Can Participation ‘Fix’ Inequality?

Published on 12 August 2016

John Gaventa

Research Fellow and Director, Action for Empowerment and Accountability (A4EA) programme

The increasing attention being given to the issue of growing inequality is welcome. It is a central tenet of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), both in Goal 10 on reducing inequality and the overall commitment to ‘leaving no one behind.’ But to us the debate on economic inequality and its consequences seems to have a glaring gap: what is the relationship of economic inequality to inequalities in citizen voice and power? Conversely, what do we know about how strategies of citizen engagement and empowerment actually challenge and change economic inequality?

A new paper published by the Coady International Institute explores the dynamics of economic and political citizenship and is based on an earlier lecture by John Gaventa in the Sussex Development Lecture series.

In her preface to one of Oxfam’s hard hitting reports on inequality (pdf), Executive Director, Winnie Byanyima summarises the concern: ‘our ability to raise our voices and have a say over how the societies we live in are run is being threatened by the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few’.

Drawing on work by the Council of Europe, the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights (pdf) made a similar argument: ‘Material deprivation and disempowerment create a vicious circle: the greater the inequality, the less the participation; the less the participation, the greater the inequality’.

Breaking the vicious cycle on inequality

But how do we break the vicious circle? Here we face a paradox: many of the same reports and studies which argue that inequality limits participation also argue that the solution lies in – you got it – greater citizen voice and political participation. The problem is also the remedy; the disease is also the cure. We counter the vicious circle by arguing for a more virtuous circle, yet the circular argument itself remains unchallenged.

Can we really have it both ways? Can inequality both dampen participation of those at the bottom of the economic inequality ladder on the one hand, and be ‘fixed’ by it on the other?

The relationship between economic and political agency

As researchers, our first instinct is to argue that we need a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between economic and political agency. There are important questions to be asked. Is it always a linear relationship with higher levels of concentrated wealth limiting voice and participation by the masses at the bottom of the pyramid? Or is there a tipping point – where the gap between the rich and the poor becomes so great that the normal means through which power restrains participation break down, and those at the bottom of the pyramid speak out in new ways – whether through popular protest on food riots, advocacy on economic policies which perpetuate inequality, or through the creation of alternative social economies? If so, we need to know when this tipping point occurs, under what conditions, and how it can be hastened in the face of rapidly growing inequality.

However, whether we are researchers, civil society organisations or donors, if we are concerned about supporting citizen action to counter inequality, we might start with examining our own strategies. Despite acknowledging the importance of intersecting inequalities which link economic, civic, gender and other forms of inequality, we have often in our work segmented participation into its political and economic spheres, rather than promoting joined up strategies that make connect them.

A more joined-up approach to inequality

The neat compartments which divide our understanding and action have deep organisational roots. Donors have separate ‘economics’ and ‘governance’ advisors, who often promote separate ‘growth’ and ‘accountability’ strategies. Reflecting these donor ways of seeing the world, NGOs have livelihoods departments, which may promote citizen economic engagement and empowerment, but which give little attention to what this means for political voice and power; meanwhile a parallel set of programmes down the corridor will focus on strengthening voice and accountability in the civic and political spheres, but rarely think about how this links to the issue of economic inequality.

Research institutions have their economists and their political scientists, their markets experts and their participation experts, who with their different methods and academic lenses have difficulties linking their work together, thus replicating the great divide.

While we know we should address intersecting inequalities, our work on strengthened political voice often ignores the economic sphere, and work on building inclusive economies often fails to think about strategies for more inclusive politics. Yet, in the face of extreme economic inequality, work on one without the other fails to break the vicious circle.

Participatory citizen action – what works?

An initiative led by the Coady International Institute in Canada, itself with a long history of building grassroots leadership for economic and political change, is trying to learn more about effective strategies of participatory citizen action which are able to cross the economic and political divide. Peer practitioner and researcher teams have explored models of joined-up action that simultaneously challenge economic and political inequalities. The examples show what organised action can do, often motivated first by an economic impulse but requiring civic awareness and action to preserve and strengthen the toe-hold that people achieve. In a new book Citizen-Led Innovation for a New Economy, based on case studies in the USA and Canada, we have found exciting examples of similar joined up action that demands a new type of economy based on social justice and environmental sustainability (also available in the UK through Practical Action.)

While by themselves these initiatives may not be the solution to global inequality, they put hands and feet on the goals of the newly minted SDGs for reducing inequality and ‘leaving no one behind’ by offering clues to how to break the inequality and participation juggernaut. The first step is to go beyond our silos, and come up with strategies and programmes that deliberately link economic and political forms of citizen action. Unless we can play some new cards in our participatory deck, the fear is that economic power will trump all of our attempts to strengthen citizen voice.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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