Community Groups and Planning Action:
The Need for Citizen's Participation in Decision-Making
complex and myriad range of problems face the city governments in the developing economies of today: overpopulation and inmigration are exasperating conditions of already deteriorating communities. A reluctance to confront (or insufficient action towards) these problems have created the all too familiar consequences - growth of squatter settlements, increased pressure on urban services and utilities, a reduced resource base, lopsided and vested interests, conflicts between politicians and planners and so forth. The local governments have failed to come up with alternative and appropriate policies and strategies in order to tackle these problems, especially in face of the almost redundancy of past approached ("master plan" for example). Innovations have been tried out, but have, in most cases, localized and piecemeal, without any long-term commitments.
"Development does not start or stop with the production of goods. It starts with the people and the useable resources of people, such as motivation, initiative, organizational discipline. Without this, all resources remain potential and untapped....."
Much of the current discussions on citizen's participation, particularly with reference to countries in the Third World, is limited to low-income groups and how it could be used to improve their living conditions. Clearly, an effort or movement to bring the entire populance into the sphere of citizen's participation has to be made in order to create a more equitable and liveable environment, both in urban as well as rural areas. In this case study however, the scope of citizen's participation as a planning component has been limited to urban low-income groups alone. What is citizen's participation? What are the preconditions and applications of participation?
One approach that has been constantly touted as a tool for effective development and management is the involvement of the community in all stages of decision-making. "Citizen's Participation" (CP), as it is called, is not a new concept. People have anyway been building their own homes and communities for centuries. With the advent of democratic governments and centralized planning protocols, the affected citizenry have been gradually sidelined in the process of decision-making, resulting in a situation where they have to "adopt" to the resulted consequences.
With the existing complex processes of city development and management, there is a need to extend planning actions through CP strategies so that their reach is widened. What is needed is a model, a schedule of action that will describe an approach to the "delivery" of development processes through participation. This should be considered not as an option, but as a recommended approach in future plans for urban development. Why is CP important? Some of the reasons include:
- to maintain a continuous dialogue between the government and community so that a coordinated/integrated approach can be effected, and conflicts resolved.
- to utilize resources to the best possible extent, where resources are scarce and service delivery is fragmented.
- to establish a network where training and awareness building can take place in order to make the community and the government accountable for the infrastructure networks and services.
- to deal with micro issues, which usually suffer due to lack of focus and location-specific solutions.
CP takes on so much more significance in the case of low-income groups of developing economies. Low-incomes, lack of assets/savings, irregular/informal jobs etc. compound their problems and reduce their purchasing power and access to urban services and facilities. It would be naive to believe that CP is the solution to all problems in a city, that good planning and design is a substitute for jobs that don't exist or food that is not there. But a sense of community and well-being are basic human needs and that is the part of the problem that CP can address best and do something about.
Much of the current discussions on citizen's participation, particularly with reference to countries in the Third World, is limited to low-income groups and how it could be used to improve their living conditions. Clearly, an effort or movement to bring the entire populance into the sphere of citizen's participation has to be made in order to create a more equitable and liveable environment, both in urban as well as rural areas. In this case study however, the scope of citizen's participation as a planning component has been limited to urban low-income groups alone. What is citizen's participation? What are the preconditions and applications of participation? Besides attempting to answer these questions, the case study presents a "Citizen's Participation Model". An example of successful participation, in the Dharavi Slum in Bombay, India and its people's organization is presented.
What exactly is citizen's participation? The idea that people should participate in planning, implementing and managing human settlements has gained acceptance among governments and development agencies. Arguments in favour of citizen's participation has been touted for long, and ultimately it means a readiness of both the government and the citizens to accept certain responsibilities and activities. It can also mean that the value of each group's contribution is seen, appreciated and used. The honest inclusion of a community's representatives as "partners" in decision-making, makes for successful citizen's participation.
But, the allegiance to participation remains verbal in most cases. When it comes to implementation, authorities advance numerous reasons why participation is "impossible" or has to be restricted to some forms of consultation of beneficiaries. Preconceived notions, neglect and contempt, mutual distrust and arcane codes and bye-laws have only exasperated the situation.
Past experiences on citizen's participation in various countries in Asia and Africa has clearly shown that participation cannot just happen; nor can it be taken for granted, either. There are several preconditions to participation which have to be met before it can be applied and sustained in a particular situation.
- Participation has to be a gradually developed response to an actual and pressing collective need of the citizens. This is need is used as a rallying point for the community to come together.
- The benefitting target group of a participative action has to be clearly defined, in order to utilize the common interest in securing their position and improving their living conditions.
- It is of critical importance to inform the selected target groups, in a comprehensive manner, of all the relevant features of the programme. The aims, finance, technology, organization, management aspects have to be covered.
- In order that communication links between the authorities and the target group be maintained, there should be a strong community organization within the settlement, which could seek the assistance of an external NGO for information and motivation.
- A smooth functioning of the community organization structure ideally evolves through the collective efforts of the residents, with the aid of an accepted local leader. This is critical in representing the aspirations of the residents.
- The community leader and other members should be trained in the management process. Management is an important tool for reaching the desired aim of a self-help project, of keeping records and making responsible decisions in financial matters.
There is a wide range of applications that participation can be utilized - practically any situation which requires consensus in decision-making and action. Some of the widely advocated applications include settlement planning, decision-making, implementation, financing and construction. Participation can take different levels, from the citizen's having no voice at all in the proceedings to that of advisory roles and full representation in all stages. For Citizen's participation to be truly effective, it is necessary for the people to be involved in all stages of planning, design, implementation and evaluation. The very success of a project may sometimes depend on the degree of participation of the beneficiaries.
There is little doubt that the concept of citizen's participation is here to stay. In terms of its actual achievements, the record has not been too impressive. However, it is rich in potential and low-income families are basically able and willing to participate in the development of their settlements. The lack of a sense of participatory democracy, technical know-how and/or financial resources are sometimes obstacles to participation on the part of the poor; an unwillingness to share power, a sense of elitism, dependence on high standards are some of the obstacles on the part of the officials. Such obstacles can be overcome by training and awareness building.
Good practical examples of citizen's participation are not easily available. Since skills in participation can only come through application, it would be worthwhile for the international agencies and national governments to invest money in initiating programmes in participation. The experience gained from such programmes should be well-documented and used in training. There is a need for more study and action in this area. This would allow useful exchange of ideas, knowledge and experience between trainers and practioners. The funding agencies interested in promoting participation should remain open and flexible in considering different approaches and measuring their relative impact.
Hari Srinivas - email@example.com
Return to the Capacity Building Page
Return to the Virtual Library on Microcredit