The Promise of Participation: Experiments in Participatory Governance in Honduras and Guatemala, by Daniel Altschuler and Javier Corrales . Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
As the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) come to an end, with mixed assessments, a growing number of scholars and practitioners have wondered how development might unfold if the poor had wider scope to influence local decision-making and allocate scarce resources. This notion is particularly compelling in rural hinterlands where the state’s presence, at least overtly, is weak, and where local knowledge regarding needs and resources is greatest. Add to this the variety of customs, traditions and leadership structures found in rural settings throughout the developing world – from clan-based and tribal to indigenous traditions – and arguments in favor of Participatory Governance (PG) mount. But without more compelling evidence of its systematic impact, PG has remains relegated to the fringes of development discourse, and practice.
The thorough research and robust original data (both quantitative and qualitative) presented in Daniel Altschuler’s and Javier Corrales’s The Promise of Participation, is therefore a clutch addition to our collective understanding of both the opportunities, and obstacles, to purposefully incorporating PG into policy. The authors focus on education reform in what they refer to as “brown areas” of Guatemala and Honduras, referencing Guillermo O’Donnell’s (1993) notion of sub-state regions with limited direct state influence. They ask specifically whether parental participation in experimental community managed schools (CMS), or public schools in which parents have direct oversight and management responsibilities, enhances political capabilities by spurring political learning, reshaping political networks, and/or affecting patterns of political representation and claim making by newly empowered citizens (p. 17). After surveying over 2,000 parents associated with CMS, complemented by qualitative interviews across eight case study communities, the authors provide a rich and methodologically sound picture of how PG unfolds in rural communities of Central America.
One side-affect of this richness is that the thesis becomes muddled by the end: the strong declaration of PG’s positive influence on civic participation and political capacity that starts the work weakens by the end, as myriad obstacles from patronage and local elites, to the fluctuating influence of the state itself, unravel the initial link originally established between CMS and robust citizen political enlightenment. But this is can be viewed as either a handicap, or a strength.
The quantitative analysis of survey work (Chapters 4 and 5) demonstrates that, despite competing influences, training and learning associated with CMS participation influences future civic participation and generates, on some level, “positive spillovers.” CMS, in sum to this point, can be utilized to “break the inertia of participation even in ‘brown areas’” (p. 77) – a powerful observation. These early results are qualified, however, and the authors subsequently appear to take great pains to underline how CMS influences citizen political capability robustly, despite evidence to the contrary stemming from their own work.
These complications to PG are the book’s strength, however, even if they are treated more as footnotes rather than key points. To the credit of the authors, Chapters 9-13 explore in great detail some of the challenges that diminish the potential influence of CMS on civic participation. These include the subtle and frequently overlooked role of religious leaders, political parties and, though not explored enough in Promise, indigenous leadership on village politics. As noted above, while this muddles the original thesis, it only underscores the diversity and spatial variability in local governance that has complicated statebuilding, democratization and top-down development throughout Central America, and indeed throughout the developing world in the first place. Communities in brown areas subtly (when not overtly) resist the state, or privilege local traditions over imported ones. This is not a reason to discard PG, but is instead a reason to further explore its potential role in development and democratization.
Arguably the most profound observation by Altschuler and Corrales, in fact, comes near the end when they conclude that, “to expand the scope of spillovers from PG would require a concerted state effort that is both hands-on and hands-off” (p. 181, emphasis added). In Guatemala, 2014 saw a rash of journalists, union leaders and community activists killed, while the state continued its legacy of failing to enact pro-poor reform of any meaningful significance, demonstrating its severely crimped commitment to rural development. At the same time, work from India to Guatemala is identifying state-local complementarity as a critical variable in explaining localized gains in development and civic participation, particularly in brown areas where state influence is both a necessity on the one hand, but also a perceived threat to cherished autonomy on the other. States need be both hands-on and hands-off – an idea most development agencies struggle to grasp.
As written, The Promise of Participation might inadvertently hinder the adoption of PG by mainstream development policymakers, given its long list of caveats and qualifications. At the same time, however, Altschuler and Corrales help underscore the complexity of local political dynamics and the tensions inherent in a system of weak states and local political demands. This complexity is all the more reason PG needs both further implementation, and examination. Altschuler and Corrales undoubtedly assist in the latter, but their book might have worked best had it been written in reverse – starting with the complications, and pointing a way forward after that.
O’Donnell, Guillermo (1993) “On the State, Democratization and Some conceptual Problems: A Latin American View with Glances at Some Post Communist Countries.” World Development 21 (8): 1355-1369