Partnership and participation

Stakeholder participation is a widely accepted requirement for good community development (Arnstein, 1969; Chambers, 1974; Cohen & Uphoff, 1980; White, 1996; Cornwall, 2008). Yet understandings of what participation actually means varies widely—especially in practice (Cornwall, 2008). As Cohen and Uphoff (1980) pointed out nearly three decades ago, development practitioners often broadly endorse participation on normative grounds without much thought about what precisely they are endorsing. At one end of the spectrum, “empowerment” seems to mean nothing more than increased self-esteem. At the other end, endorsing participation means advocating radical transformation of power structures.

In an academic review of participation typologies, Cornwall (2008) noted that there are two general approaches for understanding participation: the technocratic approach and the critical theory approach. Technocratic theorists such as Cohen and Uphoff (1980) differentiate participation typologies according to the stages of a project or describe hierarchies and ladders of participation (Arnstein, 1969; White, 1996). In contrast, critical theorists approach the question from the perspective that participation is essentially a relationship issue and that power differences within a relationship will shape participation (Jantzi, 2011; Phelps, 2001; Chambers, 1997; Korten, 1990).

For this article, we found it illuminating to apply a critical theory perspective on the relation of power between MCC and the partners we support. The stakeholder is defined as anyone impacted by an MCCfunded project, while participation is understood here as taking part in decision-making. As MCC moves further into a partnership model instead of directly implementing our own programs, the issue of participation becomes more important—and at times more tangled. There are more layers of relationships. Many questions quickly surface.

How are all levels of stakeholders represented at the table to prioritize, plan, implement and evaluate any given initiative? In what ways does giving resources undermine participation by dictating priorities or approaches? How are outcomes and activities negotiated between those receiving financial support and those providing it, recognizing that the providing-receiving transaction may replicate several times among MCC-partners-community leaders-community members.

When the participation agenda comes into tension with patriarchal or other exclusionary practices in the context of the project, how does MCC influence change? As we propose broader participation, essentially pushing the existing boundaries of power structures, how do we also keep our own power in check? How can MCC honor relational principles of participation with partners when we hold so much power in our hands as donors? While there are strategies and principles that give us light to navigate power imbalances, relationships are still messy. Two stories highlight this reality.

Story one: Years ago, while working with MCC in the Yapacaní region of Bolivia, I (Elizabeth) participated in a collaborative project involving four institutions: two grassroots organizations, MCC and another international NGO (INGO). This process became the subject of my master’s thesis in 2001, which gave me the opportunity to reflect deeply on how power had been shared, secured, lost and gained among the four participating institutions. Startling to me at the time, my research found that outside donor funding had a powerful effect of undermining stakeholder participation.

All four entities involved strongly-endorsed participation in all facets of the project. However, during the planning stages, an argument emerged between a grassroots partner (a cooperative) and the INGO over who would manage the project accounting. The INGO felt that the partner did not have the capacity for managing the funds and decided to carry out the accounting directly, to the bitter resentment of the cooperative’s leadership. Later, another debate ensued over the purchase of a vehicle for the project—the local partner preferred a type of motorcycle common to the area, whereas the INGO generally used four-wheelers. Although trivial, each party developed strong opinions; when the INGO ended up winning this battle as well, it brought home to me the dramatic power implicit in donor funding. Although sometimes hidden behind the explicit endorsement of participation, a different implicit message—“Do it my way, or I won’t approve the grant”—often weighs heavily on decisions.

Story two: In the Chocó region of Colombia, the Mennonite Brethren (MB) regional council supports the churches’ social ministries, with roots stretching back to the 1940s. Local church volunteers, who are fully integrated into and affected by communities’ realities, initiate and maintain most of these social ministries. We view this relationship as an exemplary case in which MCC lives out the mandate to partner with Anabaptist churches in response to suffering caused by economic exploitation and war.

In order to develop this partnership, MCC has required certain project cycle practices from the MB church which they had never done before, such as writing up plans in logframes (“logical frameworks” showing the relationship of activities to project outcomes) and documenting indicators. We argued that these are good practices for any institution, including churches, and that MCC would contribute training for church volunteers. Or, they could find people already trained in these kinds of activities, pay them a salary and then suddenly the process started to feel much more like an NGO project and much less like church-based voluntary initiatives. When we as MCC set program design and reporting terms, did we also define how the partner needs to function (more like an NGO than a church)? Did we widen the gap between project functionaries and community participants? Have we distorted the way the church has existed in this region for decades?

We learn from these stories that we need to critically monitor our own role in order to ensure that all stakeholders have real power in every stage of a project or community process. By injecting resources, donors easily gain an outsized say in prioritizing what needs attention (e.g., HIV/AIDS prevention over pastoral training), in setting terms for program design and implementation (e.g., encouraging female leadership despite unresolved local theological debate) and in shaping the definition of success (e.g., higher food production vs. greater integration of the church into the community).

MCC holds participation as a high ideal, particularly in favor of marginalized and disenfranchised persons in the communities where we support projects. Do we also remember that, relative to MCC, many of our partners, like the churches in Chocó, are also marginalized? A good long look in the mirror can help us evaluate how we are impacting all of the stakeholders and identify where we need to let go of control to facilitate participation.

Elizabeth Phelps is MCC Co-Representative for Colombia. Bonnie Klassen is MCC Area Director for South America and Mexico.

Learn more by reading the Spring edition of Intersections – Participation.

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