Merits of the Concepts of Participation

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Critical Reflections on the theoretical contestations and merits of the concepts of participation, community and gender in natural resource development and policy. The participation in developmental and decision making processes of typically poor and marginalised groups has become emblematic of the accepted standard of good development practice and is reflective of both the instrumentality and transformational capacity of participation.

Consensus among many dominant development thinkers is that the collective participation of citizens is a boon rather than a hindrance to progressive social change. Most development agencies now agree that some form of participation by the beneficiaries is necessary for development to be relevant, sustainable and empowering (Hickey and Mahon 2001). Agarwal (2001) goes on to argue that participation through mechanisms such as the devolution of greater power towards village communities is now widely accepted as an Institutional imperative and almost mandatory in planning development projects.

However it is important to note that “there are limits to what participation alone can achieve in terms of equity and efficiency given pre-exiting socio-economic inequalities and relations to power (Agarwal 2001)” In Zimbabwe the concept of participation has become implicit in the contesting national economic visions pitying proponents of indigenisation against proponents of greater economic liberalisation.

As an aspect of Zimbabwean natural resource development and policy, participation has been mobilised to fit a range of ideological perspectives, political objectives and economic ends which in many ways point to the fundamental strengths and weaknesses of participation. This essay therefore attempts at adjudicating the contestations and merits of participation with particular reference to Zimbabwe’s burgeoning natural resource extractive sector. It broadly recognises the importance of participation, whilst endorsing Agarwal (2001)’s assertion that participation alone is not a panacea.

And goes on to support Agrawal and Gibson (1999)’s idea of the need for a more political approach to addressing the concept of community participation as well as Hickey and Mahon (2005)’s emphasis on the need to infuse participation with a radical notion of citizenship. Agarwal (2001)’s typology of participation denotes a continuum from the minimalist idea of nominal membership in a group to an advanced state of a dynamic-interactive process wherein disadvantaged groups have voice and influence in decision making.

In this regard the effectiveness of participation is positively correlated to the level of activeness by the groups involved. Within Zimbabwe’s natural resource governance and policy sphere the activeness of communities is confined to nominal and at best consultative participation given the limited democratic space and the disproportionate power of extractive industries which cannot be fully mitigated by participation alone. Merely bringing communities to be part of a development process is therefore an inadequate claim to the achievement of participation.

Argawal and Gibson (1999)’s political approach which focuses on the multiple interests and actors within the institutions involved in a participatory process helps us to identify how different interests and actors either equitably or disproportionately influence decision making. As a result the top-down community oriented interventions of mining companies in Zimbabwe’s diamond mining areas such as resettlement schemes whilst cloaked in the language of community participation can be viewed as evidently displaying the disproportionate decision making powers of corporates over communities within a so called participatory development process.

Levels of activeness within a participatory framework are informed by a number of systemic factors depending on the context including inter alia gender, race, caste, class, age etc. Key among these factors are gender and class distinctions whose influence on norms, rules and group dynamics often reinforce the power of one group over a disadvantaged group resulting in what Argawal (2001) terms participatory exclusions or the exclusion of some groups within seemingly participatory Institutions.

It is therefore important to note that overlaying participation on inherently asymmetric power relations within a group or a community may serve to further disempower the structural weak groups such as women. Despite the preponderant acceptance of participation as a vital component of sustainable development, there are enduring concerns over the failure of participation to deliver on its promises of empowerment and transformation. In Zimbabwe the Indigenisation and economic empowerment Act is an example of the deployment of participation as a means to bring about the empowerment and transformation of a previously marginalised group.

However Community share ownership trusts established under this Act have failed to facilitate the re-distribution of resources and further served to reinforce existing tensions. On the contrary the Trusts have resulted in the further entrenchment of the patriarchal power of Chiefs and the marginalisation of women. According to Hickey and Mahon (2005) inspite of their transformative potential participatory approaches necessarily fail to generate transformations to existing social, political and economic structures and relations in ways that empower the previously excluded or exploited.

Agarwal (2001) also found that the decision making processes of Community Forest Groups (CFGs) mirrored the gender exclusions that charecterises many of men’s other networks and therefore led to the worsening of power relationships and further disempowering of women. In a sweeping research on CFGs in India, Agarwal (2001) noted that the participatory exclusion of women had reduced the CFGs ability to achieve equitable distribution of resources and Institutional efficiency.

This broad assertion is applicable to the Zimbabwe natural resource governance and policy arena where the continued failure to facilitate the participation of communities is evident in corporate unaccountability, abrogation of environmental rights and the adoption of a resource extraction model that is patently unsustainable and liable to abuse by political and military elites. The costs of participatory exclusion in Zimbabwe’s natural resource governance and policy are especially exorbitant for communities whose tokenist benefits are in contrast to the use of diamond industries finance the acquisition of military hardware.

Hickey and Mohan therefore contend that participation can be used to mask the underlying politics of development. Zimbabwe natural resource development and policy sector is in many ways an exemplar of the failure of participatory approaches to navigate the issues of power and politics. However Hickey and Mahon (2005) point to approaches such as participatory governance and decentralisation, participatory development and the work of NGOs as torch bearers of the potential of participation to address the root and structural determinants of developmental problems which tend to be embedded in power relations.

To them participation can be a legitimate and transformative approach to development with the potential to generate transformations to existing social, political and economic structures and relations in ways that empower the previously excluded or exploited. Political approaches to participation that relate to enhancing the structural organization and informed participation of poor and marginalized groups seem to point the way towards strengthening the role of participation.

Agrawal and Gibson (1999) argue that a focus on Institutions is the solution and therefore urge a focus on the ability of communities to create and to enforce rules. In Zimbabwe’s natural resources governance and policy sphere where corporates are both in control and are the primary beneficiaries of rules guiding extractive processes; strengthening the ability of communities to create and enforce rules would make their participation more meaningful by empowering them to hold corporates accountable.

Hickey and Mahon( 2005) also urge that participation is most likely to succeed when it conceived as part of a political approach aimed at securing citizenship rights and participation for marginal and subordinate groups; and engaging with development as an underlying process of social change. Zimbabwe’s natural resource development and policy sector could benefit from approaches such as democratic decentralization which through the institutionalization of participation, devolution of authority, participatory budgeting and other mechanisms enable the achievement of redistributive and poverty reduction outcomes.

According to Hickey and Mahon (2005) in West Bengal and Kerala decentralization has been credited with ensuring the participation of subordinate groups — such as women, landless groups, sharecroppers and small peasants — and being directly linked to the pursuit of redistributive policies that have had pro-poor outcomes. The potential of participation to either undermine or enhance development outcomes is dependent in large part on how underlying structural factors are addressed.

According to Agrawal and Gibson (1999) with the spread of democratic political structures and the increasing insistence on participation, unrepresentative development and conservation projects have become as unattractive as they are impractical. For Zimbabwe’s natural resource development and policy sphere the adoption of political approaches to participation is no longer an optional extra but an urgent need in order to enhance the equitability, efficiency and sustainability of current extractive industries.

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