There can be no authentic participation without empowerment

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Throughout this paper I will refute the claim that there can be no authentic participation without empowerment by arguing that although empowerment is a key objective of participation in that it seeks to give local people a role in development projects, empowerment is not an inevitable outcome. As often factors such as the complex relations of power and influence that exist between participants and by external agendas intervene and prevent empowerment. When analysing participation and empowerment it is necessary to consider who is empowered- the individual, the community or categories such as women, the poor or socially excluded-and for what purpose? (Cleaver, 2001)

In part 1 of this paper I will look at the concept of participation and empowerment and at how the theories and practices of participation have been applied. Then I will examine some of the critiques of participation such as the claim that participation is a legitimating device that uses the positive reputation of participation to masks other agendas. I will conclude by stating that the process of participation is not a panacea or a magic bullet and often there is participation without empowerment, as a result there remains a need for greater understanding of what works, for whose benefit, to what ends and why.

The Rise of Participation

Over the last two decades within the development discourse there has been a fundamental shift from top-down, planning and administration to a more bottom-up, participatory approach based on mutual learning and empowerment which has extended to analysis, planning and action. Participation with its roots in the 1970’s Freirean philosophy was originally applied to rural development but then went onto receive greater prominence via the works of Chambers in Rural Development: Putting People First (1983) and Cernea’s Putting People First: Sociological Variables in Rural Development (1985) both of which helped mainstream participation into development. Chambers ‘new methodologies which emphasised the value of participation, listening instead of preaching, and the untapped ability of poor people to identify and analyse problems for themselves using simple techniques and visual expressions such as maps and drawings’ (Edwards, 1999 p214)

Today, the use of participatory tools and methods has spread dramatically and is used in a wide number of sectors across the world and is espoused by NGO’s, bilateral and multi-laterals alike to make projects more efficient, effective and sustainable (McGee, 20002 p 95). So quickly has the influence of participation spread that to some it ‘has become an act of faith in development, something we believe in and rarely question.’ (Cleaver, 2001 p36)

What is Participation?

With the rapid spread of participation it has come to mean many different things and is defined in different ways. One definition is framed by neo-liberal/liberal theory of self sufficiency and autonomy where participation is seen as way of reducing poverty and raising the standards of governance-both of which are essential to achieving sustainable development. The UK Department for International Development (DFID) 1997 White Paper entitled ‘Eliminating Poverty’ summarises this well when it states that:

‘One of the main constraints to effective development assistance is an imperfect understanding of social, economic, political and physical environments. We will find local solutions to local problems and involve local people and institutions in the process…Getting it right means not only investing in effective relationships but in pushing back the boundaries of shared knowledge, understanding the problems which constrain sustainable development’ (DFID: 1997, p48)

Another definition of participation is that of co-opting practice, to mobilize local labour and reduce costs. In this case the local community contributes their time and effort in what essentially remains ‘our project’ rather than their local project (Chambers 1995). A third and most common definition is when participation is ‘an empowering process which enables local people to do their own analysis, to take command, to gain in confidence and to make their own decisions’ (Chambers, 1995 p30) In this process local people are empowered to own ‘their project’ and outsiders are mere participants to facilitate ownership.

Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA)

Participative processes vary

Participation and Empowerment

Empowerment is the key objective behind participation

Nelson and Wright (1995 p1) made a distinction between participation as a means and participation as an end

Empowerment approaches enable people to transform their situations by strengthening their capacities, giving them the ability to act and make their own decisions.


For greater empowerment to be achieved there is a need for more empirical analysis on whether and how the structures of participation can lead to further empowerment. With Foucault’s analysis of power in mind there is also a need to simultaneously understand and address the power structures that perpetuate disempowerment. ‘Hegemonic or global forms of power rely in the first instance on those ‘infinitesimal’ practices, composed of their own particular techniques and tactics, which exist in those institutions on the fringes or at the micro-level of society’ (Foucault 1980, p 99) Ultimately, such a people focused approach is at the mercy of whether or not the facilitator has the effective skills to lead debates, discussions and has the right attitude to affect change.

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