The tension between theory and practice plays out differently in children’s participation than in the field of participatory democracy and governance. Practice that was explicitly participatory rooted in international liberationalist, feminist, activist social movements began to gain prominence in the development field and was extended to include children’s participation. In the decade during the drafting of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, advocates articulated children’s right to participate, while those who worked from a rights perspective to implement projects with the participation of children. Theory however lagged behind, as writers such as Marta Santos Pais (1999) made the connection between human rights and participation, Roger Hart (1992) elaborated children participation in relationship with adults in building democratic societies, and Gerison Lansdown (2005) explained how children’s right to participate can be implemented with respect to the children’s evolving capacities. As children’s rights and community development work progressed, children’s participation demanded analytical tools to connect theory and practice (Naker, Mann & Rajani, 2007; Taylor & Percy-Smith, 2008). This need spurred many including Louise Chawla (2001), with Harry Heft (2002), Harry Shier (2001), along with those cited above to generate a rich discussion around theories and methodologies for analyzing children’s participation, informed by and directed towards practice.
The theoretical work on citizen participation, participatory democracy, and participatory governance has been informative for critically examining children’s participation in democracy and governance. While contemporary economists such as Amartya Sen (2011) advocate for participatory democracy as a means of promoting development and human rights, the challenges of creating a truly participatory democracy are myriad, leading theorists such as Robert Dahl (1989) to contend that they are utopian. This parallels with criticisms of an ‘ideal’ public sphere that Jürgen Habermas described, an inclusive forum where citizens are equally able to participate in discourses regarding issues concerning the community, a vision that he immediately demonstrated to be corruptible. Nancy Fraser (1990) not only find’s Habermas’ description of the public sphere as stunted, she finds that it insufficiently articulates the ways structural and systemic inequalities perpetuate the reproduction of a public sphere that continues to disempower, marginalize, and render segments of the population invisible.
Many writers have worked to connect theory and practice, acknowledging the challenges of creating spaces for deeply participatory democracies as they critically analyzed cases of participatory governance and developed tools to facilitate others to do so (Fung, 2006). The writings of Archon Fung and Erik Olin Wright (2003) have demonstrated how examinations of projects in participatory governance can inform theory, and John Gaventa’s (2004, 2006) Democracy Cube has been useful in bringing the analysis of power, inclusion, and spaces to the fore. In contrast, the tools developed by international development agencies such as the United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) to evaluate the implementation of strategies and programs for the promotion of participatory democracy and governance have given off the impression of a prescriptive checklist for participatory governance. While these tools examine important factors such as the efficiency, responsiveness, accountability of existing governance structures, they do not speak to how the counterpublic and subaltern public access them, let alone transforms them. Will international human rights, democracy, and development agencies and organizations be able to take on the role and responsibility of developing tools that actively wrestle with the tensions between theory and practice, institutional reform and social transformation, and the inclusiveness of the public sphere without seeking to normalize or exclude those at the margins?