Community Participation can be Extractive: May we be mindful?
By Pradeep Narayanan, Director, Research and Capacity Building, Praxis Institute for Participatory Practices, New Delhi, India
“However, after a time, there was a realisation that there is actually ‘nothing next’ for individual participants. They gained a lot of knowledge but could not articulate or envision how to apply this knowledge. The facilitating organisation also had no ideas or plan for individual panelists. Suddenly, the set of highly participatory panel discussions appeared to be very extractive as far as these individual panelists were concerned.”
Community participation is an important component of situating a community as the champion of its own rights. However, community participation is not always easily achieved, as this requires both facilitating communities to demand for participation spaces, as well as sensitising duty bearers to understand the value of community participation.
Often, marginalised communities are at a stage where they would have given up fighting for their democratic spaces. Hence, to create spaces for their participation and to ensure that they participate ‘voluntarily’ in these created spaces is very challenging.
There is also another plane- that of narratives - which often shapes debates around issues for which policies need to be made or implemented. Often, these policy discourses actively exclude voices of the community at margins, and in some cases, even denies the existence of the community identity itself, especially when they are in the wrong side of so-called moralities.
Now, this plane is very hierarchical- characterised by dominance of those identities that are powerful in all domains - social, economic and political status as well as in terms of creation, certification and reproduction of knowledge. For a marginalised community, this space is almost unreachable without the support of such organisations and networks that understand marginalisation and have taken up as their mandate, mainstreaming the voices of the marginalised. The challenge for these organisations is to mainstream these voices as of and by the community itself. With that aim, they tend to mobilise communities through various approaches - so that they speak for themselves in policy making spaces.
Ground level panels
One such effort is the Ground Level Panel. Governments and international agencies often constitute what is called as High-Level Panels, typically comprising members who are considered as experts in various themes or sectors, but invariably these experts are far from the ground. Their views are important as they have studied the issue and have experience implementing related programmes. These panels could even have representation from affected communities, but rarely are they such individuals who currently live in poverty or face discrimination.
Set in the context of the UN’s High Level Panel's recommendations of what should replace the Millennium Development Goals, Praxis with support from IDS, Sussex, facilitated Ground Level Panels of individuals whose only expertise was that they were currently living in poverty and facing discrimination. Through a four-day process with community members coming from diverse contexts, using various participatory tools was no doubt very empowering for the participants.
The panel during these four days collected data, generated information about various developments from different experts, organised collective analysis of information and made inferences in terms of making informed recommendations on what the goals should be. Further, the panel directly engaged with state officials and UN agencies. Most participants were appreciative of the knowledge as well as the way they gathered knowledge during the period. They felt they gained a more holistic perspective of India’s development scenario and could demonstrate this knowledge to a range of audiences. It seemed to have raised their self-esteem.
However, after a time, there was a realisation that there is actually ‘nothing next’ for individual participants. They gained a lot of knowledge but could not articulate or envision how to apply this knowledge. The facilitating organisation also had no ideas or plan for individual panelists. Suddenly, the set of highly participatory panel discussions appeared to be very extractive as far as these individual panelists were concerned. The fact that they were instrumental in pushing voices of the community into policy debates is appreciated, but the fear that the momentum created has no place in the life of each community panelist is worth pondering.
The key learning here is to understand the balance between the intrinsic and instrumental value of community participation. How important is the need for re-engagement with the community? This insight was helpful when we were devising a strategy for the community-led monitoring of the Sustainable Development Goals. Here, the precondition was that there is a need for a standing community panel as well as an active community structure that could use the knowledge created by the panels on a regular basis. The challenge is still being worked through.
Participatory methods and approaches are not on their own, empowering. They become empowering only if they start addressing adverse power relationships. This process is fraught with a number of inherent contradictions - which many of us try to ignore in the interest of the larger common good. The need is to understand and take on those contradictions. This may cause us to realise that participation has been very extractive. But then, reflection, is the most significant dimension of praxis.
About Praxis Institute for Participatory Practices, India: Praxis is a development support organisation committed to mainstreaming the voices of the poor and marginalised sections of society in the quest for equity and governance. Praxis engages in participatory research, capacity-building and advocacy to ensure that the most excluded and vulnerable communities have a say in development. www.praxisindia.org