The concept of participation is increasingly being related to rights of citizenship and democratic governance. This is apparent in the multitude of programmes for decentralised governance in both Southern and Northern countries. Linking citizen participation to the state at the local or grassroots level raises important questions about the nature of democracy and how to achieve it. This chapter from Participation: From Tyranny to Transformation outlines the importance and potential for assessing the transformative possibilities of citizen engagement with local government.
The widespread engagement with issues of participation and local governance creates enormous opportunities for re-defining and deepening meanings of democracy, for linking civil society and government reforms in new ways and for extending the rights of inclusive citizenship. The success of new institutional arrangements for more inclusive and pro-poor participatory governance will depend largely on existing power relations. Bringing more direct and empowered forms of participation into the local sphere can lead to democracy-building and pro-poor developmental outcomes. This requires promoting pro-poor and social justice outcomes, developing new models and approaches where enabling conditions are not favourable, avoiding an overly narrow focus on the local, and guarding against co-optation of the agenda for less progressive goals.
- The decline in civic participation and the distance between citizens and state institutions must be addressed by ‘working with both sides of the equation’ – focusing on the intersection of civil society and state-based approaches.
- Linking participation to the political sphere means rethinking the ways in which participation has often been conceived and implemented. A more active notion of citizenship is needed, whereby citizens are recognised as proactive protagonists in the policymaking process, rather than passive users
- A number of mechanisms to enable new forms of citizen-state engagement are being implemented around the world. However, we need to learn more about how such initiatives work in practice, for whom and with what social justice outcomes.
- Spaces for participation are not neutral. They are shaped by power relations that both surround and enter them. Participation is not only the right to participate effectively in a given space but also the right to define and shape that space.
There are critical challenges to ensure that participatory governance initiatives promote pro-poor and social justice outcomes. Priorities for policymakers and practitioners include:
- Learning more about the outcomes of different forms of participatory governance. More research is needed on the optimal conditions for enabling positive pro-poor and pro-democracy outcomes.
- Asking questions about the possibilities for moving towards pro-poor participatory governance where such ideal conditions are absent. A willingness to adapt to different situations and develop new models and approaches under such conditions is needed.
- Avoiding an overly narrow focus on the local and situating each participatory governance mechanism in a wider developmental context.
- Fostering a deeper awareness and understanding of existing power dynamics to ensure true participatory governance. Guarding against co-optation of new mechanisms of participatory governance by entrenched interests is essential.