Syndicate content

Beware the Context - Deliberation for Development II

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

Earlier this month, CommGAP hosted a conference on "Deliberation for Development: New Directions." The meeting was headed by the World Bank's Vijayendra Rao and Patrick Heller from Brown University and provided a vast and rich overview over the issue of deliberation as it concerns our work on the ground. Here's a little summary of the day, which by no means captures even a fraction of the wealth of information and knowledge that was presented, but may be an appetizer for our forthcoming book gathering all those contributions.

The first speaker, Arjun Appadurai of New York University, spoke about the importance of context: success of deliberation depends on factors outside the deliberative frame, mostly social and political power structures. Individual deliberation events may fail more often than not, especially if it's about allocating resources for the poor. However, while isolated deliberative occasions may be a failure in their own narrow context, in aggregation over time even those failures can alter those very contexts that made them fail at the outset.

Gerry Mackie from the University of California gave an example where this kind of gradual change of context may be happening as we speak: Mackie studies the effects of a form of educational deliberation on the practice of female circumcision and does indeed report changes that may be small, but can accumulate to a change of norms in a society - even within only one generation, as he hopes. The point in this case is indeed about accumulation: from small seminars educating about female circumcision to public declarations abandoning female circumcision to large weddings of an uncircumcized bride.

Context was also a keyword for the presentation by Ann Swidler and Susan Watkins (both University of California), who talked about practices of deliberation in rural Malawi. Many deliberation events organized by NGOs and donors tend to be modeled after a class room - with the facilitator talking a lot and the participants nodding silently. That kind of context is unlikely to allow for the disadvantaged to make their voice heard and even get results. Local institutions and communal structures, on the other hand, may not be set up as formal deliberative processes, but justice still can be done through communal channels such as hearings with the village headman.

One rather classic example of successful deliberation is, of course, participatory budgeting after the Porto Alegre model. Gianpaolo Baiocchi (Brown University) showed how this practice spread first throughout Latin America, then Asia and Africa, and some industrialized states. Context is yet again the crux: While adapting successful models may be an obvious thing to do, a blue-print of one model is not appropriate for every context, and can turn something genuinely demand-driven into a technocratic solution. Best practices are certainly helpful, but they don't necessarily work everywhere. In the specific case of participatory budgeting, Baiocchi explained that civil society was actually the most fragile part of the coalitions around participatory budgeting because of the different reactions those in power had to those people who were to represent the citizens.

JP Singh from Georgetown University and the World Bank's Michael Woolcock took deliberation for development to a systemic level. Singh discussed the deliberative nature of the WTO versus UNESCO, arguing that, perhaps unexpectedly, the WTO is more participatory than UNESCO, possible because it is more focused and less prone to internal turf wars. According to Singh issue structures play an important role in predicting the success of institutional deliberative processes.

Woolcock analyzed the role of deliberation in enhancing the rule of law and local level justice, proposing a matrix a "paths to justice," how and through whom the rule of law comes to serve the poor. The matrix spans the dimensions of judicial status of a problem (whether a case is actionable within the legal system), the perception whether the problem is perceived of being worthy of correction through the legal system, and the capacity of the legal system to address the problem. The "pathways to justice" within this matrix include co-optation, codification, legislation, contestation, invocation (appeals to international norms), and mediation.

Necessarily, this is a short summary of a very rich conference day. But never fear, it will all be published in CommGAP's forthcoming book on "Deliberation and Development," edited by Vijayendra Rao and Patrick Heller. This book will also include commentaries and additional perspectives on deliberation by such notable scholars as Jane Mansbridge (Harvard), who will give the debate a conceptual frame; Varun Gauri (World Bank), who will discuss juries; Peter Evans of the University of California, who will write about what deliberation can do and what it cannot do; Archon Fung (Harvard) on the role of technology for deliberation, Ghazala Mansuri (World Bank) on local capacity and the effectiveness of participation; and Paromita Sanyal from Wesleyan College on the role of culture. 

Picture: Flickr user Paul-W

Follow CommGAP on Twitter!

Add new comment