Global Development Institute Blog

Professor Diana Mitlin, Professor of Global Urbanism, Global Development Institute

How can participation be scaled up to make an impact that has relevance at the scale required? What are the challenges that must be tackled in terms of exclusion of those who have the lowest incomes and are the most vulnerable? What is the contribution of the state, and how can a supportive response be catalysed? How significant is devolution and subsidiarity? And how can we shift from the neighbourhood to city-wide interventions, inclusive, multi-sectoral and multi-scalar?

A conference at the University of Manchester on June 12-13 2019 offers a unique insight into these and related challenges. Professors Victoria Beard, Vanessa Watson, Gabriella Carolini and Gianpaolo Baiochhi will debate with NGO experts, Somsook Boonyabancha (Asian Coalition for Housing Rights), Kaustuv Bandyopadhyay (Participatory Research in Asia), Carlos Revilla (ADD, Bolivia) and Jhono Bennett (1to1, South Africa). The experiences of SDI affiliated-social movements from Kenya and Zimbabwe will add the grassroots perspective to the discussions. And their African knowledge will be enhanced by histories of social movements from Rosario in Argentina.

For many decades the importance of participatory development has been recognised. Tyranny or transformative, it has been part of the development lexicon. Some governments have legislated to enhance opportunities for participation, while others have been positively hostile. However, for low-income households and their organizations, participatory development has failed to scale. Politics and governance remain dominated by elites and democracy is kept to an occasional vote. All too often, votes are frustrated by the options on offer.

For the almost one billion living in informal settlements across towns and cities of the global South, more equitable and inclusive forms of development are a priority. For some, this is a struggle that is about securing the basic services that other wealthier citizens take for granted. But for many activists, there is another agenda. What are the conditions under which low-income and disadvantaged urban citizens can claim their entitlement to be involved in decision making? And how can Lefevre’s “right to the city” move off the pages of academic texts and protest banners, and become part of everyday governance?

Inputs will range across the towns and cities of the global South. Contributions will include:

  • strategies of savings-based organizing used across 300 plus cities by the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights, and the efforts of Participatory Research in Asia to collaborate with local government and create new development options throughout India.
  • The challenge of participation in Zimbabwe will be shared by the Zimbabwean Homeless People’s Federation, drawing particularly on their experiences in Bulawayo.
  • Lessons from participatory budgeting will be contributed by Prof. Gianpaolo Baiochio.
  • 1to1’s experiences from South Africa highlight that government commitment to participation is not sufficient in a context in which top-down interventions remain the norm.
  • Planning issues related to participation will be considered by Associate Professor Victoria Beard (for both Asia and the US) and Professor Vanessa Watson (for sub-Saharan Africa).
  • The Kenyan SDI affiliate, the Muungano Alliance, will share experiences of participatory planning in Mukuru, a neighbourhood of 100,000 households in Nairobi.
  • Associate Professor Gabriella Carolini will help us understand experiences of both top down and bottom up initiatives in Brazil and Mozambique.

And, in keeping with GDI’s commitment to explore issues of global development, they will include insights from both US (drawing on Victoria Beard’s work) and UK cities (drawing on exchanges between SDI’s Kenyan affiliate and low-income communities in Manchester). While typically participation is seen by development experts as associated with deficits in governance, and of particular relevance in the global South, long-standing patterns of deprivation and the inability of professionals to design effective poverty reduction have legitimated bottom up approaches in urban neighbourhoods in the global North.

In keeping with the spirit of participation, numbers to the conference will be kept low to enable discussion. Our intention is to explore the potential for scaling up participation, the challenges involved in such scaling and approaches that might lead to success.