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Participatory Approach to Governance

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Applying the Participatory Approach of International Development to Local Governance

by Hilary Orzel

The practices of international development can and should be applied to our work in local governance. International development is crudely defined as the practice of improving the quality of life within struggling communities all over the world.

A key in the practice of international development is that development programs are usually funded by developed countries. This is to say that people are entering a country as foreigners and are implementing programs that will inevitably change some aspect the culture and practices of the host population.

Previously, development professionals and colonists went into other countries and recognized the ways in which others lived as different from their own. We know from the many studies done on cultural assimilation that when a human mind recognizes something as different, they often confirm it as wrong. As the some judged other cultural practices as wrong, they proceeded to change other cultures to make other people look more like them. This approach highlights the worst practices of engaging a group of people in social change and it has shaped the best practices of international development today. A development professional never goes into a community assuming they know what solutions that community should adopt.

Educational merits and egos aside, an international development professional understands that the local population they are serving knows more than they do about their own needs, their vision, and the proper ways to go about implementing change. This attitude assures that social change will be change that compliments the culture instead of disrupting it, truly benefits the people, and ensures ownership and sustainability. The role of the development practitioner has changed into something that is today very positive and productive. The development practitioner’s role is now that of a facilitator of productive dialogue, and a person that helps implement the change that others want to see for themselves. They practice a participatory approach, which enables others to have their voices heard, build community and consensus, identify problems, and find solutions. The goals of this process are inclusion, agreement, discussion, and organized action. This should also absolutely be the approach of local government leaders.

The main difference between international development practitioners and local government leaders is that the importance of the participatory approach is visibly dramatic in more extreme environments. More extreme environments can include environments with a greater difference between a population and the officials serving them, and environments with substantially worse conditions often present within the poorest countries of the world.

International development practitioners are often compelled to rely on local knowledge because they have a deep understanding that their values and ideas may not work for the host community, just as they are constantly reminded of the fact that the host community’s values and ideas are different from their own. Local government leaders do have local knowledge, and thus, relying on their community for direction is not as natural and does not seem necessary. However, local government leaders, their values, background, and ideas, are not necessarily representative of their whole community, even when they are elected. In local government, it is easy to make the case that we know what the problems are, and that we know what the solutions should be. Often at community forums, citizen input is regarded as a mere formality and is sometimes not taken seriously. Citizens see government leaders as part of the problem and not part of the solution.

Finally, these forums are sometimes not planned and orchestrated in a way that gives people a voice, and encourages communal visioning and problem solving. Government leaders will do themselves a great service by facilitating the type of dialogue that will lead to community-owned solutions. We can make policy that implements change on people, to people, or with people. In a representative democracy, we should make policy with people. In this part of the world, we call facilitating a participatory approach of change with people ‘civic engagement.’ This approach ensures both sustainable and efficient change, and change that is truly representative of the people our government is serving.

Encouraging community participation and taking community dialogue seriously, means that government leaders should be part of the community, and place their egos and opinions aside while valuing what their constituents have to say. This approach will redefine the role of the local government leader as that of a facilitator of productive community dialogue that defines problems and desired outcomes, and a logistical planner and organizer of the change people want to see in their communities.

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