Participation in International Development Discourse and Practice : "State of the Art" and Challenges

Participation has become one of the most important buzzwords in the international development discourse since at least the middle of the 1990s. In the same way as older key terms such as gender and socio‐cultural conditions of development, or new concepts such as good governance and ownership, the increasing claims for participation (of target groups, of beneficiaries, of stake‐holders etc.) are usually accompanied by a critical assessment of previous development cooperation which needs to be improved by stronger, more comprehensive or target‐oriented participation. However, this positive connotation of participation shared by almost all actors in the field is increasingly challenged through critical remarks forwarded by theoreticians and practitioners alike. In this article the authors provide a critical overview of the dimensions and meanings of “participation” for different actors and in different contexts, and they summarize and analyze the current controversy surrounding the concept and its implementation. One important finding is that in many development programmes (from the project level to sector‐wide approaches) and Poverty Reduction Strategy processes, participation is seen and implemented in a functional and utilitarian way to achieve predefined objectives, and not as a tool for empowerment. The same holds for the actors from bilateral and multilateral aid agencies, including many Nongovernmental Organisations. From this review current challenges of participation and development are derived and discussed, including key issues such as legitimacy and representation of various groups of stakeholders, participation and decentralisation, participation and civil society, participation and the poor, and participation and conflict.


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