A substantial body of work on participatory approaches to the decision making process has emerged in the 1990s. Theoretical roots of this resurgence originate in the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory and, more concretely, in Habermas ideas of discursive ethics (Habermas, 1979; OHara, 1996). Discursive ethics views rationality as a social construction, inseparably linked to and informed by the human experience of a social, cultural, and ecological life world, which constitutes the context of human experience. It presupposes no norms other than the acceptance of a reasoned, reflective, and practical potential for discourse: that is, the mutual recognition and acceptance of others as response-able subjects (OHara, 1996). The main contribution of discursive ethics is to offer a conceptual framework for making visible the hidden normative assumptions, behaviours, and motivations that influence de facto decision-making and valuation processes.
Despite the resurgence of interest in public participation, no widely accepted consistent method has emerged to evaluate the success of individual processes or the desirability of many participatory methods. Diverse perspectives together with country-specific conditions favour different forms of participation. In most developed societies, participatory discourse has been motivated by public concerns on the rigid and constraining forms of technocratic decision-making practices, and their institutionalized forms of bureaucracy and social control. Following Beierle (1998), divergent models of the role of civil society in decision making arise from differences of view on the nature of democracy. A managerial perspective acknowledges public preferences as vital to the managerial role of democratic institutions in identifying and pursuing the common good, but public participation in decision making conveys the threat of self-interested strategic behaviour. Under a pluralistic perspective there is no objective common good, but a relative common good that arises out of the free deliberation and negotiation among organized interest groups. The role of the government is arbitration among these groups. Lastly, a popular perspective calls for the direct participation of citizens as a mechanism to instil democratic values in citizens and strengthen the body politic. Each view provides different forms of participation: the managerial perspective may favour information flow mechanisms, such as surveys or the provision of right-to-know information; the pluralist perspective prefers stakeholder mediation; and the popular perspective favours citizen advisory groups (Beierle, 1998).
Participatory forms in decision making carry a distinct connotation in developing countries. They are rooted in the idea of grassroots participation, promoted by international development aid agencies since 1990 (UNDP, 1992). The concept is far from new, but in recent years it has received a different connotation. Before, participation was considered as an extension of partnership between governmental institutions and development institutions at the operational level. The scheme was oriented mainly to relieve the state of some of its executorial responsibilities without any effective form of decisional decentralization (Lazarev, 1994). Participatory development as it is envisaged today aims to renew these ideas of partnership, but to give due recognition to the role of local populations by letting them generate, share, and analyze information, establish priorities, specify objectives, and develop tactics (World Bank, 1996). It is viewed as a social learning process within which stakeholders, by generating and internalizing their own aspirations, themselves enable a social change process.
Continues on next page
Other reports in this collection