This picture is how the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom visualized "participation". Licenced under a cc attribution 2.5 licence. Source and copyright:

This picture is how the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom visualized “participation”. Licenced under a cc attribution 2.5 licence. Source and copyright:

So I am listening to the speakers of the panel “Learning is  a two-way street: Participation in Communication and Education” of this years’ “Global Media Forum” of Deutsche  Welle. And I keep thinking that the speakers on the panel seem to describe another case of a “stolen concept” here:

Kanchan Malik from India’s University of Hyderabad starts by defining “participation”. She explains,  that the original meaning of “participation” was taken away from the practitioners, more precisely the power of defining it was taken away from the “communities”, who are supposed to participate in communication, learning and  political transformation. Quite an irony.

I also hear lots of other formulations that hint at the perception of a distortion. The speakers emphasize, that “participation has often been reduced to a multipurpose label  to give respectability to projects”.

They talk about “pseudo-participation categorized by  domestication (including therapy and  manipulation),  assistencialism, including consultation and an “NGOization”  of community radio in India.”

This is all pretty sad, and I ask myself, who is “stealing” such concepts and why? I get some of the answer by the panelist from Colombia, Mónica Valdés, who works with communities in war-torn areas of the country. She states that “thoughts and concepts are never technical, never innocent, but all political. That is why participation always needs to be about  framing your problems yourself and mapping out political action – and that is dangerous”.  So it looks like we are heading towards the classical issue of power struggles, which are (also) being fought through the definition of key terms. Mingled with some “progressive” versus “neo-liberal” ideology on a global level …

At that point, I needed to go back to a book, which I had read a couple of years ago: “Deconstructing Development Discourse. Buzzwords and Fuzzwords” (Edited by Andrea Cornwall and Deborah Eade). And bing: chapter nine is on “participation: the ascendency of a buzzword in the neo-liberal area”. Here, author Pablo Leal (also from Latin America) sums up: “Reduced to a series of methodological packages and techniques, participation has slowly lost its philosophical and ideological meaning.”

Well that happened to a couple of other concepts. My favorites of such embattled terms in the field of development:

-> “empowerment” / -> “poverty reduction” / -> “human rights”

More on all of the terms above is in the book, but the following might be candidates for in the next edition

> “open source” /  -> “open innovation”

But let me briefly come back to participation in education:  what is then the “real meaning” of participation, the real concept behind the multipurpose labeling?

Some aspects mentioned in the session include:

– story telling as a tactic of resistance against  social exclusion

– “genuine” NGO action, in which the NGO play a restricted role of platform to give voice to community / involving all, creating spaces for action, etc…

– Easy-to-use tools that allow for agenda-setting by the community (joint decision-making on community radio programming).

– “Two-way radio” for farmers in Africa:  “Sharing knowledge and giving voices”. Kervin Perkins of “Farm Radio International” describes an impact evaluation of 49 “participatory radio campaigns” (farmer input through participatory formative research, maximize farmers’ voice on air e.g. through “on air call-out to farmers via cell phone”). Result: ” such radio campaigns did enable informed decision making for both the “active communities”, who participated in programming, and for the “passive listening communities”, who just listened. (Study is online here). 40 Percent of active listeners changed their practice.

More on “genuine participation” can be found in a book, which was just released by the Commonwealth of Learning on “Learning with Community Media“.

And on the linguistic front: Lets see how the different groups using these terms will continue to try and frame its meaning (or come to a joint definition at one point …).

In this context: Do you have know some other “reduced” or “embattled” term? Please let me know – just post a comment  below…

____ balthas ____

Note: This text was first published on the blog of Balthas Seibold at the Alumniportal Germany ( Check the blog ( register or login first). All blog entries represent the personal views and ideas of Balthas Seibold.

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