Participatory waste of time?

“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.

5 thoughts on “Participatory waste of time?

  1. Great post! It reminded me about the old vs new methodologies used to build and iterate on tech products in the startup world

    The number one rule in testing your product is to never ask the user what he wants, as Henry Ford put it very well “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have said “a faster horse”.” Instead you listen to what they want, closely follow metrics and most importantly quickly iterate and you do this process again and again until you reach the “product market fit” or until you decide it’s a dead end.

    This has proven to be the cheapest way for success. I wonder if that mentality could be applied in PRS. It’s obviously harder to apply this process “offline” but now that we proved it works so well online it’s worth a try reverting it to the offline world. (unless it’s already being done?)

  2. I think the principle still standards – governments hold open consultations on policy in developed countries too – the question as you allude to is one of cost and benefits – kind of difficult to try and quantify though!

  3. Very honest thought indeed.. And very interesting and brain-stimulating to read.

    Limited capacity and resources are always an issue/constraint/challenge (whatever jargon we may want to use in this field)…

    I guess, it (participation) can add value when it comes to (1) getting people informed & prepared about change to a certain degree; (2) attempting to learn about any (local) concern that this change or the process of change can bring; (3) empowering (now I use big word!).

    I remember that my grandmother (illiterate) got so excited when her village council invited her to a “consultative meeting” on water pipe installation for her village. I am sure that she may not be that helpful at the meeting (she may be complaining about her economic difficulties and food prices). But when she came home, she felt that she was “important”, she knew what was happening in her village, it became her discussion topic with her oldie friends, and she tried to monitor the construction and tried to influence the work (to make sure that the pipe got close to her house)…

    Of course, the village council would never care about what my grandmother said/contributed. They did that because the govt told them to do so – it’s an activity on their check box.

    Just a silly example.

    Intention only is not sufficient. Many times (or most of the times), donors and govts use this approach to cover themselves. They do it because it’s generally agreed that it’s a “great” concept/approach.

    Anyway, it’s the effort that counts. How is it being done? In what manners? People have so much knowledge (from their life histories and experiences). The question is whether we (“practitioners”) really know how to draw out that knowledge at all.

    Tang KC
    (Your Lao friend)

  4. Oh just to add, I think my grandmother just had a fault-sense of empowerment… But surely the old lady felt good for some seconds, to least.


  5. Loving the discussion! Thanks for your thoughts.
    Habib – brilliant. Funnily enough, something similar is happening right now in Liberia: they’re flipping the process and planning on having the participatory conversations after developing a first draft rather than the opposite. More about it soon 🙂
    Tang, love the colorful story of your grandma! I definitely see the value in making citizens feel included, and informing them about what’s in the pipeline. There is value in feeling empowered – whether you practically are, or not. No? As long as you can afford it, like Lee said.

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