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Participation as a development concept has come a long way. Its roots can be traced to the 1960's and 70's when a lot of effort was expended in development projects as a means to community involvement in addressing felt needs, especially among the poor. Key in this pursuit was sustainability and equity issues and the need to move from prescriptive 'top-down' planning that failed to solve some persistent poverty related problems in community development at the time.
Since then debate has been ranging about the methods, processes, forms and outcomes of participation, and no agreement is in sight. Whereas some schools of thought support participation as a 'magic bullet,' a panacea to poverty alleviation through increased and quality involvement by 'beneficiaries 'of projects, besides being increasingly a tool to political ascendancy and assertiveness for the marginalised, others simply fall short of out rightly dismissing participation as not worth all the hype it has received.
Cooke and Kothari (2001) have termed it the new tyranny while Stirrat, (1996) calls it the 'new orthodoxy'.
This paper first offers a definition of participation, and secondly, and at the same time discusses some of the salient cases made in favour of participation, and the criticisms levelled against. Simultaneously, we shall throughout the essay offer a critical analysis of both arguments and counter arguments, drawing from Cleavers (2001) critique of the recursive relations between agency and structure. Finally, in conclusion, the paper will argue the case for transformative participatory approaches and the way forward.
Defining Participation
Participation has no standard definition. This elusive status has itself received its fair share of criticism among other aspect of and claims for participation, as will be demonstrated in this essay. For the sake of brevity participation, according to Pearse and Stiffel refers to 'the organised effort to increase control over resources and regulative institutions in given social situations on the part of groups and movements of those hitherto excluded from such control' ( Cf: Guimaraes, 2009 p5).
Method, Validity and Reliability
Chambers (1992, p13) insightfully anticipated such criticisms levelled against participatory approaches. For him they arise from poor excuses made for 'sloppy and bad work' done in the name of PRA. He asserts; 'the label PRA could be similarly used to legitimate bad work; it could be misused to describe RRA which is elicitive and extractive rather than participatory', and warns practitioners and trainers from falling into 'ruts' of habits and routines, and failing to consider that participatory methods involve many different ways of research and practice, which include experimenting, inventing, testing, adapting and, constantly trying to improve being part of the potential of the PRA. Indeed Chambers (ibid) contend that 'the spirit of improvisation and innovations generated and continue to generate an astonishing range of methods and applications'.
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