People who are most marginalised and living in greatest poverty around the world want to develop their own futures and shape the policies and programmes that affect them. According to participatory research in 29 countries conducted by the Participate PRG, people are calling, loud and clear, for the right to play a meaningful role in the decisions that affect their lives. It is time for policy-makers to heed that call, and to put it at the heart of development policy.
Participation can help to tackle the corruption, inefficiencies and discriminations that so often confront those living in poverty. When participation is truly inclusive it challenges the power imbalances that block the accountability of duty bearers; ultimately, this can lead to the transformative shifts that pave the way for sustainable change. Participants involved in research on local governance with The Theatre for Development Centre, Nigeria, explained how they see two ways in which the participation of the most marginalised is important for accountability: ‘Democracy has two voices: one determines what should be done, and the other holds elected officials to account’.
By encouraging the participation of marginalised people in governance processes, policy actors can work to address inequalities and abuses of power alongside those who experience these challenges on a daily basis. This means that the way in which people participate really matters, as Participate research partners ATD Fourth World emphasise, ‘participation should be encouraged though community solidarity and collaboration, never by imposing humiliating conditions on people or penalising non-compliance’.
For people living in poverty and marginalisation the outcomes of genuine citizen participation include both the greater realisation of their own rights and wider positive changes, such as building networks that reduce their isolation. Research participants have told us that relevant policies and interventions could help them to organise themselves to get involved in participatory processes. Such collective action is an important part of how power can be leveraged by the poorest and most marginalised to change their own circumstances.
Those who took part in this research through Praxis in Chennai see themselves as ‘citymakers’. They are the people who build roads, metros, flyovers, shopping malls and parks. These ‘citymakers’ have, however, been living on the margins of urban poverty, enduring stereotyping, criminalisation, exclusion and lack of public services and government support. Nevertheless, they have been working together for change, creating platforms from which they can articulate and defend their rights. According to Stephen Raj, a community leader in the Kannagi Nagar relocation site outside Chennai:
‘We formed a residents’ welfare association and got people to post 50,000 post cards… addressed to the director of the slum clearance board petitioning him about our needs… within 10 days the director organised a People’s Grievance Redressal Forum. As a result…we started getting water, better access to public transport, ..midday meals at school… However, we need to keep asking and demanding our rights and only then does the government respond.”
The inclusion of groups who usually have no say in decisions is crucial for building effective and inclusive policies. Research participants in the Ghana ‘Reality Check’ research saw ‘opportunities to participate in life and make a contribution to genuine local decision making’ as critical for their development. Young people working with Restless Development in Uganda ‘felt that their involvement would increase local ownership and programme quality by ensuring that activities are appropriate to the local context … and [would] build networks between youth and other community members.’
Examples in the Participate research show how just how more effective policies and services can be when they are developed through collaborative approaches that value local and indigenous knowledge. For example, collaboration between indigenous community midwives and professional health workers through the Social Services at the Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana, Mexico, has enabled local knowledge to improve maternal health outcomes. What is needed, on an ongoing basis, is the acknowledgement by those in power that this collaboration is important.
Participatory action research by HEPS-Uganda worked through photography and digital storytelling approaches to help people living in poverty identify their aspirations for development on the issue of slum health inequity, and opened up space for dialogue with policy makers, health researchers and the media on ways to achieve lasting change.
The stories and experiences of people living in poverty and marginalisation shared through the Participate research confirm that a participatory approach to governance is an effective empowerment strategy and a crucial way to achieve equity and inclusion in society for all.
People who are marginalised through poverty and discrimination have the right to participate in researching, planning, deciding, delivering and monitoring development initiatives. This is a right that they are, increasingly, demanding in local, national and regional policy spaces.
When we look at participatory governance in the context of the post-2015 development agenda, we see that if such demands are ignored, the gap between what people living in extreme poverty and marginalisation need and what a universal framework can deliver is even wider than it may seem. Without the genuine inclusion of these groups and their perspectives in decision-making processes at every level, no universal framework can succeed.