CommGAP and the World Bank Development Research Group Poverty & Inequality are hosting a conference on "Deliberation for Development: New Directions" on Friday this week. We have a number of high profile speakers and commentators lined up, who have done cutting-edge research on deliberation and how it can increase development effectiveness. The conference will be convened by the Wold Bank's Vijayendra Rao and Patrick Heller from Brown University. Arjun Appadurai (New York University) will talk about "Success and Failure in the Deliberative Democracy," Ann Swidler (Berkeley) and Susan Watkins (University if California) will discuss "Practices of Deliberation in Rural Malawi." JP Singh of Georgetown University will compare the participatory character of the WTO and UNESCO, while the World Bank's Michael Woolcock will examine the link between deliberation and the rule of law. Gianpaolo Baiocchi (Brown University) will talk about "The Global Translations of Participatory Budgeting” and Gerry Mackie (University of California) will address the educational effects of public deliberation.
I want to briefly lay out two aspects that make deliberation relevant for development: public participation in policy making and empowerment, both closely related to each other. On the first point, research has shown that groups of people from different backgrounds are quite capable of reaching considered decisions that take into account facts, alternatives, difficulties, and political realities. They do so if they are exposed to all the facts they need to make a considered decision and if they are exposed to viewpoints different than their own. In my own empirical work I focus on the effects of public deliberation on political decision making and argue that, for cognitive reasons, decisions after deliberation are more just in that they acknowledge different positions and more sophisticated in that they reflect different beliefs and values. The implications for governance are obvious: if a group of people reaches a consensus that is just and based on a range of societal values then it is a good bet that those decisions would benefit a wider group than if it was a decision made only by, say, followers of a specific powerful party or by technocrats who have probably never met the people about whose fate they are deciding. If policy makers would acknowledge that deliberation can produce high quality of opinions, then citizens could have a very different place in politics and be more directly involved in processes that affect their own lives. If you want to take multistakeholder engagement seriously, you have to give citizens - outside CSOs - a formal channel for contributing to public policy.
The formal channel alone might have limited effectiveness if it is only used by those who have a voice in the public anyway - the rich, the influential, and the male. Research by Rao and Sanyal shows that deliberation can be a tool in the fight against poverty because it is a mechanism of "decision-making which aims to equalize voice and political agency across stratified social groups." The authors analyzed deliberation transcripts from a number of Gram Sabhas in South India, which are public meetings where citizens discuss decisions with regard to the allocation of funds to public services and with regard to the beneficiaries of anti-poverty programs. Socially marginalized groups were able to utilize those meetings to make their demands heard, considerably improving their voice and agency.
A formal channel for policy input on the one hand and a means to increase voice and agency of the marginalized on the other, deliberation is a form of intervention that has not yet been seriously considered in development, but that shows considerable promise for improving governance outcomes. Friday promises to be an instructive day with regard to the role of deliberation for development and the alleviation of poverty. CommGAP will keep you updated about the outcomes of this workshop.