rarely done. And yet, it is good practice. It is to our collective shame that we can’t more often match our rhetoric with the reality of our work.
Participation as a Spectrum
The gap is fairly easy to hide because participation isn’t a binary reality, but one with types and degrees. We just use the rhetoric associated with participation nearer to one end of the spectrum, while behaving according to participation nearer to the other end. Take for instance this simple four-element spectrum developed for a World Bank discussion paper†:
- Information-sharing: people are informed in order to facilitate collective individual action.
- Consultation: people are consulted and interact with an agency, which can then take account of their feedback.
- Decision-making: people have a decision-making role, which may be theirs exclusively, or joint with others, on specific issues of policy or project.
- Initiating action: people are proactive and able to take the initiative.
One can imagine how a project report might make it sound as if you were engaging people in the decision-making process as equal partners, that the community was helping to develop the plans, and participating in the activities, as well as the monitoring and evaluation of the project (level 3-4), when in reality the community development facilitators acted more in line with level 1-2, merely sharing information about the project in order to get ‘buy-in,’ exchanging food for work to ensure community involvement in the activities, and using focus group discussions to extract information from the community for the monitoring and evaluation work.
In his 2005 book “Ideas for Development”‡ Robert Chambers produces a more thorough treatment of participation as a spectrum that considers the objectives, the roles and relationships, the actions, and the ownership of the development process and the actors. I’ve reproduced this table below.
I find this table helpful in that it gives us something to reflect on to see the gaps between our organizations’ rhetoric and reality. I suspect that most development practitioners have worked for organizations that aspire to be – and talk as if they were – operating at a degree of participation at the ‘partnership’ or ‘transformative’ level. But, I suspect that most of these organizations actually operate somewhere between the nominal and consultative levels.
What Facipulation Looks Like
Facipulation is the act (intentional or not) of obscuring the gaps between the rhetoric and reality of participation. We facilitate meetings and processes in such a way as to get our preconceived ideas articulated, our preferred agenda adopted, our desired activities moved forward, …our needs met. And yes, this is at the expense of the communities’ ideas, preferred agendas, desired activities, and needs. Facipulation is not good practice.
I had planned to write here a series of cheeky “you know you’re a facipulator if…” statements, but the folks over at Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like have already done such a fine job of describing some typical facipulation techniques with ample cheek, I’m just going to refer you to them. SEAWL is written by two of the few development bloggers I follow; you can follow them on twitter @talesfromthehood and @shotgunshack. Check it out, have a good laugh, then do some navel gazing and have a good cry.