The Difficulty of Participation

Jonathan De Luca just finished a 6-month internship in San Fernando, Philippines. His work their focused on waste management. His post here is an honest look at some of the difficulties encountered in true participatory planning, but also in his role as an intern.

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There are so many obstacles to true participatory planning, and even more in trying to transfer decision-making to the communities and groups you are working with. It’s difficult to make sure you don’t try and influence the decisions, especially when they see your role as the “expert”. This is especially the case working here in the Philippines where it’s often thought that I am the one who must have the amazing solutions since I’ve come all the way from frigid Montreal to help this coastal town with their solid waste management.

Another question that comes up is how one can ensure that the decisions made by the community don’t perpetuate the marginalization of certain groups. In creating a Barangay Solid Waste Management Committee the community members didn’t include informal waste workers, usually poor people who go around house to house buying recyclables. In a stakeholder analysis workshop I suggested we include them in the committee. They cried out “why would we include them in our committee? We want them gone!” At that moment, I couldn’t explain any further why it would be important to include the waste workers (they call them scavengers). It is also obvious it wouldn’t take 5 minutes to change their minds.


In a real participatory approach, I wouldn’t be standing in front of them telling them they need to include scavengers. Leaning towards the principles of popular education, I would be helping them to explore the way in which marginalization occurs in our society. Maybe I’d help them explore how social injustices are caused by prejudice and discrimination. They need to come to that conclusion using their own reasoning and their own experience. That way, they will own their own thoughts on the matter.

Government institutions are not exactly bowing to our efforts in participatory planning. In a culture used to having to provide the answers and policies to address problems, it’s not easy to make them ease up a bit and let the people take a bit of responsibility in the policy arena. Even citizens maybe confused as to why they are being asked to help in this process – didn’t they elect the politicians to do the job?

It’s important to make sure that a government institution understands that they don’t hold the expertise in addressing problems – rather they are mainly experts in knowing the level of bureaucracy and red tape that needs to be sliced through in order to get things done. It’s the citizens who, in living their everyday lives immersed in whatever problems they perceive to be in the community, who have a fuller understanding of what’s going on. Even further, it’s when you get several members of the community who are all each living a different reality of that problem together that real analysis can occur. In sharing stories and experiences they can help themselves realize all the angles and realities of the issue. Only then can effective solutions be created to tackle the problem. We are not here to tell them what to do, rather we are only here to get them together and realize they are the best people to create the solution. Now if only we can convince those at the top…


About sustainablecitiesnetwork

Sustainable Cities International is a registered not-for-profit organization based in Vancouver, Canada. Operating since 1993, the mission of Sustainable Cities is to catalyze action on urban sustainability with cities around the world. We work by connecting and mobilizing people through the process of co-creating. We facilitate a thriving, international network of cities that act as urban laboratories: adopting, testing and improving on innovations. Ideas are accelerated through sharing of experience and cities are making transformational change a reality
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