Participation of the poor in mainstreaming gender empowerment for civil society stakeholders to promote country ownership of good governance for community-driven sustainable development

I have just stumbled across a great series of articles on buzzwords in development. Some aid workers and development scholars are so jaded by these vague but ubiquitous buzzwords that they play “Development Bingo.” Whenever a development pro is giving a lecture, they hold Bingo cards marked with all the buzzwords and check them off whenever the lecturer mentions them in the talk. When they have got a full set of buzzwords, they stand up and shout “Development!” (No doubt leaving more than a few lecturers baffled.) My favorite article discovery is Andrea Cornwall, Historical Perspectives on Participation in Development, Commonwealth and Comparative Politics, Vol. 44, No. 1, 49-65, March 2006. Professor Cornwall is a brilliant anthropologist at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex. She also guest-edited a fascinating special issue of the journal Development in Practice (2007, Volume 17, Issue 4) devoted to “buzzwords and fuzzwords.”

In my favorite article, Professor Cornwall gives a history of how the aid powers that be have resorted to the buzzword of “participation” to convey good intentions to give the “power to the poor” over aid affairs, while never in fact ceding any such powers.

What is most scary is that “participation” as a buzzword goes all the way back into colonial times. In 1929, a British MP told the Parliament that they had a “moral responsibility” to give colonial subjects “some participation in the shaping of their own destinies.” Right after World War II, the Labour government would “inspire these {colonial subject} men with the hope that, as never before …. London could assist them in their work of extending popular participation in public affairs.” The irony that these promises were made by an authoritarian empire run from London apparently escaped notice. The US Foreign Assistance Act of 1966 similarly promised to emphasize “maximum participation…on the part of the people of the developing countries” -- all while the US was propping up dictatorial Cold War allies who were not too interested in giving power to anyone besides themselves.

Today of course, “participation” (and synonyms like “community-driven,” “empowering stakeholders”, “local ownership” etc. etc.) is everywhere in aid documents. Yet the aid powers giving away their power is not exactly going to happen anytime soon. Cornwall cites the 1998 World Bank “Participation” manual, which lists “the poor and disadvantaged” as only one of many stakeholder groups (another is “World Bank management, staff, and shareholders.”) I wonder which stakeholder is going to win the next battle.

The main function of buzzwords such as “participation” and “empowerment” is to paper over the ugly reality that there will be some battles of conflicting interests between “the poor and disadvantaged” and other more powerful groups like the World Bank and rulers of poor countries -- and that the poor will almost always lose such battles.

Using clear language instead of buzzwords would at least force us to confront the reality of the battle for real democratic rights. We should use words that have historically been associated with popular movements actually seeking power to the people (even if those are also misused and have conflicting meanings, at least they meant something historically).

One word that is extremely unpopular in aid documents but has great historical resonance on “power to the people” is “liberty.” Neither the 347 page World Bank 1998 “Participation Sourcebook” nor the 372-page World Bank 2006 “Empowerment in Practice” ever mentioned the word “liberty.” The poor cannot have liberty, but they can have lots of empowerment and participation and ownership and civil society. I’d rather have liberty myself.