Community participation has become the buzzword of development projects over the past two decades. It is today at the core of almost every sustainability-related project as there is a gradual shift from top- down authoritative managerial planning towards more inclusive participatory development. The concept has become overused (Swapan, 2014: 191) and heavily politicised (Head, 2007: 447) thus often reducing its efficiency to a box ticking exercise, or, occasionally to further the interests of a minority (Botes and van Rensburg, 2000: 41). Beyond the vagueness of the term “community” itself, which suggests a sense of harmony, shared identity and cohesion which it often lacks (Head, 2007: 441), there is also a lack of common understanding of how “successful” participation is measured or defined (Holzer and Kloby, 2005: 517; Khwaja, 2004: 428). There is debate surrounding the forms that such participation could take and its impact on spatial elements of sustainable development (Marfo, 2008).
“A ladder of citizen participation” by Arnstein (1969) was amongst the first academic works to truly consider the various degrees of effectiveness of community participation in determining the end-product and the distribution of power that took place within it, ranging from non-participation to true citizen power. This principle of “transferring power” put forward by Arnstein and thus the associated “ownership” of a project moved away from previous notions that the primary purpose of community participation was merely to inform and be informed. Despite such classification and an explosion of work by successive academics such as Connor (1988), Wilcox (1994), Head (2007), Hurlbert and Gupta (2015) and (Davies, 2001: 194), defining a practical “best-practice” playbook and measuring success or impact remains elusive.
According to most literature, projects which empower citizens lead to funding which is “more responsive to the needs of the poor, better targeting of poverty programs, more responsive government and better delivery of public goods and services, better maintained community assets, and a more informed and involved citizenry that is capable of undertaking self-initiated development activity” (Mansuri and Rao, 2003: 2). Participatory development mechanisms can further build social capital at a larger scale, improve governance and lead to enhanced sustainability (Khwaja, 2004: 429).
While the generally positive impacts are indisputable, the processes by which this is achieved is complex. The literature generally proposes methods which can be grouped into 3 categories. 1) adopt a “blank page” policy by shifting significant portions of the responsibilities and primary drivers of project identification, decision making and its priorities to the community; 2) developing capacity building, credit access, social development funds, welfare systems and social assistance projects to the most vulnerable; 3) fostering, empowering and developing grass-root organisations and civic movements that will enable bilateral transfer of knowledge and information (Swapan, 2014; Njoh, 2002; Head, 2007). The timescales of community participation are equally hotly debated with vague definitions assigned to the levels of actions over various lengths of time for the words “involvement”, “consultation”, “participation”, “engagement” and “empowerment” (Wilcox, 1994; Creighton, 2005).
It is generally assumed that greater levels of community participation can only result in positive outcomes, yet, there are potential negative pitfalls to consider (Head, 2007; 449). While Arnstein (1969) argues that citizen control (the highest rung on her ladder) is the greatest form of citizen power and ownership and is thus most desirable, she does not distinguish between the various elements of a project nor which elements should communities be consulted on. She dismisses many forms of community participation as “tokenism” or “non-participation”, seemingly rejecting them as not worthwhile. This view is supported by Hart (1997) through his own scale of government led participation which considers the lower ranks of engagement as “inauthentic” (pp. 4). Khwaja (2004) takes the more nuanced view that community participation is not always desirable and not needed in all parts of development projects. She examined development projects in Pakistan to reach the conclusion that while community engagement is beneficial on aspects requiring local input and knowledge, it can be detrimental when it comes to the more macro investment, policy making and economic feasibility elements of the project. Warren (2009) goes further and sets out different levels of participation which ought to be used for different policy issues. Hurlbert and Gupta (2015) take this policy engagement aspect to the next stage by developing a tool they named the “split ladder of participation” used to asses if and when participation is necessary or if it would cause a hinderance. Citizen control is, they argue, not always the most appropriate form of community participation, it must be adapted to different contexts and levels of governance. Tritter and McCallum, (2006) take the approach of challenging the notion that it is the appropriation of “power” alone which defines successful community engagement to the exclusion of efficient co-operation between holders of different forms of knowledge and expertise. They further make the point that too often, community participation is in itself the goal of a project with little focus on the end product delivery. What emerges from the academic literature is that community participation is a dynamic process which is heavily context dependent and cannot be easily constrained, defined or categorised nor is it absolute in its capacity for positive change. Furthermore, such simplistic and absolute categorisation efforts, hinder many worthwhile and context-appropriate methods of community engagement by placing too heavy a burden on the shift of power and decision making to ill- defined and ill-equipped communities, thus potentially paralysing efforts towards real consensual progress.
Too often is community participation considered solely as a bilateral dialogue between the citizenry and the political or city institutions to the exclusion of numerous stakeholders belonging to the “third sector” of private businesses (Head, 2007; 447), yet it is increasingly the private sector who is asked to finance and often take a leading role in the development of urban sustainability projects (Kirama and Mayo, 2016; Dorobantu and Odziemkowska, 2016) in both the global north and south. Assuming that the private sector has as its sole interest the maximisation of profit is belittling their potential contribution to poverty alleviation and as a force to drive social change (Kerahroodi, 2016). Most privately held firms today have “Corporate Social Responsibilities” or “Corporate Shared Value” schemes that can contribute to both their “triple bottom line” and the public good, ignoring that potential is limiting the potential for sustainable social change.
Within the developing countries of the “global south”, community participation as a means of achieving more equitable socio-economic development and improving governance has become a prerequisite of much needed development aid (Hout, 2002; 512). This agenda is pushed forward by global institutions such as the OECD, the UN and the World Bank (UNDP 2006) as an essential element without which sustainability in urban development projects is not possible (Kwaja, 2004: 427; Head 2007). Brown (2007: 12) further advocated that community development initiatives would enhance “transparency, accountability, responsiveness and predictability” of local government and planning agencies who were traditionally established on models of top-down planning, burdened with heavily politicised bureaucracies and a lack of skilled human resources. In an effort to increase their sources of external funding, those agencies have been increasingly willing to include elements of community engagement in their action plans (Cooke & Kothari, 2001). While this willingness is generally positive, the enthusiasm generated by the concept hasn’t always resulted in clear understanding of the aspirations of community participation processes and associated pitfalls, often resulting in low levels of participation (Tosun, 2000) or minimal impact (John, 2009). In developing economies, often burdened with weaker governance, transparency and rule of law along with customary rights that may go against the principles of equitable community engagement, successful implementation of participatory development can be far more complex and difficult.
Trust of elected officials and institutions is often cited as a key challenge in effective community participation (Alford 2002; 3). An example of this can be found in the work of Swapan, (2014) and As- Saber (2015) in the development of Detailed Area Plans (DAP) in Bangladesh. Swapan (2014) examined the comparative importance of various factors that may influence the willingness to participate in community outreach programs by the citizens. He identified six areas that would impact willingness “(1.economic condition; 2.trust in planning agency; 3.awareness of the planning process; 4.sense of urgency, 5.effectiveness of communication and 6.status of social capital)” and asked citizens to rank them in order of comparative importance. He found that not only was trust in authority the first cited obstacle, it was driven by a belief that the community was being manipulated by a “political conspiracy” (Swapan, 2014: 194) and that their votes would therefore have less weight. This issue of trust, is often exacerbated by paternalistic behaviours from the instigators of the project who feel that their knowledge, experience and professional standing gives them the role of “selling” a pre-conceived (and in their mind superior) development proposal to the community instead of engaging in the process collaboratively, thus generating frustrations to all parties (Dudley, 1993: 150).
Community engagement can be frustrated by the understanding and perceptions of technical jargon. An example of this is illustrated in a study done by Anderson et al., (2016) on the perceptions of the word “densification” amongst communities and development aid actors. The ADB and other aid organisations in Mongolia, see the intensification of urban densification in the low income areas of Ulaanbaatar as the best approach to solving the infrastructure cost efficiency issues as well as the best means of providing improved access to public services and economic opportunities (Gotov, 2010; 7). This vision is often at odds with local political decision makers who view densification as being “contrary to the nomadic heritage of Mongolia” (Anderson 2015; 8) but who never the less agreed to the principles in an effort to modernise the city, develop efficient infrastructure provision and have access to international aid financing. The residents of the impacted communities had gone through various community engagement acts of “tokenism” as described by Arnstein (1969) ranging from wide ranging surveys, informative public sessions and focus groups where some community feedback was obtained. During those events, the term “densification” was widely used and feedback was obtained on whether that was desirable to the communities (M.A.D., 2015). It overwhelmingly was (87% approval) but the foreign consultants never considered if their own vision of densification matched with that of the communities.
The consultant teams thus designed, in participation with other stakeholders such as the Municipality of Ulaanbaatar, the Master Planning Agency and the Urban Design Institute a Master Plan which included low rise, mid density neighbourhoods with small scale but numerous public space that discouraged car use, promoted walkability and connectivity with public transport. The project proposed mixity of use and income and allowed for considerable infill of currently greenfield sites leading to considerable horizontal but not vertical density (ADB, 2015). Anderson et al., (2016) quizzed a 120 impacted residents as to their perceptions of the densification elements of the project and found that they viewed desirable densification as high rise single use tower blocks surrounded by ample vacant land and easy access for cars (pp 10), thus creating vertical density with low land usage. They considered current land use in Ulaanbaatar too dense with little publicly accessible ‘empty’ land and wanted to avoid a repeat of the same types of developments in their communities. This demonstrated the conflicts in the perceptions of the concepts of densification and highlighted the need to include residents participation in the design stages of the master plan. Had this been done Anderson et al., argues, the final designs may be more in keeping with local cultural desires, thus reaching a compromise between the desires of the resident community and the international urban planners who were following contemporary notions of equitable and sustainable urban planning.
UN Habitat in Mongolia deployed a network of community leaders in an attempt to bridge the information gap and develop improved feedback mechanisms within the ger districts, including the launch (in co- operation with the Asia Foundation) of a community participation website which has improved transparency of urban project and improved accountability of elected officials (Gross, 2014; 2). This form of “selective participation” of unelected community leaders may not accurately reflect the opinions of the community and can be problematic since over-reliance on those individuals may exclude other members of the community (Friedman 1993: 12) or they may unknowingly act as gate-keepers to the community serving instead their own self interest (Botes and van Rensburg, 2000: 49).
If poorly managed, community engagement can create divisions and foster conflict as unanimous support for a proposed project is unlikely and a group may impose their will on another weaker group (Gilbert 1987: 57). Certain communities may be influenced by political interest groups as a form of legitimising social control. It can exacerbate existing levels of mistrust with local authorities if communication is ineffective (Swapan 2014; 195), deepen income inequality or lead to certain communities or types of citizens being preferred partners of International Development Agencies (IDA) since they are perceived to be ‘easier’ to work with. Within the Mongolian context, due to mis-managed community engagement by multiple parties and the over-politicisation of the project when local politicians used project community outreach efforts to garner votes, expectations of compensation levels grew to unsustainable amounts resulting in the relocation of the project to a different part of the city (ADB, 2016) and the original community loosing out on potential windfalls of the project despite having gone through years of community engagement, leading to acute disappointment.
The reality is that community participation is a time consuming, uncertain, often frustrating and complex process. It can delay projects and be an obstacle to more immediate forms of physical developments. Project instigators often find themselves under intense pressure and have limited resources in terms of budget, manpower and time to deliver the hard “product” elements of the project (such as the physical, financial or technological aspects) for which they are contracted and thus cut corners on the softer, more intangible “process” elements such as capacity building, community empowerment and social compacts (Asthana, 1994: 57). Delivering adequate “products” without having spent the resources developing the appropriate “processes” to put them in place may lead to unsustainable projects over the longer term.
The NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) phenomenon in much of the developed world demonstrates situations in which deeply entrenched emotional positions hinder rational discussion as to the merits of a scheme (Pol et al., 2006) and thus require considerable efforts to achieve community approval on projects that may be detrimental to a few but have an impact on the ‘greater good’ (Petrova, 2016). In developing economies where abject poverty, scarce resources and a strong desire to obtain basic forms of public goods is powerful, the community may agree to any scheme that may alleviate their suffering in the short-term with little regard to longer-term consequences (Botes and van Rensburg, 2000: 49) leaving them open for abuse. Finally, such a heavy reliance on community participation as a tool for socio- economic change can lead to low levels of participation as disillusionment over the levels and timescales of progress takes hold (Njoh, 2002; Tosun, 2000).
The increasing ability of stakeholders to examine and experience successes and failures in other markets enables greater institutional memory and improved efficiencies at home (Gross, 2014) even if it sometimes lead to homogenisation of practices in spite of local culture (Friedmann, 2005; 184) and does not always lead to the hoped for impacts of increased transparency or accountability in development projects (John, 2009: 495; Klijn, Edelenbos and Steijn, 2010; As-Saber 2015). For such knowledge sharing to be effective, failures have to be admitted and examined to the same scrutiny as successes, a rare occurrence in most emerging economies since pride, self interest or political necessity often lead to the burial of failures and the over-reporting of successes (Botes and van Rensenburg, 2000: 45).
The global south faces arguably greater challenges since weak governance can manifest itself in the potential for nepotism, corruption, abuses of power and perception of vulnerable communities with few litigation options. Despite such clear challenges, the global south presents considerable opportunities as there is greater desire for change, and thus willingness to participate in the process (Njoh, 2002: 234).
It is clear that carrying out effective community participation anywhere in the world continues to be a complex and challenging task which remains never the less essential (not to mention noble). All too often, too heavy of a burden of expectation is placed on intangible community engagement. Achieving real citizen control is elusive and fraught with the danger of causing more harm than good. Academic literature on the topic tends to romanticise what is a messy and controversial process. The shifting information landscape, the increasing power of social media, the “individualisation of news sources”, the growing political disenchantment of the masses are all aspects of community engagement which impact project success and will only grow as new challenges emerge globally. The contemporary examples of the Dakota Access pipeline in the US (Dorobantu and Odziemkowska, 2016) clearly demonstrates how complex the issues can rapidly become and the proportions they take if community grievances are not considered from the outset.
Yet, effective community participation, despite being an inexact science at best, remains the best tool available to achieve a more equitable and efficient distribution of limited resources. If community participation is not better understood and applied in practice, there is a real potential for it to be ignored, misused and eventually discarded as yet another neoliberal policy agenda which failed at achieving a better distribution of resources. For participatory development to take hold, it requires a better understanding of the role that holistic community participation plays in the development process, not as a magic wand to solve all problems but as a selective and powerful tool with both considerable benefits and limitations.
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