Towards Participation in Development

As development theory and discourse has evolved, participation has become a core theme. Modernisation theory, as a development theory of the 1940s and 1950s, approached development from a paternalistic perspective. Within this thinking, societies in ‘need of development’ were defined as those societies that had a ‘restricted capacity to solve social problems and to control the physical environment’ (Coetzee et al., 2001, p. 28). Following from this assumption, those in the West knew best and could tell the rest how to develop.

Criticisms of modernisation theory led to different ways of thinking about development in the 1990s onwards. Most popular, perhaps, are asset-based development and participatory development, both originating out of the criticism that in much of development programming the voices and ideas of those in developing countries were unheard. Thinkers like Sen (1999) and Nussbaum (2001) note that thus far development theories have not really considered the capabilities that the ‘underdeveloped’ have to shape their own lives and communities. Asset-based development thinking (Kretzman & McKnight, 1993) is underpinned by the assumption that the target populations of development interventions have their own beliefs, ideas, and values around how to live their lives: They are active agents.

For Sen, ‘development can be seen ... as a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy’ (1999, p. 3). This view insists upon creating the circumstances under which people can be free agents in their own lives. Participatory development practises take us in this direction and are far more visible in development practise today. As Martinussen, reflecting on the prevalence of participation in development theory, notes:

Numerous definitions of development appeared with a focus on the capacity to make and implement decisions. The attention given to building autonomous capacity can be viewed as an attempt to reduce the ethnocentricism that so strongly characterised most of the earlier definitions. (1997, p. 41)

In participatory development, the involvement of communities in development is seen both as a goal for other development objectives—defined by the community and not by external agents—as well as an end in itself. Participation is seen as a mechanism for both the empowerment and conscientisation of communities that will enable them to understand and change their social reality (Friere, 1982), as well as the capacity building necessary for sustainable development.

Social development theory reflects many of these principles. This theory takes the standpoint that involvement in the productive economy and increasing tangible and financial assets is the best way to enhance people’s welfare and community development (Patel, 2003,2005,2015). It emphasises the agency and capabilities of individuals. Social development inspired interventions are thus pro-poor, people- centred, and promote participatory development as well as individual and community empowerment (Patel, 2003).

With the focus on participation, it becomes clear that volunteering is one key mechanism that can promote development whilst fostering participation and active citizenship. The evidence from the four studies mentioned above demonstrates that community-based organisations, largely staffed by local volunteers, do just that.

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