“Participation” and Power

Alejandro leading a rainwater project meeting in his community, Campana Cocha, Ecuador. Photo by David Barnes.

As someone who recently returned from five years of community conservation work in the Ecuadorian Amazon, where I grappled with a frustratingly slow internet connection and other cultural barriers to global communication, I’m excited to see so much discussion about community-driven development from many people who have been doing it a lot longer in more challenging places. It’s refreshing to read from colleagues who were born and raised in the countries where they now work, not just from those of us from the North who moved to work on the ground.

What I find interesting as I emerge into this global conversation (and try to get caught up on it) is how loud the chorus is from a wide variety of knowledgeable people that the power dynamic in international development is long overdue for a shift. So many repeat the same, important message: if outsiders really want to see meaningful change in the Global South, the commitment, drive, and decision-making have to come from the communities where that change is supposed to happen. Like a lot of other people, I refer to this as bottom-up, community-driven development, but maybe inside-out would be a more accurate description.

As Jennifer Lentfer explores in a succinct and well-written post on the topic, the distinction between “participation” and “ownership” reveals a lot to me about the power structure of aid. Who “owns” a project? Who “participates” in it? How is “ownership” defined–strictly in terms of who funds the project, who designs the project, who controls the evaluation of impact? The rise and success of asset-based community development models and community foundations in the Global South show how people who live in communities are investing their assets, including whatever financial contribution they can afford, to give them more control and stake in development projects.

But where a financial investment that exceeds people’s capacity is needed, must they cede ownership just because the money is coming from outside? Do they then become participants?

Despite a significant body of research on the topic, most conversations among those who hold the purse strings do not address the distinction between “ownership” and “participation”. The closer you are to the actual project work, the more you realize how this is not just semantics but a key in unlocking much greater success in development work. What will it take to move this topic from the inside to the outside, so that those farther removed not only understand the distinction, but value it?