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close this bookHabitat Debate - Vol. 3 - No. 1 - 1997 - Partnerships (HABITAT, 1997, 65 p.)
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Partnerships, Power and Participation

by Chris W. Williams

Has urban planning radically changed with the advent of partnerships? Is it safe to say that a process of consultation has effectively replaced centralized, top-down, master planning with decentralized, bottom-up, participatory planning?

Local authorities today no longer operate in isolation. They collaborate with diverse partners in order to manage urban development in ways which better reflect a wide cross section of needs and interests. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), professional associations, private businesses, training institutions, as well as community-based organizations (CBOs) are active stakeholders in decisions about the future of the city. However, can one equate consultation with participation? Does planning through partnership imply that all partners are equal? Do power relations implicit in partnerships disrupt what might otherwise appear a level playing field? And if so, what strategies can less influential partners, especially the poor, use to make partnerships genuinely participatory?

In November 1996, UNCHS (Habitat)’s Community Development Programme in collaboration with the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Danida) hosted an International Expert Group Meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark, to address these and related issues. The meeting entitled, “The Limits to Resource and Community Management,” did not stop at criticism. Meeting participants, a range of development practitioners and applied scholars, shared first-hand experiences about how to overcome obstacles of power in partnerships. Specifically, how people living in poverty can collaborate more effectively with NGOs, local authorities and the private sector.

Consultation or Participation?

Participants at the meeting agreed that partnerships are a necessary tool for improving human settlements - a way for local authorities to broaden the planning process. However, they raised concerns about the depth and intention of partnerships. Councillors and elected officials at the municipal and district levels often develop a plan and then seek support for it through a consultative process. Yet, the private sector and professional associations and especially community organizations rarely participate in the formulation of development plans. While there is consultation, there is little substantive participation.

In some instances, the absence of participation in the formulation process is due to attitudes about participatory planning. Local officials are reluctant to turn over decision-making at such an early stage. Many feel that low-income people do not possess the technical knowledge needed to contribute effectively to the planning process. Such attitudes blind public officials from recognizing a vital human and financial resource and it blocks people from exercising a democratic right. Overlooked is the fact that women’s groups, people’s movements, CBOs, and apex organizations constitute the single largest source of settlement improvements in major urban centres throughout the world. Coordinated planning with these entities is not only ethical, it is also highly cost-effective.

The absence of genuine participation can also be intentional. Municipal authorities may use partnerships to ensure the implementation of their own agenda. Popular organizations are invited by local or central governments to work in partnership only to find that their participation is a token gesture to legitimize the interests of other parties, often those of considerable wealth. There is a partnership, but one confined to elites, one which reproduces top-down planning under the guise of consultation.

Private sector involvement in partnerships is no less problematic. For larger firms, consultation without participation plays right into a corporate public relations scheme. The company is seen to be working in partnership with the public and popular sectors, but is not engaged in the urban planning process. It fails to recognize that the way it provides services or produces goods has a tremendous influence on the future of the city. Banks may furnish lines of credit to low-income settlements but they do not diversify loan products to informal borrowers, nor do they change the way they lend money. Large industries contribute a health clinic, but do not also reduce pollutants, improve health benefits for their workers, nor consider the implications of locating production alongside low-income settlements.

Making Partnerships Work

Critics are quick to highlight the contradictions inherent in partnerships but are often slow to suggest alternatives. Participants at the Copenhagen Meeting, recognizing the necessity of partnerships, debated a range of strategies to overcome obstacles that hinder participatory planning:

(a) People and organizations with limited economic influence must begin by questioning the intentions of those initiating the partnership. They must examine critically the power relationships underlying partnerships, discerning substantive participation from token consultation. They must also evaluate those who claim to represent them, including community leaders and directors of apex organizations who serve as liaisons between the other partners and the community.

Identification of injustice in partnerships is not a reason for outright rejection of collaboration per se. Perfect equality in partnerships is a romantic illusion. The challenge is to enter into partnerships informed about the power relations inherent in them, and armed with mechanisms which minimize opportunities for manipulation.

(b) Contractual agreements are important tools with which all partners can improve transparency. Simple legal arrangements, established and endorsed by participating popular, public and private sectors at the outset of the partnership, enable partners to hold one another accountable. Those reneging on financial commitments, contributions in kind (technical or legal skills), or decisions about resource allocation, can be challenged. Injured parties may seek recourse through a secretariat of the partnership, comprised of elected members who represent partners by sector.

(c) Another mechanism is a tactical strategy CBOs use in partnerships to ensure autonomy and to maintain a greater advocacy role. Rather than join partnerships as an organization, many CBOs establish separate committees to represent them in the partnership. This enables the community or apex organization to retain a critical stance vis-is others in the partnership, yet also collaborate with them on planning initiatives. Tactical strategies allow popular organizations to work with the public sector without capitulating to the demands of private interests. Conversely, public authorities can engage community priorities and resources without having to contend with the political ramifications of collaborating with radical elements.

(d) There are mechanisms for working constructively with the private sector as well. Popular organizations must recognize the private sector as heterogeneous, and develop strategies for partnerships which correspond to this variation. Community organizations often avoid being manipulated in corporate public relation schemes when they approach larger firms through the public sector. Public authorities play a mediating role, brokering popular and private interests and minimizing conflicts that may arise when the partnership is limited to two, rather than three parties. Organized informal wage labour presents another strategy, as it is smaller and decentralized, less regulated, and often home-based and owned by women. Popular/private partnerships of this kind are most effective when they are oriented towards the needs of women, and support income- and employment-generation.

Partnerships and the Role of International Development Cooperation

Multilateral and bilateral agencies can reduce contradictions in partnerships, as well as enhance the mechanisms which make partnerships work. The popularity of partnerships as a tool for sustainable human settlements development is such that the mere presence of partnerships tends to be a source of legitimacy and an occasion of success. Multilateral and bilateral agencies must be cognizant of the intentions of partners and learn to discern between participation and consultation. They must recognize that the legacy of non-participatory, top-down planning is not easily dispensed with, and that partnerships may deter, rather than enhance decentralized, participatory planning.

Multilateral and bilateral agencies can go far to strengthen the mechanisms which enable partners to overcome obstacles inherent in partnerships. When communities are better organized and are able to articulate their needs and mobilize resources, they can use partnerships, rather than be used by them. When public authorities are sensitized about participatory planning through in-service training workshops and active participation in pilot projects, their perspective towards partnerships changes. They regard partnerships less as an imposed, fashionable burden, and more as a tool for urban planning. Partners informed about their role in the partnership engage the private sector differently. They recognize variation in that sector, minimize corporate social engineering, and better integrate the contribution of the informal sector to urban planning.

In short, development cooperation which invests in training for participation in partnerships enhances the quality of partnerships, and is more likely to improve the conditions of people living in poverty.

Chris W. Williams is Research Coordinator of the Community Development Programme in the Research and Development Division of UNCHS (Habitat).