2006 Volume 15 Issue 1 Pages 59-72
Past debates among proponents of ‘participatory development’ tended to be premised on the notion that people living in rural areas can upgrade their standards of living when they share common interests and objectives. However, since rural communities encompass people of varying socio-economic strata, they are normally rampant with social tensions. When external agencies attempt to get villagers to forgo social divisions and conflicts, and to act as units to achieve ‘shared’ goals, marginal groups often find it difficult to participate on a par with dominant actors because the former are forced to come face to face with the latter in public. This paper examines cases of ‘participatory’ flood control projects in Western Nepal, to explore ‘participatory’ approaches that are more conducive to the empowerment of marginal people. As illustrated by the case study, it is through informal, daily social interactions (‘immanent’ processes of development) that marginal groups manage to redress social inequalities, rather than through external assistance that deliberately ameliorate social injustice (‘imminent’ processes of development, for instance, through the allocation of reserved seats on the project committee and quotas in project activities). This has an important implication for those concerned with ‘participatory development’ if they are to respect local autonomy in the true sense of the term. If external agents are to make better contributions to the cause of marginal groups, it is imperative to start out by considering how the daily flow of social interactions can potentially play a part in ameliorating potential biases in ‘participatory’ processes. It would only then be feasible to devise strategies that build upon opportunities arising from daily social interactions, as well as make up for limitations of ‘popular agency’ to overcome entrenched inequalities.