Participatory Stimulus: Political Theory And Practical Application
15 March 2015
By Dr. Yossef Ben-Meir
The election results in Greece have again elevated the debate across Europe
between proponents of austerity and stimulus. Which approach – either
constricting public spending, including projects that promote sustainable
growth, or increasing this funding, even through borrowing – will improve
troubled economies and create jobs and new wealth for communities and
This is in reality a global question, currently echoed in two further
examples; namely U.S. President Obama’s new proposals to secure and expand
the middle class, and the options facing Arab Spring governments as they
strive to outpace public discontent and potential political upheaval.
There is indeed an alternative, third way approach that has ascended in the
global field of international development, but that is regularly overlooked
by governments as they create their own national development policies.
Participatory development is an approach to economic stimulus that would see
thousands of smaller projects at the local level that communities identify
and control, instead of fewer, large-scale costly projects with higher
Participatory stimulus in the form of human development projects is ideally
suited to help shorten recessions and promote growth in two ways. First,
people’s ability to adapt to change is increased, as the process builds their
practical and critical thinking skills and confidence. Second, economic
diversity is created with lower, shared risks on investments in smaller
project costs and new partnerships, including community contributions of work
In this model, communities exist in close geographical proximity to one
another, their members interacting and creating organizations that reflect
their local interests and identities and that manage development projects
utilizing internal and external resources to improve local conditions.
Both the timescale and the level of involvement are of critical importance
for the success of sustainable human development projects. In terms of the
former, it has been found that the greatest benefits accrue for local
communities where such projects are implemented as quickly as possible after
the initial idea has been agreed upon.
With regard to the latter, the premise is that the timing of meetings,
project implementation and the overall development process rests with the
people – acting in communities – who identify problems, find and implement
solutions and benefit from the initiatives thus created. It has been found
that when local communities function in this way, performing their own
investigation, analysis and management of projects, their knowledge-base
(critically built during the data-generating and information-sharing process)
is directly relevant to the outcome.
A methodology with proven results
The participatory approach has been applied with success in a wide variety of
situations. In rural areas, improvements have taken place in farming systems,
food production, natural resource and protected area management,
cooperatives, land use and sanitation. In the sphere of business and public
services, improvements have been noted in infrastructural projects, poverty
alleviation, technological development, architectural planning and community
There are significant increases in access and empowerment for the disabled,
disease control, health education and nutrition. Participatory methods assist
in formal and informal education, experiential learning and communication,
adult education and – on college campuses – increasing student involvement in
academic decisions, university-community partnership, gender and youth
development and in overcoming racial prejudice and other forms of
Improvement has been noted too in the fields of disaster management,
peace-building and the work of welfare organizations. Finally, participatory
methodology is cited as a crucial factor in increased success in terms of
organizational development, building civil society, project evaluation,
policy development and advocacy.
Political theory and practical application
In political terms, participatory development can be characterized as a third
way social movement due to its dualisms or wide-ranging, seemingly
contradictory outcomes. For example, interests that could be considered to be
mutually exclusive – such as advancing development and protecting the
environment – are fashioned by groups into synergistic partnerships. All of
this results in both autonomy at sub-national levels and strengthened
national unity with greater public trust. It is worth highlighting that such
consequences could be particularly relevant in the different yet connected
situations of Arab Spring countries.
While the philosophical roots of participatory methodology are ancient, based
in consultative decision-making, they are integral to the modern era.
Participatory human development stands where the classic 'left’ and 'right’
of the political spectrum can meet, creating decentralized systems and
building a society that empowers at the local level and where the people
determine and drive their individual and communal growth.
For example, in the context of the U.S. political landscape, participatory
development combines core features of both major political parties. It is
dedicated to alleviating poverty that is explained to be systemically and
historically created (a Democratic outlook) while at the same time it sees
central planning of local development as contributing to waste and
resentment, seeking instead to transfer power to the people so that they may
manage their own affairs (federalism, the Republican party’s identity
The prerequisite for the application of participatory stimulus is that it is
supported adequately by national laws and policies that promote local
democratic planning and action.
National foreign debt ultimately reflects endorsements of borrowers’ national
growth. Participatory stimulus is the smart insurance that creditors should
support to guarantee in the best manner possible that loans are paid back.
With connections that transcend party lines and benefits in multiple domains,
participatory stimulus may also be the most politically acceptable pathway
across the global arena.
Dr. Yossef Ben-Meir is president of the High Atlas Foundation.