Midnight in Paris? Case Studies of Participation in the New Post-Paris World

Here’s the abstract from a paper Ricardo Gomez, Solin Chan and I will present at the upcoming Australia National University conference on “The Challenges for Participatory Development in Contemporary Development Practice.”  I’ll post a link to the full article once the proceedings are published:

Gil Pender seems suited to different times. Played by Owen Wilson in Woody Allen’s global hit film, ‘Midnight in Paris’, Gil is magically transported each night back to Paris of the 1920’s, where he feels most at home – rubbing shoulders with Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein is much more exciting and meaningful than living in drab, superficial 2010.

Many INGO workers share Gil Pender’s nostalgia for the past, a past when we cut our teeth on participatory methodologies and implemented community development projects. But since the Paris Declaration of 2005, times have changed for INGOS.

Or, more to the point, times should have changed.

This paper describes work undertaken in Latin America and Southeast Asia in which INGOs are learning how to work effectively in the post-Paris reality. Supporting central-level line ministries in Guatemala to operationalize their commitments at community level, and mobilizing youth to influence planning and service provision at district level in Cambodia, INGOs are finding new ways to make ‘participation’ a relevant reality in 2012.

Working in this way requires new skills, a new focus, and new attitudes. In particular, we must master the nuances of national government planning systems, understand the legal and programmatic framework for the realization of human rights in a particular country and, crucially, resharpen our abilities to mobilize excluded populations. We need to come to terms with the fact that we are less central now.

In ‘Midnight in Paris,’ Gil Pender comes to realize that we should make the most of the times we live in, and not focus our energies on past realities. Likewise, INGO workers need to adapt the tools that worked well pre-Paris, such as participatory methodologies. In many, perhaps most, contexts, our role is to help governments fulfill their legal obligations towards all, especially those most excluded; and to help people (especially those most excluded) become active citizens.