“You ask a woman in the bush what she wants – I can tell you what she wants. She wants to survive. She wants safety, water.. and education for her children. But we spend time and money that we don’t have organizing focus groups.”
A colleague, speaking of the Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS) process *
Participation, inclusiveness, and giving a voice to the voiceless. Somehow these concepts sound a little better on paper in Washington DC than here in one of the poorest countries in the world.
Ministries responsible for conducting participatory processes are stretched very thin, both in terms of budget and of human capacity. Citizens are also much harder to reach. No internal airports, no roads… In the rainy season. Picture that?
Yet we [development workers] insist – with good intention – that everyone should have a place at the table and a say in setting the priorities of their country. Those ideals are faced with low capacity of the authorities to mobilize people on the ground, questions of legitimacy of representation (which interest groups are civil society organizations really representing? what lends them the legitimacy to speak “for the people”?), and sometimes, limited capacity of participants to offer relevant feedback (how helpful is a layman’s opinion in the optimal placement of a road or water well?).
On the other hand, Liberia’s PRS I consultative process in 2005 sent a big signal that change had come. It is reported that some people walked for more than 15 hours to attend PRS I district and county-level meetings. The process also revealed that across the country, Liberians’ number one priority is, above all, better roads.
I know participation is not an either-or issue, but rather a how-much-and-for-what question.
The answer, though, is a tricky one to get at.
*this is a personal opinion and does not reflect the views of the Government of Liberia nor the process by which consultations for the Poverty Reduction Strategy were conducted.