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Vedeld: Something that the NGOs do?

Notes on participation and governance in the environment and development policy field. Noragric Working Paper No. 50 by Pål Vedeld.

Vedeld: Something that the NGOs do?

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by Pål Vedeld
The paper discusses issues concerning governance and participation. Participation is a fundamental property of social interaction between people and forms social institutions. Social institutions are not a variable or an aspect that people have or possess; they are what constitute people and form, in a rather strong sense, people’s abilities to describe, explain and understand, to reason and not least to interact with other people, be it at individual or at group levels. As such, participation can be understood as a fundamental “mechanism” of the social fabric.

A deeper understanding of participation as a social institution helps us to see it as a phenomenon of socially constructed interactions and deliberations: interpretive, negotiable, fluid, contested, etc. Social institutions are, in addition, perhaps more commonly non-intentionally evolved than intentionally created to serve particular purposes; though, the latter maybe has been a focus of this paper. Relationships between actors are featured by different social factors. A crucial element in participation relates to power and power relations. As we have seen, an ideal could be the “masterless relationships and power free communication” as set up as an ideal by Habermas, Arends, (even Rawls) and others. How realistic this ideal is, is another discussion but it can been seen as one extreme on a continuum from complete power or domination over others to a situation of, ideally, power-free relations.  

In this broader light, the rather limited participatory  development (PD) advocated by many  both in research and in practical development work often becomes instrumental and non-contextual; Pretty’s ladder with emphasis on information and how to communicate addresses one important but still very confined theme of a broader contextualization of  participation. Where and how is the ladder situated - and who owns the ladder and the ground on which is stands?  Similar critique could and indeed is directed to Ostrom’s (1990) design principles that in one way still portray a somewhat broader understanding of social agency and how people both interact and construe institutions to secure participation and cooperation.  

The overall political transcending critique of PD (TPD) is linked to how we see participation in a broader political context where participation is a right citizens (should) have and where participation is not seen as a dole to be handed out where and when those in power find it opportune. There are elements of rights-based development and of a rights-based state, as it “does matter how the state chooses to treat its citizens”. From this TPD perspective, a focus is that “structure matters”. How governance bodies, organisations and institutions and a framework of policies are designed, frames any ambition or policy on participation in a strong way. Yes, it is true that much participation is linked to informal, serendipitous, informal social institutions that often evolve more or less as “results of natural evolution”, but there is also much intentional and conscious institution-building and both processes that obviously influence or even forms the social fabric and quality of participation. A crucial arena in this context is where policies are developed through processes of policy goal formulation, identification of measures and selection of policy instruments. 

In a broader TPD perspective, the political and organizational architecture is important as it shapes, enables and constrains participation in various ways. How are the legal, economic, and socio-cultural organisations and institutions set up to encompass broader concerns of participation? In a policy context, we talk about policy goals of economic growth, of poverty alleviation, of security, of rights of access to school and health; all these goals have clear distributional and participatory elements that should not be ignored (see Stiglitz 2002). To what extent is present political architecture seen to be handling concerns of participation, could be raised within the context of “institutional fit” (Young, 2002) where the debate is exactly on how institutions seem fit to address the policy goals and processes intended. 

In what I have called a deeper sense /a critical institutional perspective (Cleaver 2012) , the participation efforts as observed in research, project documents and through practical implementation, reveal underlying assumptions of human behaviour and through agency, as well as assumptions related to social institutions and social interaction. In real life, much has to do with compromises. It seems important to include more of the political and the cultural-institutional and ontological critique of new quests for participation in society at large and in particular on program or project levels. 

There can be little doubt that participation as ideology has been co-opted by neo-liberal policy perspectives and that this has partly been motivated by a wanted state contraction where rights are privatized and commercialized, and where there has been a lack of implementing competence and lack of real policy willingness to implement. 

Comparing three perspectives on participation, some issues are clearly incompatible. Seeing the principle of participation as being an instrument for the governers  or conversely as an obligation and a right that people have reflects incompatible logics.. As much as the “transcending participation” critique is sensible, reasonable, and basically fair - the appropriate thing to do - there are also reasons to ponder about its lack of success compared to the less ambitious PD   approaches. New models are needed.

Published 22. February 2017 - 11:30 - Updated 23. May 2017 - 19:09

Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU)

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