Why “Power and Participation”?

First, a series of propositions:

  1. The central question of “development” should be how to improve the quality of life for those in need: those suffering from poverty, hunger, disease, and who have inadequate access to resources or services needed to address those problems.
  2. Those people who should be the object of “development” are often suffering because they are disempowered, disenfranchised, and voiceless. In short, their poverty derives from – is a part of – systems of political and power structures.
  3. The practice of “development” should thus aim to empower, enfranchise, and give voice to those who currently live in situations of structural poverty.

These propositions are a kind of set of guiding principles for the way that I think about “development.” They should raise any number of additional, extremely important questions, some of the foremost of which might be: If “development” is a practice with a subject and an object – a “doer” and a receiver, as it were – who exactly is doing, and who is receiving? Who gets to decide what people, institutions, or organizations fall into which category? What kind of input should the doers and the receivers have into the goals, the processes, and the outcomes? Is the subject/object dichotomy even useful at all in this context, or is it dangerously misleading?

In other words, while I let these ideas guide my thinking, I’m completely open to challenging them, and in fact I’m starting this blog in part as a forum for doing so.

But on to the subject of this post: why did I give the blog the name it has? Last spring, I moderated a forum put on by the grad student group Interdisciplinary Perspectives on International Development. The theme of the forum, which featured five graduate students presenting their research, was “Power, Participation and Development.” I helped come up with this theme, so it’s no surprise that I find it compelling.

It follows from the principles above that, in my mind, “development” should be about changing existing power structures and challenging entrenched interests that keep people in poverty. But this is better done in a bottom-up rather than a top-down manner, so as to ensure that existing power structures are not simply perpetuated with different people at the top. Bottom-up social change by definition requires the participation of those who are being harmed by existing social structures (or, in the context and parlance set forth above, those who are the “objects” of “development”).

In short, the title of the blog is meant to communicate that I’ll be writing about development not from the standpoint of technical analysis of development projects or institutions, but rather from a distinctly political and sociological perspective. This kind of discourse is present in academia but, I believe, is too often absent in the world of policy and practice. It’s a bit of an ambitious goal, but I’d like to bridge the two in my writings here.

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  • By Why grad school? « Power and Participation on August 30, 2011 at 11:50 am

    […] practitioner, from a policy standpoint; I didn’t want to be an academic. But, as I implied in my earlier post, I’m not particularly interested in working within development institutions that use […]

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