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People’s Participation

Article 7 of the Code of Conduct affirms the principle that: “Ways shall be found to involve programme beneficiaries in the management of relief aid.” The article specifies that “disaster response should never be imposed” on people and that it is done best when people “are involved in the design, management and implementation of assistance programmes”.

It goes on to say that “we will strive to achieve full community participation in our relief and rehabilitation programmes”. This principle logically precedes Articles 5 and 6 because it sets out the basic good of human agency and participation, which is the prerequisite of local capacity and sustainability.

Participation is a fundamental ingredient in the principle of humanity itself. Being human means being actively oneself and engaged with others. Our ability to participate—to become, to build, to share, to join in and to contribute—is a dynamic of humanity itself. It is the conscious agency of our personal being that distinguishes our humanity from mere existence. True being is participation in individual and communal activities that create our own goods and enable us to share in the common goods around us. So we must count participation as a basic good in human life. The ability to join in and become personally involved in society is a fundamental value in modern Western philosophies. We find it in the sociability or friendship that John Finnis identifies as one of his seven basic goods, and in the practical reasonableness that enables us to engage actively and wisely in the world.9 In less individualistic and nonWestern societies, participation and collective identities often make much more sense to people than the West’s emphasis on the individual. Being part of a community is often people’s primary experience of life. For people in many communities, the pronoun “we” can be more instinctive than the singular “I”, but their individual agency and involvement is still central to this more collective sense of identity.

Participation is also a good that brings about other goods. Participation is enabling of wider benefits as well as a pleasurable good in itself. Participation is at the heart of Amartya Sen’s idea of freedom as the mainspring of human development. By being able to participate in the world around us, we are free to “convert” the goods we hold within us and between us and to make the most of the opportunities we have before us.10 Participation is essential in two of Martha Nussbaum’s ten “central capabilities” that “enable people to pursue a dignified and minimally flourishing life”. Participation is central to “affiliation”, which is the capability “to live with and toward others, to recognize and show concern for human beings, to engage in various forms of social interaction”. Participation is also the core of Nussbaum’s tenth capability: “having control over one’s environment”, which means “being able to participate effectively in political choices that govern one’s life ... having property rights on an equal basis with others ... and being able to work as a human being”.11 Legally, the basic good of participation is encapsulated in human rights law, which regards participation as a fundamental human right in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This right also makes clear that everybody has a responding duty to contribute to their community, without which their full development will not be possible.12

When we participate justly in shaping our own lives or in building the common good, we find our personal dignity by building and realizing our capabilities. This participation can take the form of work, governance or simple enjoyment in a friendship, a birth, a wedding or a meal.13 When we are prevented from participating in the making of our lives, we soon feel this lack as an indignity and impoverishment. We lose our subjectivity and inter-subjectivity and are relegated to exist as the object of others. They decide things for us, give things to us, parade above us and tell us what to do. People still achieve great personal dignity waiting in a queue, being illiterate, being fed by another or being pushed in a wheelchair. This is usually because they have a deep sense of self and are still in active and equal contact with people in other parts of their lives where they are respected as themselves. But there can be significant indignity in a humanitarian operation when people from outside rush in to solve your problems without consulting and involving you, drive big cars that spew dust in your face and then make all sorts of decisions over your head.

The ethical and political justifications of participation inherent in this principle are again complemented by a more practical moral insight from development ethics. Participation is also good because it works. But it is seldom simple. Community development practice has long focused on participation and has noted gradations of participation in the relationships between aid agency and community. These gradations make clear that not all participation is qualitatively the same. The most popular model of participation is the “ladder of participation” whose rungs climb from activities that are essentially non-participation (like manipulation, tokenism and decoration) through mid-states of participation (like consultation and placation) to full participation at the top (like partnership and control).14

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