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Some reflections on research on development assistance and participatory development

January 10, 2013

The development assistance agenda has since the 70-ties been dominated by a decentralized approach, and participatory development, including the basic presumptions that development activities should target the groups in need, the poor sectors of the population. The poor should take an active part in the development processes, in terms of ownership and design. A central feature is empowerment. The Paris agenda 2005 and the Accra agenda 2008 further enforce the policy on partnership and ownership. The same premises are put forward in the Swedish government’s policy for global development, proposing a pro-poor, participatory development approach with a firm base in the local community, its needs, and an integration of the “perspectives of poor people on development”.

According to my point of view, a participatory approach and a perspective from the point of view of the poor is a basic precondition in development assistance. However, the participatory development approach and policy neglect one significant factor in the formation of development discourses; the role and function played by local elites and local intellectual groups.  The research agenda on development assistance replicates the problem. In subjects as for example social anthropology and development studies, the focus during the last decades have been firmly put on the lower levels of the society, the marginalised and poor groups. The role and function played by the local elite and indigenous intellectual categories in the development process is a neglected area.

Indigenous elites and intellectual groups are influential in changes and transformations of ideological, political, and social discourses. They functions as mediators between local discourses and external centres, and transmit ideas, values, and knowledge to the lower levels of the society.  My research on the intellectual elite in Kolkata, West Bengal, illustrates the point well. The intellectual category in Kolkata has a specific structure and position in the society. The category of modern Kolkata intellectuals, the Bhadralok, which emerged in the colonial encounter in the middle of the 19th century, got an intermediate position, in-between the colonial power and the indigenous population. In contemporary Kolkata, the intellectual elite, the Bhadralok, dominates the political and cultural sectors, while elite groups from other states dominate the economic sector, and the lower groups and the industrial working class are mainly constituted of migrant groups from neighbouring states. The Kolkata intellectuals have played an important role in social, political and intellectual movements. They functioned as ideologues and leaders in the Bengali Renaissance and the reform movements in the 19th century, the early Nationalist movement and the Leftist movement. Further, they constituted the leadership in the Left Front that governed the state from 1978 to 2011. They implemented a decentralised government, land reforms and poverty alleviation programs. The intellectual discourse among the Kolkata intellectuals have a long tradition of radicalism and concern for the lower levels in the society. Intervention in the social and political arenas is emphasised on both an ideological and practical level and is reflected in the organisational structure. Organisations and activities related to social service and voluntary social work are very popular and, for example, social movements and NGOs has become an avenue of engagement. One example is the NGO Sachetana, run by academics and other intellectuals. Sachetana functions as information centre for the NGOs working in women’s issues in Kolkata and they have run several different programmes with a focus on rural women in the villages. Some of their programmes have been sponsored by external funding.

During the last couple of years, the topic of elites has started to surface in discussions and research on development assistance, something, which is reflected in for example projects run by policy and research institutes as CRED, DIIS,  UNU- WIDER and IDS. However, a more solid focus on this topic needs to be taken into consideration.

Kerstin B Andersson

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 16, 2013 13:08

    participatory development is very important because, it takes into consideration the needs of the beneficairy and it equally permit to attaind efficientlly the objectives of development at it base

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