“Participation” is one of those concepts that is taken for granted as so obvious and universal for all, but it is not always the case that we all have a universal understanding of it, particularly so in the context of the development arena. It is doubtful, for example, that in practice we accept it as:

Participation by the people in the institutions and systems which govern their lives is a basic human right and also essential for realignment of political power in favor of disadvantaged groups and for social economic development.

Rural development strategies can realise their full potential only through the motivation, active involvement and organisation at the grassroots level of rural people, with special emphasis on the least advantaged, conceptualizing and designing policies and programmes and in creating administrative, social and economic institutions, including cooperative and other voluntary forms of organisation for implementing and evaluating them.

The Peasants’ Charter, FAO (Source: “People First – A guide to Self-Reliant, Participatory Rural Development,” by Stan Burkey: page 56)

Sadly, in reality, at least in the context of Uganda, “participation” is probably one of the most misunderstood, misused and abused concept in the “development arena.”

This is particularly so, as it is applied to those that interventions proclaim to serve and to benefit. Often the proclaimed target beneficiaries are referred to in emotive language such as: “the voiceless,” “the poorest of the poor,” “the helpless,” “the vulnerable,” among others.

Which begs the question, how then are those who are voiceless, or the poorest of the poor, or the helpless or the vulnerable, truly able to participate in the design and in the implementation of development interventions proclaimed for their benefit?

And if that is what the originators or owners of the intervention think of them, will they truly allow for the participation of such beneficiaries that they refer to in such terminology? And if they do, will they value and respect the opinions of those they think of in lesser terms?

This is simply an invitation to us all to reflect on our language and our practice too.

By Norah Owaraga, Managing Director

Photo credit: archives from the Uganda Office and Programme of the Canadian Physicians for AID and relief. It would appear that the beautiful ladies in the picture are Ethiopian.

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