The paradox of participation

Amir Hussain

Jurgen Habermas, a contemporary German philosopher, has asserted that we do not have a universal language to link our utterances with a rational and universal meaning. As a result, Habermas has advocated for a universal philological order.

Simply put, Habermas wanted to create an action-oriented and all-encompassing language that is driven by common experiences rather than reducing it to a medium of communication, semantics and a corpus of literary interpretations. To him, people with common experiences can communicate meaningfully. This leads to a conscious and collective social functioning.

In our modern age, knowledge production has become compartmentalised into technical disciplines because experiences are fragmented into individualistic actions. The dwindling physical space of expression and diffusion of the dialogical authenticity of knowledge production have created a crisis of meaning in language. Complexity, chaos, disruption, uncertainty and the inauthenticity of meaning are the by-products of the fragmentation of collective life experiences and the fraying of the social fabric. The more freedom to individualistic expression, the more fragmented are the worldviews that shape an alienated world of introversion.

According to Habermas, we tend to make claims of validity in our day-to-day utterances that based on the objective reality of our existence and our sociopolitical experience. These validity claims impede the possibility of developing a singular narrative of social transformation.

Habermas makes an important point for the practitioners of social development. Like Paulo Freire, Habermas gives a high premium to experiential knowledge as a process of learning and social transformation. Nonetheless, he goes beyond the significance of experience and, therefore, advocates the importance of evolving a rational language to communicate meaningfully between social groups.

The critique of social development, therefore, must be founded on two fundamental principles: experiential knowledge and the symmetry of meaning. Development practitioners must think beyond the obvious if social transformation is the final objective of development.

Disillusionment with the top-down development models that emerged during the three decades after the Second World War led to the formulation of a new paradigm of local development. Taking a cue from the theory of social transformation of Paulo Freire (1970), this new paradigm propounded the importance of local experiential knowledge for the socioeconomic transformation of the poor. This idea of local development was operationalised through a set of participatory development tools.

Robert Chambers devised a set of tools for participatory rural appraisal during the late 1970s. Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) was unequivocally adopted by international development agencies, donors and local practitioners of social development.

Pioneered by the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP), participatory development in Pakistan became the development mantra in the 1980s and the 1990s. PRAs were adopted as authentic tools of community-based local development planning by all rural support programmes (RSPs) across Pakistan. They were later transformed into a much sophisticated and pragmatic tools of spatial planning that entailed an integrated village development planning.  Larger NGOs and rural support programmes used participatory development tools for village and union council level development planning.

The fundamental premise of participatory development as an instrument of social transformation has its limitations. This merits an open debate within development circles. One of the most critical aspects of participatory development is its mechanical and formulaic approach that, at times, reduces human experiences to participatory numbers. What about the voices of those who choose to stay out of participatory planning? In an unequal society – whether it is class-based or a feudal society – participatory planning is a distant possibility unless we resolve the fundamental and systemic causes of inequality.

Robert Chambers asserts that participatory development is a paradigm shift in development thinking in that it strives to reverse the power relations in favour of the poor and marginalised. However, power relations are rooted in a political and economic structure that cannot be reversed through a momentary participatory exercise by the self-selected individuals. At times, participatory development becomes an instrument of cost-cutting only when community engagement in a project can save the cost of project implementation, labour and monitoring. In some cases, it can be used as a feel-good exercise to ensure the recipient’s buy-ins for a predefined project.

The most important aspects which have not been explored in the conventional critiques of participatory development are the asymmetries of knowledge between the poor participant and the development professional and the variances of the validity claims of two different worldviews. The experiential gap between a development professional with technical knowledge of planning and project management and a rural poor as a recipient of development aid cannot be bridged.

For a development professional, development becomes a technical matter. However, development is a political matter for the poor. Socioeconomic transformation as a development objective is not only technical. Instead, it is far more political than it is technical. In a feudal, rural society like Pakistan, if participatory development cannot dislodge the systemic causes of poverty, it is ineffective.

However, participatory development has worked well in relatively equal societies in the case of the AKRSP, which demonstrated a participatory model in a homogenous faith group in a relatively egalitarian society of Gilgit-Baltistan. However, the impact of community-based planning evolving into transformational village organisations is a contested matter. Most village organisations withered away with the exit of the AKRSP.

Elsewhere in Pakistan, participatory development approaches did not work well as conduits of social change. In the feudal structure of rural Pakistan, the systemic causes of poverty and inequality persist despite the huge investment in the formation of community-based local institutions. RSPs invested in the para-local institutions with competing development narratives of social change. But these institutions could not make a dent on the traditional institutions of control. Some development experts are of the view that rather than investing in unsustainable parallel institutions, RSPs could have invested in reforming traditional institutions to address the power and knowledge asymmetries.

In general, the widespread and unthinking uptake of participatory approaches has made it necessary to assess them more critically. For the most part, the heterogeneity of community, based on class and gender for instance, are simplified, power relations are poorly understood and the politics of knowledge production is ignored at a great peril. Social development is a messy process and there is no linear path of socioeconomic transformation in a world of uneven development.

Going back to Habermas, participatory development has not been able to generate a rational development discourse and a popular meaning at the local level. Contrary to the claims made by the proponents of participatory development, it has not dislodged the tyranny of experts and has hence failed to produce a meaningful transformational engagement.

However, participatory development is desirable for socioeconomic transformation. It will occur only if we accept that it must go beyond the shenanigans and snobbery of experts. Social development is all about changing the rules of the game that perpetuates oppression and tyranny. It’s about the poor and it is political. Are we ready to take on this uphill task as development practitioners? If not, poverty and wretchedness are here to stay.

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.

Email: ahnihal@yahoo.com

Courtesy: The News

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