London, New York: Zed Books, 2004, ISBN: 1 84277 460 3, 304 pp.
This book has appeared none too soon. Its predecessor, Participation: the new tyranny?, edited by Bill Cooke and Uma Kothari, and published in 2001 also by Zed Books, was more in the tradition of the negative academic who relishes finding things to criticise. These were the many actual and potential defects of practices labelled as participatory. Its question mark was overshadowed by the clever paradox of the rest of the title, which must have ensured a wide readership. Unfortunately, the style and orientation of that book were more prone to breed cynicism than to encourage action and trying to do better. It is, of course, vital to recognise and learn from the widespread bad practices perpetrated in the name of participation. But any balanced view must also include the gains that have been made, some of them extraordinary. From tyranny to transformation? takes us in that direction. It has the sharp critical edge we will always need. At the same time is better informed and more perceptive and judicious than its predecessor. While its title retains the question mark, as it should, the word ‘transformation’ points us forwards. No short review can do justice to the wealth of comment and insight presented in the book’s 18 chapters. One strength is the presentation and analysis of examples to give an empirical grounding. Quite extensive case material is drawn from Bolivia, Brazil, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Nepal, Peru, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe and elsewhere. There are some useful concepts, examples of participation, and reminders of its dimensions that give pause for reflection. Among others, John Gaventa describes new forms of citizen-state engagement. Andrea Cornwall explores spaces as metaphor and reality, using the distinction between those which are ‘invited’ and those which are ‘popular’ or ‘autonomous’. Ute Kelly gives us ‘the tyranny of safety’, suggesting that making spaces ‘safe’ for people to express and change their views can discourage precisely the open, honest discussion that is sought. Glyn Williams finds participation ‘ a highly malleable discourse in political terms’ and argues that it should be re-politicised. Mark Waddington and Giles Mohan refer to ‘deep political literacy’ linked to REFLECT (originally Regenerated Freirian Literacy through Empowering Community Techniques, now more usually simply Reflect). Codes of practice and ethical considerations are central to only one chapter. In this Bill Cooke lists his rules of thumb for participatory change agents. Individually, these are salutary shocks not least to those who gain their livelihoods in consultancy and research. But they could tyrannise more than transform: don’t work for the World Bank; data belong to those from whom they were taken; work only in languages you understand as well as your first; always work for local rates, or for free – each of these invites a ‘Yes, but…’. Life and ethics are not so simple. Development professionals who practise responsibly are faced with dilemmas: and these are interwoven with personal and professional tensions and contradictions, demanding trade-offs and compromises which are sometimes stark and sometimes subtle, if they are to engage actively rather than carp and prescribe from the side lines. This applies not least to decisions and actions when engaging with process, when dealing with difference and conflict, when seeking to make spaces safe but not too safe or safe in the wrong way, and when facilitating exchanges, negotiation, and mutual understanding. Not to engage, and so to avoid having to make choices with trade-offs, is itself an ethical decision. Questions of responsibility apply to what is not done as well as to what is. Power and agency are pervasive themes in this collection. Gaventa writes on the significance of power relations in participatory spaces, Cornwall on spaces for transformation, Kelly on how shifts in power can be difficult and painful for all who are involved, and Williams on calling power to account. And other chapters pick up on these themes. While it is good and overdue that power and agency have become more central concerns and more discussed in development, there is a danger that they become top-down priorities, a point made by Frances Cleaver: in analysing the social embeddedness of agency and decision making, she adds the salutary caution that in terms of poor people’s priorities, empowerment and transformation are not just matters of spaces and voices, but entail more prosaic forms of material and social transformation of everyday life. The frontiers of participatory practices move fast; and given the delays of authors, editors, and publishers, books on participation are vulnerable to being overtaken by events by the time they are published. It is also easy for them to overlook some of the myriad innovations and applications that manifest almost every month. So it is not surprising that some strikingly original and transformative developments are not in this book, for example applications of participatory approaches and methods to violence, to guns and disarming, to sexual and reproductive health, to community sanitation, to boundary disputes and conflict resolution, and to tertiary education. As Tony Bebbington remarks ‘the frontier of what can be done around participatory development and social change has expanded enormously’[p. X]. It continues to do so. From Tyranny to Transformation does not explore the full span of potentials and applications on that frontier, but does a service in summarising much recent experience, and doing this in a manner which is variously provocative, critical and balanced. It deserves to be widely read and reflected on by those who are engaged in and concerned with participation. Robert Chambers IDS University of Sussex, UK