One of the objectives of CommGAP and this blog is to strengthen citizen voice in the public sphere, particularly of those who are often marginalized in public spaces. This voice in the public sphere is important for any advocacy effort or social movement and also an essential right for every individual. As one part of the process of building this voice, participation in various decision-making and policy processes is seen as an integral part of development work. In fact, it has been a development buzzword since the late 1970s. But sometimes participating can be a setback.
In his framework for power analysis, John Gaventa describes the dynamic nature of power through the power cube. 3 dimensions (place, space and power) shape citizen action. (I urge you to read further about this framework. For the purpose of this article, I am simplifying some rather complex and thought-provoking ideas.)
He specifically describes space in 3 broad categories. Closed spaces are the decision-making spaces that include only elites without any involvement of a broader, affected group. Invited spaces are constructed by a select group but invite in a broader group to participate in this decision-making process. Finally, claimed/created spaces are either claimed by less powerful actors from power holders or constructed autonomously of closed and invited spaces.
This framework urges us to think deeply about how citizens participate. Who is constructing this space in the first place and who is invited to participate? Sometimes deciding not to participate in an invited space is just as powerful as sitting at the decision-making table. Doing so takes away legitimacy of the process and the mandate of those who are making the decisions.
But choosing not to participate is a strategy that must be carefully wielded. Choosing to stay silent in invited spaces means making a choice to strengthen voice and broaden the discourse outside these spaces.
Those who construct these spaces for participation must also take heed. We need to pay careful attention to who is part of these conversations. Why are they there and what are their interests? Most importantly, who is missing from the conversation that needs to be there?
I am curious to hear from our readership of examples of when not participating in an invited space has ultimately led to greater political power and voice in the public sphere.
Photo Credit: Flickr user my new wintercoat