Participation, a much accepted and appreciated concept by activists, academics, development practitioners and progressive thinkers, has radicalized the operationalization of development practice by empowering the poor to engineer their own development (Frazer, 2005). That being said, it is vital to acknowledge that participation is characterized in different typologies. Cornwall (2005) iterates Arnstein and Pretty's typologies which start off at 'manipulative/passive participation' and end at transformative participation (self-mobilization/ community mobilization). These typologies describe shift from control by authorities to control by people (Cornwall, 2005). In manipulative and passive participation, citizens are usually at the receiving end of projects and programmes (Cornwall, 2005). People are usually only asked questions for information gathering while decision making is done by external professionals (Cornwall, 2005). Information gathering and consultations just legitimize already taken decisions and really just used for moral authority (Cornwall, 2005). On the opposite side of the ladder exists transformative participation which enables the poor to make their own decisions and carry out their own action (Cornwall, 2005). An example of transformation is self-mobilization . In self-mobilization, people in a community steer their own development independent of external institutions to change systems (Cornwall, 2005). However, Cornwall states that "self-mobilization may or may not challenge power relations" (Cornwall, 2005, pg. 2). She says "self-initiated mobilization only works if the state wants to encourage self-initiated mobilization as part of neo-liberal approach to development". This essay contests the argument made by Cornwall by illustrating that self-mobilization challenges social and cultural norms which ultimately challenges power dynamics and the status quo.
Self-mobilization, also known as community mobilization, challenges power dynamics because it allows the local community to be autonomous and engineer their own development (WHO, 2006). Community mobilization is defined as "a capacity building process through which community individuals, groups, or organizations plan, carry out, and evaluate activities or a participatory and sustained basis to improve their development on their own initiative" (WHO, 2006). Although regarded as a fluid term, community mobilization allows a local community to self-organize, evaluate it own needs, undertake collective action using pragmatic strategies, manage resources and enhance its own standards of living (WHO, 2006). Local communities develop contacts with external institutions for resource and technical advice (WHO, 2006). Within this framework, local communities are no longer passive participants and passive recipients of development practices. They have full ownership over their own development. They are able to transform and set their own rules of the game. With community mobilization, there is no longer a mismatch between the interest of different stakeholders; the local community determines its own network of stakeholders (WHO, 2006). In this way, it fundamentally transforms power relations and brings institutional changes in the way stakeholders (such as government, consultants, donors, development practitioners, and NGOs) interact with each other and the roles they play within the framework of development practice (Cornwall, 2005). The power is shifted from the hands of donors and consultants (rich stakeholders) into the hands of community members (Cornwall, 2005). When a community doesn't mobilize, the development practitioners, donors, and consultants dictate the development interventions which are often culturally and socially inappropriate. They take decisions based on their own notions and definitions of development which often leads to undesired results and no increase in community well-being. Whereas, in community-mobilization the community empowers itself (WHO, 2006). Community mobilization creates a powerful space for poor communities by legitimizing their own voice and interests (Tarrow, 1994). The grass-roots approach is central to effective governance which didn't exist in tokenism. Grass-roots approach facilitates changes in stakeholder roles in order to allow the local communities to consolidate their own governance and operationalize their own development (Tarrow, 1994).
Cornwall discusses that self-mobilization conceptually may sound like a transformative concept that challenges power dynamics but in practice, it does not (2005, pg. 2). Nagaranjan contests this perspective by iterating that community mobilization is an intervention tool that is widely used in the public health arena which creates social change by building awareness and empowers community to defy social and cultural taboos with regards to health and hygiene (Nagaranjan, 2014). A case study published by BMC public health investigated community mobilization as a participatory intervention strategy among sex workers to address HIV risks and empowerment measured by decrease in vulnerability and violence (Nagaranjan, 2014). The study surveyed 8,643 sex workers in three states of India, namely Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. In all three communities, community mobilization started with collectivization process where the sex workers conglomerated to establish collective identity, collective agency and were confident that they will be able to catalyze positive changes by claiming their rights. The sex workers organized and engaged in activities such as peer education classes, condom distributions, training and counselling, HIV screenings and health safety workshops. In this way, sex workers were taking collective action and encouraging community empowerment by participating in a collective space (a collective space is defined as education classes, counselling, training provided by and for sex workers) (Nagaranjan, 2014). However, there were instances where the sex workers participated in public spaces such as public events, protests, rallies and outside outside health workshops (Nagaranjan, 2014). In this way, there was a shared identity that developed in public spaces as well (which was outside of collective spaces). Participation in public spaces depicts that an active role was played by sex workers by revealing their identity into public spaces. This is especially important given that many communities in India have their own set of power dynamics often cemented by cultural and social norms. In India, sex workers unfortunately hold extremely low status in society and don't have rights since prostitution is illegal. This makes sex workers vulnerable to emotional and physical violence (Nagaranjan, 2014). They are often insulted, humiliated, forced to feel bad for self, belittled from society and often segregated from family (Nagaranjan, 2014). The case study mentioned that the sex workers experience equal levels of violence from police and any kind of authority as well as other sects of people in society (this shows level of corruption) (Nagaranjan, 2014). Considering how coerce the Indian society is towards sex workers and their rights, the fact that the workers are able to self-mobilize and fight for their rights (that too in public spaces) is much more valuable than currently perceived. Community mobilization not only enabled the sex workers to reduce HIV prevalence, but also helped them reclaim their right to public space (instead of being confined to brothels) (Nagaranjan, 2014). Statistics revealed that the sex workers who indicated high levels of vulnerability to violence were also the ones who indicated high levels of participation in public spaces and were more likely to voice their rights and interests. Additionally, the sex workers challenged the existing laws related to public policy during their meeting with stakeholders (local government, NGOs, and political groups) (Nagaranjan, 2014). This shows that sex workers who have almost no status in Indian society are able to put pressure on the government to change laws and able to ask for protection from the law. In this way, the sex workers, via community mobilization, are not only challenging the power dynamics within the development project, but also challenging the social inequalities that exist in the Indian society.
While some may argue that empowering the poor may not help challenge the status quo, it is important to recognize that empowering the poor is deeply intertwined with notions of social justice which is ultimately a precursor to challenging power dynamics, social hierarchy and structural oppression (Combaz, 2014). As illustrated from the case study discussed earlier, the sex workers were able to initiate social changes by empowering themselves to take charge of their own health via community mobilization (Combaz, 2014). An inherent part of empowering the sex workers was the fact that community mobilization opens communication channels within the social systems, and influences structural changes in support networks (Combaz, 2014). In this way, community mobilization acted as a catalyst that challenged social hierarchy within the community and development program but also challenged social inequality at a macro-level by allowing sex workers to claim their rights (Combaz, 2014). The poor communities often consists of members who belong to vulnerable and marginalized groups that are immobilized due to social and cultural norms (Combaz, 2014). These social and cultural norms are often oppressive and harmful which is why the low-income communities are victims of social inequality (Combaz, 2014). Given these regressive and oppressive frameworks, community mobilization empowers these poor communities by allowing them to develop a sense of autonomy, social belonging, sense of identity, self-esteem, self-confidence, better future, and most importantly, representation in society (Combaz, 2014). This allows the poor communities to challenge the distribution of rights, privileges, social power, and in general question the narratives of social welfare perpetuated by neoliberalism. Ultimately, empowered poor communities will put pressure on the government to bring about all forms of social equality and make incremental changes to social hierarchy in wider society (Tarrow, 1994).
In today's development discourse, community mobilization is painted as an unpragmatic strategy that just allows low income community members to voice their interests. Even though it may be able to trigger collective action, they often don't have the power to control or sustain their development (Tedrow, 2012). Additionally, community mobilization doesn't challenge the status quo and doesn't lead to wider changes in society (Cornwall, 2005). However, this perspective majorly overlooks the social empowerment and social justice aspects of community mobilization (Combaz, 2014). At the macro level, community mobilization aids empowerment oriented community in legitimizing their voices and interests by navigating through complex political, social and cultural systems. The social justice aspect allows poor communities to create a space for themselves not just in the development arena but also in society. They validate themselves by creating their own representation in society via asking for rights and putting pressure on law enforcement to change oppressive laws (create laws where poorer communities can be protected). By putting pressure on the government to enforce better welfare laws and tackle social inequalities, the poor communities are able to trigger changes in societal hierarchy. Within the domain of development practice, community mobilization allows the low-income communities to take ownership of their own development (Frazer 2005). This allows the low income populations to establish unorthodox alliances with different stakeholders and establish egalitarian relationships (Frazer 2005). In this way, community mobilization challenges power dynamics within development practice and achieves greater governance. That being said, central to the effectiveness of community mobilization is investigating how exactly is the community mobilizing itself (Frazer 2005). For instance, are community leaders chosen democratically, is everybody in the community represented? Is there a process of shared decision making? Is there a productive role for everybody? Are certain people excluded? Are they able to establish effective channels for internal and external communication? Effectiveness of community mobilization really boils down to whether the members of the community have shared sense of identity, capacity to make collective decision, access to knowledge such as effective development strategies, authentic productive roles for all members in the community, and the capacity to evaluate the community mobilization efforts and whether it actually results in higher levels of wellbeing as well as shifts in societal norms (Frazer 2005).
She is currently pursuing her Masters Degree in Development Practice and Sustainability Management at University of Waterloo.Work Cited:
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