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Rethinking public participation from below

Published in Critical Dialogue


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The invitation from Imran Buccus at the Centre for Public Participation to attempt some reflections on public participation in the light of recent experiences is appreciated. It may be useful to begin by noting that much of the power of concepts like public participation, civil society, democratic consolidation, social capital and others inheres in the fact that they have donor money behind them. Attaching oneself to these concepts can produce jobs, contracts, legitimation and acceptance into local, national and transnational networks. Often the spaces and projects created by the donor money invested in these concepts are uncritically assumed to be the incubators of values and even practices that will be able to generate some kind of challenge to technocratic managerial despotism. This is a mistake.1 It is true that resistance often forces imperial power to make certain concessions to legitimate its domination. And these concessions often take the form of appropriating some of the discourses produced within resistances. At times this results in the creation of institutions that have some potential to be used for critical thinking and action in the service of constituent power. But the actualisation of this potential is far from inevitable and in many instances will only be possible when work is done covertly.

If we intend to engage in critical praxis we need to subject the power of ideas that come to us via funding from alliances between imperialism and local elites, and which sometimes even become part of our unreflective common sense, to rigorous historical and sociological analysis. This work needs to take seriously the often open connections between the coercive and persuasive aspects of imperialism. William Robinson has done particularly important work in this regard. Robinson makes a convincing case, substantiated with rigorous empirical evidence, that in the dominated countries civil society, rather than state power, became the key focus of American imperial strategies to secure consent for policies in the interests of transnational capital from the late 1970s. Robinson shows that US policy making elites recognised that the strategy of supporting dictatorial regimes, especially in Southern Africa, Haiti and South America, was resulting in the development of mass oppositional movements seeking fundamental social transformation. They concluded that liberal parliamentary democracies with a technocratic orientation to policy making would be a more effective bulwark against popular demands for social transformation. In the early 70s one of the earliest theorists of a shift from supporting dictators to civil society in liberal democracies, William Douglas, argued that:

    in regard to keeping order, what is involved is basically effective police work, and there is no reason why democratic regimes cannot have well-trained riot squads…However…the real key is to find just the right balance between carrot and stick…Democracy can provide a sufficient degree of regimentation, if it can build up the mass organizations needed to reach the bulk of the people on a daily basis. Dictatorship has no monopoly on the tutelage principle. (Cited in Robinson 1996:84)

  1. Noting this should not, as with other statements made here, and as happened with a previous paper that elaborated some general critiques of NGO practice, be misread as a personal attack. It is a general critique that is, and this must be stated very clearly, as much a self critique with regard to my own practice as anything else. Whether or not the NGO left is willing to stand up to the elements that respond to good faith auto-critique with acute personal hostility and quick recourse to slander, intimidation and the disciplinary processes deployed by institutions ruled by neo-liberal managerialism is, at this stage, not certain. If autocritique is effectively banned in this space, and that banning is generally accepted, then parts of the NGO left may well have to be abandoned altogether by people hoping to be serious about critical praxis. While there are obvious benefits to a relationship between NGOs and movements predicated on mutuality and respect it is, also, an open question as to whether, from the point of view of actually existing mass movements of the poor, there is anything at all to be lost by a principled or tactical withdrawal from the ambit of the vanguardist edge of the NGO left.

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