Global agreements must be built on the real participation of the poor

If the post-2015 process to agree a future framework for development does not get right the participation of those most affected, it will fail. 

Consultations, surveys, on-line polls, social media posts, campaigns, forums, blogs, protests in public squares—everywhere there are claims to know what people really want, claims to represent poor and marginalised people.  As interests coalesce and the politics heat up around the questions of what a future framework for development should look like post 2015, everyone wants to claim that they represent the authentic ‘voices of the poor’. Everywhere there are claims to legitimate participation, meaningful consultation  and a stated intention to represent citizen voices. The High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda met last week in London, and the co-chairs as well as several members called for the perspectives of those affected by poverty to be heard. Yet, all the talk about participation is not adding up to real influence or engagement between decision-makers with the diverse perspectives and realities of those living with poverty, marginalisation and injustice. 

In a recent session for some NGOs on how to apply participatory approaches to working in conflict contexts, a government representative told me with excitement that she really believed in the value of participation:  ‘I always talk to my driver in any country I go to,’ she said. Is talking to the poorest and most marginalised really participation?  In fact, most of what is being labeled as ‘participatory’ at the moment is really no more than this:  a conversation in which the questions are framed by someone else, and the answers are used for an agenda that the ‘driver’ never agreed to. 

A major shortcoming of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) has been their lack of legitimacy in the eyes of those most affected by development.  As Francess Fornah said in her blog last week, the MDGs are largely irrelevant on a daily basis to those most closely engaged with improving the lives of those living in poverty.  A related and serious flaw with the MDGs is the lack of any provision for the poorest and most marginalised to hold governments and international aid agencies to account for the goals that have been set.  

The track record of global agreements is not encouraging—the participation of ‘the poor’ is most often sought when it legitimates the decisions of the powerful, or when there is a political need to be seen to listen to them.  Previous attempts to use participatory approaches to bring the perspectives of those most affected by development to bear on its direction have had mixed results at best. Many global participatory consultation processes have been experienced as extractive listening projects, as opposed to on-going negotiations - with people left feeling that their contributions have been used for political ends which are not their own.  Failure to ensure meaningful participation has occurred in the past because 1) so-called participatory consultations can be highly exclusionary in terms of the voices and perspectives that are edited out or never make it to the table in the first place, 2) the purpose of people’s participation is often pre-determined in a very narrow way, so that any decisions affected by people’s participation are not the ones that really matter; and 3) there has been a lack of mechanisms for holding decision-making to account for the way that policies that have been shaped through participation are implemented (or have failed to be implemented). In sum, many attempts of large-scale participation to influence the direction of development have been a failure.  They have failed to truly connect the realities, experiences and priorities of people living in poverty, marginalisation and injustice in a meaningful way with the decisions that are made on their behalf. 

Yet the impulse to hear from those most affected by decisions is not wrong.  When done well, participatory approaches can have huge potential to show unexpected and essential insights. Participatory approaches can provide fresh perspectives into intractable problems, demonstrate the complexity and interconnectedness of issues in people’s lives, and challenge assumptions about how change happens and what development interventions work.  For example, Reality Checks - a participatory initiative developed in Bangladesh - showed how legislation to curb the abuse and harassment of girls led to increasing bullying of boys and issues of low self-esteem. In Nigeria, a citizen score card exercise on the national economic empowerment strategy found that despite a new scheme to allocate farmland to youth, family and women’s groups in the Area Councils, a third of those people involved felt that access had worsened, and accessing farmland through the government was perceived as very difficult. As the rate of change accelerates in many contexts, participation is even more important to shed light on rapidly shifting realities. 

If the post-2015 process to agree a future framework for development does not get the participation of those most affected right, it will fail. To avoid the mistakes of the past, it is essential that the participation of those living in poverty is used to question established ways of looking at social, economic and political issues. Participation must help frame the debate, and not just provide sound bites to justify the decisions of politicians. This time, talking to the driver will not be enough.

About the author

Over the past 17 years, Joanna Wheeler has worked consistently with a commitment to increasing the voices of those less heard through citizen action.  She is a researcher, facilitator and trainer in participatory processes, including creative storytelling approaches.  She is currently based in Cape Town, South Africa, with the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal.