“Politics: ‘Poli’ a Latin word meaning ‘many’ and ‘tics’ meaning ‘bloodsucking creatures’.”
Upon first studying participatory approaches they seemed very intuitively attractive, the ability to give power back to the people, to give them the ability to achieve the capabilities they deserve. Perhaps this might be an undiagnosed messiah complex speaking but this approach is ostensibly alluring. The approach’s rise during the mid-1970s was driven by this allure, the ability to combat a prevailing yet waning paradigm of diffusionism, with great promises of elevating the people through the promise of the local dynamism and the celebration of their cultures. Though some attest to the increased use of participatory methods in organisations; this begs the question of why development still feels so incredibly one sided, why it still feels as if we are infringing more than we are co-operating.
In this short piece we will be discussing the de-politicisation of participatory methods and the consequences of this, arguing the in order for participatory approaches to be effective they must return to their roots, they must be politicised to some extent.
Participatory approaches have their origins in the ideas of power redistribution and collective action, though aspects of collective action still remain, the same cannot be said for that of the redistribution, with de-politicisation removing elements of both. With this we see the corruption, if not outright bastardisation, of participatory approaches as organisations have the ability to use faux-participatory approaches to seem inclusive while still working to achieve their own preordained goals. This has led to participatory approaches becoming a discursive tool to further policy in local communities, a buzzword rather than a genuine set of instructions for helping other people.
Yet this has further consequences than merely damaging the reputation of the approach and robbing local communities from being heard, it has also damaged those genuinely attempting to use participatory approaches for their intended use. In changing the way in which participatory approaches have been conducted many have forgotten or never heard of their origins and intended use, leading to a dimension of the approach being lost. In losing the political dimension of participatory approaches we lose our ability to accurately assess situations and give a voice to those who need it the most. This is as the lack of consideration of politics in the sphere of development leads to the lack of consideration of social structures, relations of dependency, and a misanalysis of power and how it functions.
With this we see that projects are highly susceptible to tampering as various actors can use their influence to persuade or coerce others when speaking, changing the discourse and narrative of projects for their own personal gain.
By forgetting about politics in participatory approaches we have allowed many actors to abuse the development sector for their own gain, as if they were bloodsucking parasites, ticks if you may. Acknowledging this we must now begin to revisit the origins of participatory approaches and begin to re-politicise the approach to reinvigorate its ability to give a voice to the unheard.