‘Participation’ has entered the development mainstream and is used by a variety of institutions, but what it means can vary enormously between different actors. This article explores some of the meanings and practices associated with participation, in theory and in practice. It suggests that it is vital to pay closer attention to who is participating, in what and for whose benefit. The paper argues that for the democratising promise of participation to be realised, the concept needs to be clarified.
Most typologies of participation focus on intentionality and those who initiate participation approaches. Arnstein’s model highlights the centrality of power and control, while Pretty’s model makes clear that the motivations of those who initiate participation is an important factor. Both follow a normative model, moving towards genuine forms of participation, but in practice these forms become more ambiguous. Flow of information be seen as a lesser form of participation, but it is an important end in its self. Typologies do not tell us much about the different kinds of participants.
What people are participating in conditions how their participation might be evaluated, how those who are invited to participate view participatory approaches, and illustrates the contrast between spaces of invited participation and those created by people themselves. Is it decision-making on how health services are delivered or the decoration of the waiting room? Is it a small group of articulate elite within a community or a group who have been chosen by that community?
Full participation is not always desirable or possible; an in-depth and broad participatory process can be time-consuming and resource heavy. Further, participation can exacerbate the exclusion of particular groups unless efforts are made to include them. Stakeholder categories are often treated as unproblematic and bounded, but they raise a number of questions about legitimacy and can undermine economically and socially significant relationships between various social strata within the community. Being involved in a process is not equivalent to having a voice and participatory approaches can also have negative consequences. Translating voice into influence requires more than effective ways of capturing what people say.
There is an understanding that if the technical tools are right, then full participation will occur. Less attention has been directed towards self-exclusion which can be associated with simple practicalities, such as timing and duration, a lack of confidence and also participation fatigue from those who lack faith in the process due to previous examples.
It is important to be clear about exactly which decisions the public have the opportunity to participate in, and which members of the public are involved. The popularity of invited participation, consultation for example, has been at the expense of older forms of participation such as popular protest which are increasingly viewed as less desirable. Understanding the complex dynamics of community engagement in various contexts requires an approach that views participation as an inherently dynamic process, not a technique. Clarity around the what, who and how of participation makes clearer distinctions between various forms, distinguishing between superficial and more genuine forms. Enabling voice and influence, and providing support to popular mobilisation without being proscriptive is the challenge for community development.