It has become a cliché that potential beneficiaries will tell aid agencies whatever they understand to be the current ‘Open Sesame’ discourse that will open up the treasure trove. This received wisdom is handed down by generations of seasoned aid workers as a warning to inexperienced programme staff not to take at face value what they are told, for example, about the supplicants’ commitment – whether to principles such as gender equity, environmental conservation, and indigenous rights, or to ways of working such as transparency, democratic practices, and good governance. One could imagine ‘the locals’ providing similar briefings before being visited by an aid-agency representative: not to take too much notice of invasive questioning about ‘intra-household decision-making strategies’; to be careful not to tread on toes in any ‘wealth ranking’ exercise, which could have undesirable consequences; to go along with rituals and games, role plays and maps in the mud, timelines and activity charts, guided tours around the area, and so on, without giving away too much information. You never know where this information might end up, so it’s safer to work on the basis that if they don’t already know, it’s probably because they don’t need to.

Certainly it has long been recognised in this journal that ‘participation’ can mask authoritarian practices on the part of external ‘change agents’ and also foster apparent compliance with the aid agenda on the part of the ‘participants’ (see, for example, Anacleti 1993; White 1996; Jackson 1997), while the more powerful players actually determine what constitutes knowledge.1  In this issue, John D. Cameron illustrates the subtle ways in which the ‘public performance’ of Andean communities involved in participatory budgeting differs from their backstage whispers; he helps to explain how they manage to ‘subvert’ the process in favour of  their own preferences for infrastructural projects – the bags of cement referred to in the article’s title. Lucy Earle considers the limitations of NGO interpretations of the ‘failed’ mobilisations by indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon, campaigning against the activities of extractive industries operating in their territories. In particular, she highlights the risks of romanticising what it means to be part of an indigenous community that must face a range of economic and political challenges to their identity and well-being. Norma Fuller addresses the political and ethical issues faced by anthropologists, who are often sought out by these same industries to interpret local realities and so smooth the way for the companies’ operations: how to avoid being co-opted by an agenda that local communities do not share. Elizabeth Rattine-Flaherty and Arvind Singhal also focus on the Peruvian Amazon in their description of the work of a local NGO which promotes gender equality and reproductive health, using a feminist participatory action–research approach to understanding the kinds of change that occur in the lives of the women involved. Turning to Colombia, Loramy Conradi Gerstbauer describes a Lutheran World Relief (LWR) programme which sought to form solidarity-based partnerships between peace-sanctuary churches in Colombia and congregations in the US Midwest. Two central themes emerge: that solidarity is based on mutual accountability; and that, if the voices of the South are not heard unless amplified via Northern NGOs, then the relationship could unintentionally create or deepen dependency. In exploring the valuable potential for partnership to contribute to peace-building work in the South when it is not mediated by funding from the North, the author makes a candid assessment of the pitfalls to be avoided.

The theme of partnership is also picked up by Thomas Franklin, who emphasises the importance of acknowledging differences between the respective organisations, and the need for all parties to be clear about what it is that collaboration is intended to achieve, in order for reciprocity and mutual respect to flourish. Tina Wallace describes issues raised by civil-society organisations, and particularly those concerned with gender equity and the rights of women, regarding their virtual absence from the Paris Declaration on harmonising aid, and yet again from the progress meeting held in Accra in September 2008. Too many Northern NGOs, however, are opting to shore up rather than challenge a donor-defined development agenda, despite the fact that even some donor officials are beginning – albeit off the record – to acknowledge that the new architecture is simply not working. Ines Smyth reports on a recent congress on gender, climate change, and disaster-risk reduction (DRR) where evidence was tabled to show that climate change exacerbates existing gender inequality. Yet, once again, ‘the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) does not mention gender, and its decisions and mechanisms remain devoid of a gender perspective’. If the invisibility of gender issues at the highest levels is the outcome of some 15 years of gender mainstreaming, something is profoundly awry – and more of the same will simply not fix it.

Climate change is expected to intensify and accelerate natural cycles such as the El Niño phenomenon, which affects the Indian Ocean, Australia, and Indonesia as well as the coastal regions of Peru and Ecuador. Predicting the onset of El Niño and taking precautionary measures to limit the damage caused is clearly of fundamental importance. Peter B. Urich, Liza Quirog, and William Granert describe a successful intervention in the island province of Bohol in the Philippines which built on adaptive community-based resource management, ensuring not only that information was communicated in a timely manner, but also that communities were able to assimilate and act on it.

Two further contributions focus on Latin America. Jutta Gutberlet describes the many challenges faced by a network of waste-recycling co-operatives in São Paulo, ranging from their lack of working capital to the bureaucratic and logistical obstacles preventing their access to micro loans; their lack of organisational skills and experience; stigmatisation and police harassment; and the ubiquitous intermediaries who all want a cut. Worldwide, recycling performs an increasingly important social and environmental function, as well as generating employment, particularly for unskilled and semi-skilled workers. With the right support, collective recycling efforts can also increase people’s social skills, as well as providing a source of income; without this, it will remain a marginal activity undertaken by marginalised sectors. In the rural context, Ruerd Ruben, Ricardo Fort, and Guillermo Zúñiga-Arias assess the impact of Fair Trade on co-operatives of coffee and banana producers in Peru and Costa Rica. Some of the impacts are direct and tangible, in the form of increased earning potential; others are less immediate, such as increased organisational skills and, importantly, the ability to obtain credit and other inputs. At the same time, ever more plantations and multinationals are obtaining Fair Trade-like certification, and this is changing the configuration of the global market in relation to small producers. Finally, Katie Wright and Kasturi Sen report on a series of workshops held in various regions of the world to pool information and share concerns and analysis about the worrying effects of counter-terror legislation on civil-society organisations, and on the prospects for equitable development, both within countries and internationally.

While many of the contributions in this issue focus on Latin America, the questions raised have resonance for those working in any geographical setting in which issues of polarisation are a daily reality (whether on economic, ethnic, or gender grounds, or because of other forms of discrimination), and where deep social divisions increase the prospect of armed conflict or repression, or have indeed already done so.


1. Mompati and Prinsen (2000: 630) illustrate the literal suppression of inconvenient knowledge during a PRA pilot project in which ‘one particular woman from a subordinate ethnic group spoke out loudly against the discriminatory practices of the dominant group. It was evident that she was breaking gender and ethnic rules by a serious intake of alcohol, but quite a number of the other participants were also quite inebriated. The


quickly pointed at a policeman, who took the woman by the arm, lifted her off the ground, and brought her to the shade of a tree about 50 metres from the meeting place. Thereafter the meeting continued as though nothing had happened.’


Anacleti, Odhiambo (1993) ‘Research into local culture: implications for participatory development’, Development in Practice 3 (1): 44–7.

Jackson, Cecile (1997) ‘Development work at the sharp end: field-worker agency in a participatory project’, Development in Practice 7 (3): 237–47.

Mompati, Tlamelo and Gerard Prinsen (2000) ‘Ethnicity and participatory development methods in Botswana: some participants are to be seen and not heard’, Development in Practice 10 (5): 625–37.

White, Sarah C. (1996) ‘Depoliticising development: the uses and abuses of participation’, Development in Practice 6 (1): 6–15.