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writing for godot

What do buzzwords do for development policy? A critical look at 'poverty reduction', 'participation' and 'empowerment'.

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Tuesday, 05 May 2020 00:11

Human rights: Food for an ambiguous thought  ‘Beware of catchwords’


Human Rights Reader 525


Andrea Cornwall, Karen Brock (2004)


[I here excerpt and adapt from this excellent oldie-but-goody paper given its relevance to our work on human rights].


1. The SDGs (MDGs in the original paper) serve as a good example of the ‘extravagance in promising future benefits’. It represents a mode of persuasion that animates and inspires development action. It is that ‘humanity requires myths’, i.e., inspiring images of battle and triumph, for any substantial forward movement. Development agents need to believe that they are able to make a difference, and that the turbulent world in which they operate is amenable to their intervention; they need the conviction of their rightness to lend them legitimacy, to permit them to intervene in the lives of distant others. And they need a kind of near-sighted optimism that keeps the complications in the background safely blurry.


2. In the texts of mainstream development agencies, participation, empowerment and poverty reduction are used to purvey a story-line that situates these agencies as guardians of rightness (human rights included??) and champions of progress. This story-line is more than utopian: more than an exercise in intellectual construction. Myths are not descriptions of things, but expressions of a determination to act... Myths safeguard utopias. The statements of intent that constitute the policies and prescriptions of international development agencies gain the qualities of myth, precisely because they seek to call us to action, name what we can do, give us a sense of the possible, of ourselves as agents of the possible.


3. Successful ideologies work, because they do more than convey a good argument; they compel people to act as protagonists, as main subjects. Development myths work through emotional identification, not through rationality; they build and sustain the feeling of conviction that people need in order to be able to act. Good argument has its place here, but is secondary to something that is of quite a different order: a feeling of rightness, one that may be backed by the creation of instruments like the SDGs, that serve an almost ceremonial function in bolstering a feeling of togetherness, purposefulness, of a visionary goal towards which to strive.


4. To talk of a ‘world free of poverty’, of the participation of ‘the poorest’ and most marginalized, of empowering women and entire communities is a call to action to development actors; and the extravagance-in-promising-future-benefits’ a means of galvanizing people for what would otherwise appear an insuperable struggle ahead. The very concept of policy tends to involve a particular kind of discourse that relies on the appearance of rationality, technique and efficiency. The part policies play in discourses of development is to provide reassurance, precisely because they appear to model the very controllability of that which they wish to bring about.


5. Development buzzwords function to provide the basis for the management of planned interventions; they wrap development agencies with a mantle of rightness, lending them legitimacy to intervene on behalf of ‘the poor’ (grrr!). Participation and empowerment, promoted by advocates at the margins of development as a means to give those rendered poor more of a voice in shaping policies and projects aimed to assist them, has equally served to provide the legitimacy needed to reassure today’s generation of development workers using their traditional and weary blueprints.


6. There is a definite feeling in many quarters that what is now paraded as ‘participatory’ and ‘empowering’ is little more than the Emperor’s New Clothes. Yet, at the same time, it is important to remember that the utopias that are shored up by development myths are profoundly ideological constructions --and competing ideologies may co-exist within the same discourse. Participation, poverty reduction and empowerment may have come to play starring roles in the ‘happy ending’ narratives purveyed by contemporary development policies.


7. But struggles over meaning continue to be waged. International development organizations have not simply absorbed the kind of language once used by radical alternative movements, neither have they necessarily co-opted these concepts and/or swallowed them whole. On the one hand, battles for the acceptance of alternatives within institutions like the World Bank or UK’s DFID have produced partial what they call ‘victories’ presented as actor-networks linked to broader networks of advocates and activists in public interest CSOs that have gained ground in their efforts to transform their own institutions. (And it needs to be borne in mind that these struggles over meaning are only partial and they include struggles over bureaucratic turf and organizational priorities. They are driven as much by bureaucratic convenience and organizational imperative than by rivalry, ambition and a desire for institutional and/or personal power.


8. On the other hand, sanitized versions have emerged of terms that were once associated with a radical critique of the development establishment. Development buzzwords have dissonant, meanings set on purpose in order to make them fit the neoliberal development paradigm. But the more tampered with, the emptier the significance that is attached to them becomes.


9. If these three words have become emptied of their meaning when domesticated, then what? Some may say that since words have lost their meaning, we need to seek new words. The problem is that any discourse can contain within it multiple, competing, versions. To successfully appeal to others, these terms needs to have some resonance, something about it that will appeal whether on the level of emotion or intellect: people need to recognize themselves as having something to do with it, they need to feel it speaks about them and their values.


10. Others would argue that ceding these terms to those who would make their own meanings hegemonic would mean giving up the struggle over meaning, i.e., losing three words that matter. Participation may have been domesticated, but for some it still connotes the human right of each and every person to have a say in the decisions that affect their lives; it may have been equated with hand-picked representatives of people’s organizations being invited to meetings to be told what their country’s poverty reduction strategy should be. But these uses do not --and cannot-- exhaust its meanings. Adding adjectives to mark out a distinction in meanings has always been one tactic pursued by those who (honestly or not) try to differentiate themselves from the mainstream. In short, a move away from today’s anything-goes-words is needed.


11. These moves do serve as a means of contesting and keeping alive a dynamic debate about meanings and ideals that is critical not only to challenging the complacent orthodoxies of mainstream development, but also providing those who seek alternatives with their own source of energy and inspiration.


12. It is only by deconstructing the ways in which buzzwords are used that we can begin to identify fissures in the narratives they support and thus the possibility of alternatives. To do so, we need to look beyond the appearance of consensus and one-size-fits-all poverty reduction, empowerment and participation recipes in different bureaucratic, political and social contexts. It is with this in mind that we return here to the definition of participation proposed by UNRISD 40+ years ago, reconfiguring our three buzzwords in a very different way to today’s development consensus. In 1979, they defined participation as: the organized efforts to increase control over resources and regulative institutions in given social situations, on the part of groups and movements hitherto excluded from such control.


13. Let us take a closer look at this definition. The emphasis here is not on the kind of participation that one may find when certain individuals’ ‘voices come to represent the poor’ (grrr!). Nor is it the participation one may find in the institutions involved in sectoral planning over the last 20 or so years. Rather, the definition speaks of ‘organized efforts... on the part of groups and movements hitherto excluded from such control’. And it does not speak simply of being given information, being asked opinions, being invited to join committees and the like which accounts for most of what passes as participation today. Rather, it speaks of ‘control over resources and regulative institutions’.


14. In the policies being pursued by states and other ‘developers’, it remains perhaps the greatest challenge for claim holders to demand a more ‘inclusive’ development. As very disparate spaces for the participation of ordinary people continue to proliferate, hard questions need to be asked about the effects of all this fostering of participation in the name of the lip service being paid to goals of disparity reduction and empowerment. Is it about creating opportunities for the ‘hitherto excluded’ to ‘gain control over resources and regulative institutions’, or for the expression of dissent in arenas close and/or removed from those in which real power lies? Does the ‘deconcentration’ of power, ‘the shifting of governance away from the national level, upwards to supra-national levels and downwards towards regional or local levels’ simply nice talk when referring to empowerment? Is it just ‘cheap talk’?


15. For all the pressure to hold the consensus together (through such talk as ‘donor coordination’ and ‘policy coherence’), maybe it is time that some of those who once supported a development agenda that was about words like ‘solidarity’, ‘redistribution’ and ‘a world free of oppression’ began to carve out for themselves something more distinctive, i.e., ideas and concepts that can evoke a rather different other-possible-world and inspire those who would struggle for it. This instead of simply subscribing one and all to the most grandiose development myth: the myth that all-purpose development solutions can transcend context, culture and politics and apply to all.


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City

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