Citizen participation sounds like a positive thing, but when applied to international development programs, it is difficult and frequently ineffective. Few people would claim that we should oppose citizen participation. On the other hand, many people, especially technocrats, doubt its effectiveness in private conversations. As one high-level government official put it once, “Why should we turn the government over to a goat herder?” In other words, these are nice ideas, but are they practical?
Answering this question is difficult, because the term citizen participation is mixed in a jargon stew along with many other terms. These include social accountability, empowerment, inclusion, bottom up development, participatory development, feedback loops, consultation and others. As may be expected, development practitioners often put these into a black box, then concoct opinions based on just a couple of examples.
In this post, I outline some simple characteristics of citizen participation processes to allow observers to evaluate them. My main argument is that, given the diversity of participatory mediums, any analysis of citizen participation should attempt to distinguish the form of participation. Citizen participation is practiced in many ways in development, and too often, development officials form an opinion without a closer look at what they are talking about. Citizens can simply share ideas in a meeting, execute monitoring of a project, provide feedback on performance, vote in elections for committees, etc. To distinguish these forms, and give substance to an analysis of citizen participation, the three most critical questions are: What specific decisions are citizens involved in? What substantive decision-making power do they yield, and if not much, will the official with such power act based on the information provided by citizens? And what is the quality of participation?
To illustrate this, I would like to take an example of consultations, the most common form of direct citizen participation in development. This is the case in government projects such as some forms of Community Driven Development, or common NGO projects that involve building infrastructure; it is also mostly applicable to school management committees and health committees, or social accountability initiatives such as citizen report cards.
The first question is, what specific decisions are citizens involved in? In general, these consultations aim to reveal information on preferences (though there are side benefits such as generating community buy in). Consultations are particularly important in cases where citizens have distinct and unpredictable needs that may be met by a development project. The choices as to which interventions are possible are generally set by the funding organization – i.e. the government or NGO, which greatly limits the outcomes of the process. Moreover, choices are limited informally, as participants understandably perceive certain choices as more likely to ‘fit’ in the organization’s plans, and thus lead to funding and execution.
As relates to substantive decision-making, citizens’ power is usually quite limited in consultations, along with most participatory forums. The implementing organizations take consultations as a form of advice, and can easily ignore the suggestions made by participants. Organizations sometimes spend time and resources on these meetings, only so that decision makers completely ignore them, which is obviously disconcerting for participants. In such cases, it is important to determine whether the decision-makers actually want to listen to people. If not, then the process is mostly pointless.
The third area relates more to the quality of the process. Just as elections can be free and fair, or full of ballot box stuffing, participatory processes vary in their quality. The list of potential determinants of quality is long, but the main concerns are focusing the meeting (and avoiding a long wish list at the end), ensuring inclusiveness if different members of the community have different needs, and providing the requisite background information so people can participate effectively. Most concerning, informal power relations can undermine the inclusiveness of the process, leading to capture from narrow interests.
Hopefully, in the future, analyses of citizen participation in development will sharpen their focus along these three lines, instead of trying to make broad generalizations about participation in all its forms.