Capability or what? Participation in Rwanda – as officially portrayed and locally perceived

Hasselskog, Malin (2016). 'Capability or what? Participation in Rwanda – as officially portrayed and locally perceived' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.

This paper analyses the participation entailed in Rwandan development policy and programmes from a capability/human development perspective. Based on original empirical material, it is guided by the question ‘in what ways does and does not participation in Rwandan development policy/programmes constitute a capability?’ and by an analytical framework drawing on previous analyses of participation related to capabilities (e.g. Alkire 2002; Crocker 2007). Participation is investigated as (i) portrayed and presented by the Rwandan government; as (ii) described and viewed by international donor representatives and advisers; and as (iii) experienced and perceived by residents.
The fundamental aim of development, when looked at from a capability/human development perspective, is the improvement of human well-being, which is conceptualised in terms of capabilities, i.e. what people are effectively able to do and be (Sen 1999). With a capability approach, not only individual agency but also social arrangements are crucial. Public action is important for supporting capabilities and providing capability-enhancing services (Clark 2005: 10-11; Evans 2010: 44). National development policies, as well as international aid policies in support of them, thus play important roles and should be evaluated according to their impact on people’s capabilities.
As Evans (2010: 43) points out, however, ‘if development is about well-being and capabilities, then development strategies and policy cannot be formulated by technocrats, but must derive from democratically organised public deliberation.’ Since capabilities, as Sen (1999: 77) notes, cannot be reduced to ‘one homogenous “good thing”’, those concerned must participate in defining development goals and making social choices. If the state does not know what kinds of collective goods the population needs and wants, it may invest vast resources without enhancing people’s capabilities. Therefore, the input and engagement of those who are to use the services are crucial. Also, rather than delivered to passive recipients, capability-enhancing services are co-produced by those who make use of them. In order to ensure desired effects, participation is therefore required also at implementation (Evans 2010: 38, 49, 52).
‘Participation’ is an intrinsic part of development discourse and practice. What started as a radical counterpoint to mainstream development has come to be endorsed by most actors, required by most donors, and applied in community activities as well as nationwide poverty assessments (Cornwall 2011). In the 1990s, the sphere of participation was also extended to encompass ‘participatory governance’, implying that citizens are involved in formulating public policies and holding those responsible to account (Hickey and Mohan, 2004: 6-8; Gaventa, 2007; Tandon, 2008). Throughout ‘listening to the poor’ is expected to improve efficiency and relevance, though end goals differ between for example cost-effectiveness and transformative empowerment. Forms of participation also vary and have been extensively analysed, commonly focusing on the level of involvement of previously marginalised actors, which range for example from being informed and contributing resources to making decisions and taking initiatives (e.g. Arnstein 1969; Cohen and Uphoff 1980; White 1996; Saxena 1998).
There are thus many similarities between participatory and capability approaches (Pellissery and Bergh 2007). Participation is a key capability, constituting a means to enhancing other capabilities and thus making further improvement of well-being possible. According to Sen, however, participation is also an end goal. The capability of making choices is one of the most important of all human capabilities, and ‘processes of participation in political decisions and social choice /…/ have to be understood as constitutive parts of the ends of development in themselves’ (Sen 1999: 291). While Sen does not distinguish between democratic and participatory decision-making, effective deliberation is crucial (Deneulin 2005: 77; Crocker 2007). Those who are affected by decisions and choices should have a real opportunity to participate in making them.
In Rwanda – a low-income, aid-dependent country – the government eloquently ascribes to the international participation discourse, with public consultation and participation vividly emphasised throughout development policies and programmes (and, as the paper will show, in interviews with government officials). Scholars have interpreted this as part of a conscious strategy of ‘dealing with’ and ‘pleasing’ donors by adopting their terminology and demonstrating commitment to their favoured ideals (Hayman 2009; Zorbas 2011: 108; Beswick 2013). The Rwandan government, meanwhile, firmly claims that participation is a genuine Rwandan value and has launched a number of ‘home-grown initiatives’, said to imply the revival of traditional participatory practices and local involvement in defining and solving development problems (Hasselskog 2015b).
Rwandan development policy, and not least the ‘home grown initiatives’, are largely commended by donors, who also appreciate the government’s development commitment and efficient implementation. Scholars are however critical about ostensibly participatory practices, pointing to rich evidence of coercion and lack of effective participation. Supposedly voluntary labour contribution is for example enforced through fines for non-attendance and security guards collecting people to attend. Community meetings, supposedly for making joint decisions, are used to disseminate central directives, and explicit community priorities are neglected. Rather than influencing national policy, the population is efficiently made to implement centrally made decisions (Ingelaere 2011; Ansoms and Rostagno 2012; Hasselskog 2015a). As this paper will show, according to interviews with donor representatives, lack of effective participation is also an issue in their policy dialogue with the Rwandan government.
For participation to constitute a capability, providing for the enhancement of other capabilities, not any type of participation goes. As Robeyns (2005: 95) notes, capabilities imply that people have effective opportunities to undertake the actions and activities that they want to engage in, and be whom they want to be. Participation must thus be an effectively available and valuable option, one that can be voluntarily chosen, and that effectively allows people to define development goals and make social choices, enabling them to improve their well-being.
This paper – based on government and donor documentation and on interviews with six national officials, 11 local officials, around 80 residents, and six international donor representatives and advisers – will draw together government portrayal, local experiences and international considerations of participation in Rwandan development policy/programmes. Throughout presentation and analyses of intentions and practices, focus will be on the impact on people’s capabilities and human development.

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