Increasingly, people and institutions around the world are demanding that development – planned social and economic change – be negotiated rather than imposed, and that it focus on ensuring human well being. The concept of participatory development has thus attracted widespread, and often uncritical, use; it ranges from the merely consultative, to the transfer of key decision-making powers to previously disempowered groups. In the same vein, ‘community driven’ solutions, consultations with stakeholders, and devolution of control to local levels, are all attempts to encourage a more democratic approach to development in which many voices and interest groups are represented.
Yet how can real participation be defined, encouraged, and institutionalised? Various studies have recognised that ‘participation’ is often not empowering, and may be orchestrated by more powerful interests as a way to coopt local voices to support their interests. In addition, much of the rhetoric on participation fails to recognise the complexities and political intricacies of local communities, where many different visions of development may co-exist. Finally, even when local people in all their diversity are empowered to participate in development decision making, the question still remains: how can the local, micro- focus of much participatory development gain voice and influence in the context of national and global level social and economic institutions? It is clear that the larger political and institutional context of local-level participation matters.
Many of these questions about participatory development overlap and dialogue with current questions about effective governance. How can local governments effectively reflect and balance the interests of diverse local populations – particularly when it comes to development decision-making? How can state and national representatives reflect the even greater diversity of interests that they represent, and speak effectively for ‘the people’ in both their domestic policymaking and in international fora? There is increasing recognition of the need for diverse, non-government sectors to actively participate in decision-making processes, as reflected in recent writing on ‘participatory governance’. Yet in practice, participatory governance faces many of the same issues as participatory development: who has real voice and influence in the relationship between locals and outside agencies? By bringing together researchers with backgrounds in community development and participatory social change, with those with backgrounds in governance and regional development, this workshop offers an opportunity to explore together the interrelated topics of participation and governance in regional development.