Bernardo Kliksberg

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Bernardo Kliksberg

Until recently, community participation in economic and social development was a contentious issue, the focus of intense controversy, and easy prey to hasty ideological labeling. A frequent criticism was that it was unrealistic and belonged to a utopian kingdom”. It is now emerging as a new consensus. Most leading international organizations have included participation as a strategy for action in their declarations and projects and, in some cases, it has been incorporated into their official institutional policy. For example, in 1996, the World Bank published its authoritative work on participation, which it professes to present "the new direction of the Bank in support of participation,” and emphasizes that "the people affected by development initiatives must be included in the decision-making process." Its Policy Department prepared long term strategies and an Action Plan which establish specific guidelines. Among them: the Bank will support initiatives by borrowers promoting the inclusion of participatory methods in development; community participation will be explicitly addressed in dialogue with the country and in Strategies for Assistance to the country; and, the Bank will promote and fund technical assistance to augment the involvement of low income people and others affected by the project.
Several years ago, the United Nations system made the promotion of participation a focal point of its technical assistance programs in the social and economic spheres. The Human Development reports, which have been published since 1990 to examine fundamental social problems affecting the planet, consistently point to participation as an essential strategy for tackling these problems. In 1997, the Inter-American Development Bank published a Handbook of Participation, whose introduction states that "participation is not just and idea, but rather a new form of cooperation for development in the nineties." It also emphasizes the importance it will have: "Participation in development and its application reflect a transformation of the way the Bank’s programs and projects approach development." The Organization for Cooperation and Development (OECD) (1993) observes that "broader participation of all people is the main factor in strengthening cooperation for development." The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) (1993) points out that: "participation is an essential component of human development" and that people "want lasting progress toward total participation."

Other international, regional, subregional, and national assistance agencies are joining the new consensus. But the process is not confined to donors of development assistance and loans. It goes far beyond that. Latin American societies are experiencing a groundswell of pressure for genuinely participatory structures. The population is demanding participation and one of the main reasons that people are interested in, and support, current decentralization processes is that, if well implemented, they have the potential to broaden the space for participation.

As with all major shifts in how reality is perceived, this revised view of participation as a master plan for development is anchored in real needs. Latin America is approaching the end of the XXI century with an extremely fragile social panorama. As the presidents from across the continent expressly declared during the recent Santiago Summit (1998):
"Overcoming poverty continues to be the greatest challenge confronting our hemisphere."

The reference to poverty as the main overt problem is based on facts. According to a report on the subject by a special commission chaired by Patricio Aylwin (1995), nearly half of the regions population lives below the poverty line and 41 per cent suffer from some degree of malnutrition. According to UNICEF, 60 per cent of children are poor. The average educational level is 5.2 years (less than a complete elementary education). According to the World Bank (1996), 2.2 million children are born to mothers who deliver with absolutely no medical care, with the attendant impact on maternal and infant mortality rates. Moreover, the region is recognized worldwide as the most unequal in the world. There are sharp inequities in income distribution, access to productive resources and credits, and the opportunity to obtain a decent education.1 This panorama of deep-rooted poverty and injustice, which is unacceptable in democratic systems such as have been achieved in the region after protracted struggles and an obstacle to development, cries out for urgent, imaginative responses. It has been the prime motivator behind this new interest in community participation. One benefit has emerged from the failure, or limited results, of policies and projects to combat poverty: the realization that community participation might have considerable potential to achieve significant advances and, simultaneously, increase equity.
Participation has always enjoyed moral legitimacy in Latin America. Broad sectors of society consistently referred to it as a basic right of all human beings, a view supported by the region's dominant ethical and religious cosmovisions. It also has consistently enjoyed political legitimacy. It is compatible with the historic, libertarian agenda of the region's founding fathers and adheres faithfully to the democratic ideal. Now, a different kind of legitimacy has emerged to join, rather than replace, the others. Participation has macroeconomic and administrative legitimacy. It is regarded as an alternative with net competitive advantages in producing results, relative to traditional public policy approaches. This shifts the focus of the debate over participation from that of previous decades. It is no longer a matter of utopians vs. anti-utopians, but one of leveraging the most effective tools to address the social problems engulfing much of the population. In this context, participation emerges not as "an imposition by some sector, but as an opportunity."
As with all opportunities, its effective mobilization faces strong resistance from different directions. This is manifested in Latin America by the immense gap between the "discourse" on participation and the reality of putting it into practice. At the level of discourse, there appears to be total consensus, and tremendous will, to promote participation. But in the practice, this has not been followed by serious, systematic processes for its implementation. One of the main reasons for this gap is the silent presence of substantial barriers to advancing participation.

This work seeks to contribute to the frank reflection that must take place in the region today to help make the promise of community participation a reality for vast disadvantaged sectors. To this end, it sets forth a series of theories concerning key aspects of the subject in an attempt to: elucidate the substance of this new legitimacy of participation, highlight it as part of a broader movement to reassess participation in the context of cutting-edge management, pinpoint some of the main areas of underground resistance to participation, and suggest strategies to confront them.

The main goal is not to exhaust any of the subjects discussed, but rather to help define a contemporary agenda for debate and encourage collective analysis on this subject.

Practical experience shows that excellent management techniques are crucial to the promotion and implementation of genuinely participatory models. Participation produces vastly superior results in the social sphere than other, traditional organizational models including bureaucratic or paternalistic approaches.
Among the most significant recent research on the subject is a World Bank study of 121 potable water projects in rural areas, which were carried out in forty-nine countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America (1994 and 1995). Eighteen international agencies supported the projects. Water was chosen as the evaluations main focus for several reasons: the lack of access to potable water is a problem that affects vast sectors of the poor; it is the highest priority; and there is a long tradition of programs in this area.
The study compiled methodical data on the projects and performed comparative quantitative and qualitative analyses of the data compiled. It simultaneously monitored the evolution of the projects, in some cases for more than ten years. A total of 140 variables were examined and various methodological safeguards were incorporated to prevent "halo" effects and other potential biases.
The conclusions can be observed in the chart below:

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