Opinion

Putting the spotlight on ‘participation’ in economic alternatives

Published on 17 January 2019

Image of Jodie Thorpe
Jodie Thorpe

Research Fellow, Cluster Leader

Next week, the great and the good will once again meet at Davos in Switzerland, for the 49th World Economic Forum Annual Meeting.  The forum programme speaks of the world being in a “moment of transition”, and sets up a number of dialogues on “Globalization 4.0”, that will inform a set of “system initiatives” designed to “curate, align and advance the efforts of the most globally relevant and knowledgeable individuals and institutions that are shaping the future”.

At the heart of the Davos meetings are a number of principles that I genuinely find laudable, including cooperation, multi-stakeholder dialogue and responsiveness to regional and national concerns. However, two others sit rather uncomfortably with me. One is a cult of leadership, and the other is a primacy of growth (even if it is inclusive and sustainable growth) above all else.

At Davos, and in society in general, recent decades have seen value placed on too few individuals (generally men); creating or reinforcing a sense of their infallibility and entitlement. Decision-making takes place behind closed doors, in processes that marginalise the interests and views of ‘ordinary’ people and fail to reflect the value that they create. Economic growth is prioritised above all else, while the wellbeing of the society within which the economy functions is undervalued.

Over the past year, however, we have been collecting examples that challenge such norms. Linking Economic Advancement in Participation is a really exciting project developed by IDS in collaboration with the Economic Advancement Programme of the Open Society Foundations. It explores economic structures, processes and models that involve so-called ordinary people in economic decision-making, and how these can be enabled.

Through this work we have created a global map that spotlights 44 different cases (so far) of participation in economic advancement, stretching from San Francisco to the Solomon Islands. We have grouped them into the three categories, as we set out in our guide on Mapping Participation in Economic Advancement.


Click on the markers to find out more about each example

Business and financing models that enable participation

Red markers on the map

The first group focuses on economic processes involving enterprises (large, small or micro), funders, investors – organisations which control capital and make decisions involving the allocation of capital. These also involve economic processes happening at the intersection of enterprises – at a sector, value chain or market level.

In these processes, decision-making related to enterprise management and economic production (for example, how capital and other resources are deployed, how production is organised, how marketing is organised) is typically centralised.  However, these alternative models foster participation by

  • Enabling community members to hold enterprises to account
  • Supporting employees, community members, etc affected by economic processes to participate in decision-making, including through democratising ownership of enterprises

In these examples, the underlying aim is generally to ensure that the benefits created by economic processes are more justly shared. In some cases, the focus is entirely on economic benefits (profits), while in others, profits may be balanced with social, environmental and wellbeing benefits.

Farmers of Kuapa Cocoa co-operative gather for a photo holding their produce
Credit: Farmers of Kuapa Cocoa co-operative | Peter Lockyer | Flickr | CC BY NC

Citizen voice in economic policy-making

Blue markers on the map

The second group focuses on macroeconomic policy-making on issues such as debt, tax and interest rates, as well as the policies pertaining to resource ownership, economic production or market governance. The focus is often national, but may also be global or local.

Traditionally, economic policy-making is limited to a small group of technocratic experts, influenced by powerful stakeholders from business or civil society. It often fails to involve or reflect the interests of affected citizens. Even where democratic processes create the framework for participation, the legal, technical, and/or opaque nature of these processes is often exclusionary or may be used to exclude.

In these examples, participation is fostered either through advocacy on the part of excluded groups, and/or through recognition of their legitimacy by decision-makers that include them in policy processes. Having spaces for deliberation where traditionally excluded groups are able to co-produce policy messages can also be important.

In these examples, the underlying aim of participation may be to secure accountability from those in charge of economic processes, to support better and more informed policy-making, to ensure the concerns and aspirations of ordinary people are taken into account, and to protect economic rights.

Participatory economic alternatives (structures, processes and ownership)

Yellow markers on the map

In contrast to the previous two groups, this category involves models that prioritise solidarity and participation (e.g. examples from the social and solidarity economy movement). They tend to be based on self-organising and cooperative forms of ownership or management that are claimed or created by the members themselves, although they may involve external support and facilitation.

Democratic, horizontal and decentralised decision-making (often direct, though it may be delegated) are the norm. Even the rules and structures for decision-making are open and under democratic control. The underlying aim is community welfare, shared benefits and building the local economy, often supported through strengthening local wealth circulation.

There is a strong emphasis on solidarity, group self-reliance and collective action, in contrast to the competition, individual self-reliance or individualised action that is emphasised in much modern economic activity.

Add your voice

By collecting these examples, we are building a stronger knowledge and evidence base, focused specifically on the theme of participation in alternative economic models, and how meaningful participation can be achieved in practice.

Over the years a great deal of work has been done on how to build participation and increase the voice of disenfranchised groups in political and social processes. Here we are interested in how these concepts and practices of participation apply to the economic sphere.

We know that many other organisations are actively working on these issues, and we’d like to hear from you.

What constitutes meaningful participation and under what conditions is it most likely to emerge? What are success factors or barriers to participation in economic processes? What are the best examples which illustrate how participate can work in practice?

Share your thoughts, examples and learning by tweeting us at @EldisUpdates, or email us on eldis@ids.ac.uk. Where comments include relevant resources or examples of participation in the economic sphere, we will add them as links in the Eldis Key Issue Guide, or as cases on our map.

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