Clark, David Alexander (2017). 'Participation, Voice and Social Change' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


The capability approach places a strong emphasis on the capabilities people have reason to value and pursue as thoughtful and capable agents of change. This panel explores these themes through three papers that recognise the intrinsic and instrumental value of participation for development. The papers draw on the capability approach as a non-paternalistic framework for facilitating critical thinking, voice and action for meaningful social change within democratic settings. Inequalities in power and voice are acknowledged throughout and addressed from a capability perspective.

Each contribution builds on the previous paper. The first paper reflects on the role that imagination can play in strengthening the agency aspect of the capability approach. The second investigates how the aspirations and voices of South Africans either transform - or fail to transform - into actual capabilities. The final paper considers the global development agenda and explores the role of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in mediating the voices that have shaped the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The first paper focuses on human imagination and its potential for raising consciousness and producing change. It begins by developing a framework for understanding the imagination that draws on the work of the French philosopher and playwriter, Jean-Paul Sartre. This framework recognises that the imagination can generate forms of knowledge that are influenced by experience, but are not wholly dependent on it. Such thought processes permit human beings to disengage from reality, and consider alternatives while drawing on the experiences of others who are not immediately present. This approach helps to address adaptive preferences, and complements Sen’s discussion of ‘open impartiality’ and Nussbaum’s appeal to critical pedagogy, although the framework itself is concerned with individual thought processes rather than direct dialogue with other people and societies. The paper also engages with Nussbaum’s discussion of imagination, which is mostly concerned with her exploration of the cognitive capabilities and the role these play is shaping human affiliation.

A deeper understanding of human imagination strengthens the capability approach in a variety of ways. It facilitates greater appreciation of the human capacity to analyse multiple points of view. This allows us to recognise our own partial point of view and develop greater appreciation for the perspectives of others. (Much like Adam Smith’s oft-cited, ‘impartial spectator’). Imagination is also crucial for understanding and interpreting actions, and formulating alternatives. It also plays vital role in generating shared knowledge and critical forms of agency, which can give rise to collective action and social change.

Sartre’s analysis shows that imagination is the basis of human freedom and provides inspiration for social and political change. The paper explores the sources and limits of imagination as well as the conditions under which the capability for imagination can be developed further. Three areas for supporting the development of human imagination are considered (access to conceptual resources; dialogical spaces to test ideas; and opportunities for creative expression). And two avenues for expanding imaginative capabilities in the South African context are explored (education and political movements). The paper closes by reflecting on some of the implications for political consciousness, collective action and social change.

The second paper develops the political consciousness and public action themes for South Africa. It takes Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen’s work on India as a point of departure, and reflects on the extent to which democratic structures have facilitated capability expansion in the post-apartheid era. The paper begins by reflecting on the role that public participation can play in theory and practice. It then provides a critical assessment of open democracy in South Africa today from the perspective of an outsider. The discussion draws on different critical perspectives and points of view (optimistic and pessimistic) as well as media reports and interviews with South Africa academics to provide a balanced account of a highly emotive subject. The paper also explores the values and aspirations or ordinary South Africans, and considers how their voices relate to public policy.

The core of this paper explores four brief moments in this history of South African democracy. The goal is to examine how far public discussion and collective agency have managed to facilitate the capabilities of ordinary South Africans. Are there grounds to be ‘contingently optimistic’ about the nature and role of South African democracy? For each case study, a narrative traces the connections between different kinds of participation and social change (or lack thereof). These narratives draw on a variety of sources including open-ended interviews, participatory studies, academic and practitioner literatures, and newspaper archives and media reports. The four narratives are focus on: (1) opposition to HIV/AIDS patent protections; (2) the role of South African’s public prosecutor and constitutional court; (3) South Africa’s brief experiment with a national health service (which received little media attention and was bitterly opposed by the private sector); and (4) the role of public reason in promoting development and curbing Xenophobia in Bokfontein.

The final paper in the panel is concerned with the impact of voice on broader social and political agendas. It shifts the emphasis from the national to the global level by looking towards the SDGs. Following on from Sen’s discussion of the media (a vital component of a functioning democracy), the paper explores the potential for ICTs to provide people with voice and influence in shaping development interventions. Although ICTs have huge potential in this respect, the paper argues that something is lost in translation. Interventions fail to recognise the forms of control and power produced through the structures, design and deployment of digitally mediated information. To develop the argument, the paper draws on the literature on ‘digital power’ and ‘communication power’. A framework from this literature is employed to investigate how voice is defined and measured within the overall plans for data collection. This framework is then applied to a critical review of the translation of ‘voice’ within the formulation of the SDGs. It is suggested that the capability approach can provide inspiration for a richer and more comprehensive study of the possibilities for effective voice through ICTs for development.

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