An empowering approach to participation treats poor people as co-producers, with authority and control over decisions and resources devolved to the lowest appropriate level. Inclusion of poor people and other traditionally excluded groups in priority setting and decision making is critical to ensure that limited public resources build on local knowledge and priorities, and to build commitment to change. However, an effort to sustain inclusion and informed participation usually requires changing the rules so as to create space for people to debate issues and participate directly or indirectly in local and national priority setting, budget formation, and delivery of basic services. Participatory decision making is not always harmonious and priorities may be contested, so conflict resolution mechanisms need to be in place to manage disagreements.
Sustaining poor people's participation in societies with deeply entrenched norms of exclusion or in multiethnic societies with a history of conflict is a complex process that requires resources, facilitation, sustained vigilance, and experimentation. The tendency among most government agencies is to revert to centralized decision making, to hold endless public meetings without any impact on policy or resource decisions. Participation then becomes yet another cost imposed on poor people without any returns.
Participation can take different forms. At the local level, depending on the issue, participation may be:
representational, by selecting representatives from membership-based groups and associations;
political, through elected representatives;
information-based, with data aggregated and reported directly or through intermediaries to local and national decision makers;
based on competitive market mechanisms, for example by removing restrictions and other barriers, increasing choice about what people can grow or to whom they can sell, or by payment for services selected and received.
Among the four elements of empowerment, participation of poor people is the most developed in Bank projects and increasingly also in preparation of Bank Country Assistance Strategies (CAS). In low-income countries, the process of preparing Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSP) has opened new opportunities for broad-based participation by poor people, citizens' groups, and private sector groups in national priority setting and policy making.
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