Although I have constantly advocated for the promotion of participation, especially the participation of children, I am not unaffected by criticism of trumpeting participation as the pancea of all ills in attaining human rights and democracy. Least of all because the criticisms leveled against how, as a concept, participation has become too plastic — participation has taken on far too broad of a reach in meaning. Participation has become a concept that now describes both a means as well as an end (Lund, 2007). Yet despite this encompassing meaning, where participation could describe so many things, we still find that participation has been difficult to put into practice (see writings by Dipak Nakar, Joachim Theis, Rachel Hinton among others). Participation conceived as a liberatory approach is not only a method, but an epistemology. Participation is a way of seeing, understanding, and investigating where the knowledge of problems lies, and solutions lie. It is a critique of those who are possessive of the tools and resources needed to change social conditions, and they use it to obscure, bury and outright lie about this reality.
When participation becomes such a broad and nebulous concept so as to lose its analytical as well as practical force, it easily becomes co-opted by the same old powers, disguised as a new approach. Processes of stratification and disempowerment dressed up as in wolves clothing, then insidiously paraded as a passive aggressive band-aid: “We used a participatory approach. But our stakeholders didn’t take hold. We did our part, they didn’t. We can’t be blamed.” I worry about examples where projects have made weak and disingenuous attempts at participation, that are mostly tokenistic and failed to garner true engagement from the community because the lame attempts are transparent. When results are short due to tepid community participation, then the baby is thrown out with the bathwater and participation is seen as a costly, time-consuming, and predominately perfunctory exercise to satisfy donor trends.
The fact that participation is not universally accepted could be an indicator that there is a problem with the concept. But I believe that it is a problem with a misunderstanding of it, and the result of actions taken based on this fundamental misunderstanding. I suspect that it is because participation has been unequally implemented, that participation is not always meaningful, especially in confronting the difficult task of truly devolving power. This causes me to worry that participation becomes yet another globalizing force and discourse in development practice. I worry that no participation is better than tokenistic participation that leaves all parties disenchanted, jaded, and bitter.
Luckily for me, I have the great fortune to be working at the Children’s Environments Research Group, and over lunch I raised this concern. Roger Hart points out that rather than limiting our vision to seeing participation as those spaces and processes that children (and other marginalized groups) are invited into, participation can also work the other way around. Children can (and are) creating their own spaces and mechanisms for sharing their perspectives and generating their own solutions. Under their own terms, children can engage those who have the duty to address these issues, inviting them into children’s spaces, or create a shared space where power is not presumed to be imbalanced away from children. In this way, children can through their own self-organizing critique disingenuous, tokenistic participation processes, and model for adults, participation in epistemology and practice.