Museologia Social e Urbanismo XLIV

Public participation and democracy

How can cities and urban areas be governed better to make them more sustainable?

  1. Discuss examples and cases of participatory governance and what conditions enable such processes

The focus of this lecture will be on public participation and democracy and it starts off with recognizing that since the early 1990s the principle of participatory development has been firmly entrenched but if we look back over the last 25 years the implementation of that has been rather disappointing.

So the purpose is to explore why that’s the case and how we can we rethink the idea of public participation and democratization as a constituent part of achieving sustainable cities. Now what I will do is to mention a few reasons for this disappointing history and then touch on a number of key ideas in the literature that helps us to understand how to think our way through this problematic and explore alternatives and then conclude with an interesting case study from a very poor neighborhood in Cape Town called Khayelitsha where social movement called the Social Justice Coalition has been able to very effectively mobilize  participatory techniques to both raise awareness about injustices but also enroll the community to be an active part of solutions.

So let’s now explore the reasons for the disappointing track record of participatory development: in the first instance what we witness is that there’s often a difficulty to surface the underlying issues that is associated with the problem and so what is participating processes tend to do is to be very superficial.

This relates to a second problem where this process is often designed that they are merely performative or ritualistic in other words people are gathered together, they go through the motions of having a conversation about a shared issue but there’s no real mechanism to deal with underlying conflicts of interest or genuine differences.

This in turn connects with another phenomenon that we see where these processes are enacted, they makes certain decisions but we then see no follow-through, no commitment to implementation, no institutional support to make sure that what does deliberative process generated is in fact acted upon and then finally when we look across different case studies is that often these processes failed to be strategic, in other words they can be very specific in relation to an issue or the manifestation of a certain problem but they’re unable to differentiate between what is a manifestation of the problem and what’s the underlying cause and what needs to be done in the short-term, medium-term and long-term in other words be strategic.

The combination of these dynamics mean that everyone can pay lip service to participatory development, they can even enact the institutional fora but it has no impact on the way in which decisions are genuinely made.

So in order to understand why participatory development have such a poor track record it is helpful to turn to the literature and explore a number of debates.

Now at the heart of this debate is a difference in opinion or approach between what we call those from the Deliberative Democracy tradition and those from the Radical Democracy tradition and the central difference is how they think about consensus and conflict.

The Deliberative Democrats what they believe is that if you use Democratic forum to bring all the different stakeholders together, you sit around a table and you create the conditions for what they term free speech, then it is possible to arrive at a clear coherent consensus that is in fact the best possible outcome in relation to the matter under discussion. The Radical Democrats take a very different view, they believe that in any speech context there’s already pre-programmed differences and there’s also unequal power relations and by merely having an equal space within which everyone can talk you don’t resolve the underlying differences.

So they believe what you really need is for conflict to be surfaced, is to acknowledge that certain interest, certain conflicts are irreconcilable and that unless you are able to make that clear and visible and put that out into the open, you don’t generate enough political heat so that you can really get to this underlying structural drivers of various urban problems. So in their mind set, yes, deliberation is important, negotiations is important but you also need an extra deliberative element in other words you need the street, you need voice, you need opposition to also coming to the frame and that creates if you will a pressure cooker effect that changes the terms of the debate and this is really central to how we think about the quality of participation and what the prerequisites are for participatory engagements to lead to more substantive structural engagements around urban problems.

At the heart of this is a view on conflict and how we think about conflict and in this regarded it is really helpful to turn to a text that differentiates between what the authors call Unnecessary conflict and Genuine conflict. Unnecessary conflict can be in the realm of value conflicts or relationship conflict, in other words people just don’t get along and can be bothered for mediation or conflict resolution or people disagree on the facts. Whole of these are conflicts that are always present but they can in theory through effective processes be resolved.

But then you get 2 kinds of conflict that are deep and genuine and in a sense you can only mediate them effectively: one is Structural Conflicts and this can relate to how context is set up, what the preordained differential interests are and you also get Interest Conflicts which is in a sense self explanatory, people have different interests in the game and if they have more power, more resources their interests will trump and so you’ve got at least make that visible and clear to everyone. So what this does is it helps us to understand that it is important to recognize that participatory processes require speech and dialogue but it also needs a recognition or space for conflict to play itself out so that you can in fact have the real debate or the real discussion and recognize what you can agree on and what you can’t agree on.

So moving on from the idea of consensus and dissensus or the idea of agreement and conflict, we then get to the issue of how does change happen, how do you get sustainable development through participatory processes. Now in this regard there’s again two traditions in the literature, if you want to simplify things the one is if you will about incremental change and the second tradition is about rupture. Now of course in the bigger scheme of things if you look through the history of political theory, you can really differentiate between proceduralism in democracy and violent ruptures – revolution if you will.

I won’t explore that full gamut today but I just want to focus on two ideas: one is Radical Incrementalism versus what we can call Systemic Change or Systemic Structural Ruptures.

Now Radical Incrementalism refers to the importance of changes in the everyday livelihoods of ordinary people through participatory development processes as a precondition for a full essence of citizenship that is about structural change of class relations and other structural differences in society and these two things are interdependent, but if you don’t have periodic crises in a society or in the city – so for example if someone suffered an acute abuse or if someone has seen like the Syrian child that washed up in the beach in southern Europe and so on, you don’t have the mechanism for rupture.

What those crisis represent is a public mechanism for rupture that allows some new kinds of debates and questions to emerge and then your everyday struggles and practices get onto a new plane and it can be if you will deeper, more effective, more radical in its effects. And so there’s a certain dialectic in the participatory development process that is very important to understand and for those who are absolutely convinced about violent rupture, what they don’t recognize i that if you want to produce the new citizen, you cannot do that in the absence of the patient day-to-day work of psychic change through direct engagement in remaking society in everyday spaces and this is really the fundamental debate that has to be understood, when we think about participatory development and democracy.

So if we then take this understanding of this dynamic interplay between everyday incremental change and the importance of that and recognizing the necessity of ruptures from time to time, we can begin to also appreciate what I called the full spectrum of democratic atmospheres- this is where you have civil society organizations who work if you will to ‘fix the system’ they are in the domain of cooperation and you’ve got organizations that are there to undermine the system to keep the system in crisis through direct actions, through opposition, through exposure, litigation and so forth. All of these if you will, democratic pressures are absolutely essential for participatory developmental work and to make sense.

If we then move on from that, we can begin to talk about what we refer to as the preconditions for a vibrant polity and this is in the first instance, a dense network of institutions that are autonomous in other words, they’re not beholden to political parties, they’re not beholden into powerful interest in society but they are propelled through democratic action and they earn democratic energies.

Secondly, you’ve got civil society organizations that have the resources to give expression to their strategic intent.

Thirdly, you have a phenomena where these institutions or layers of society are recognized by the state in other words, they are seen, they are visible, they are legible and therefore they can have a strategic impact; and finally there is what for me often is underemphasized in the literature as what I call that you need a dense network of civil society organizations but you need effective institutions as well.

And for me effectiveness refers to that the fact that they are internally democratic and that they deepen the democratic cultures and practices; secondly, that they’ve got a clear purpose about why they exist and how they can achieve their goals; thirdly, that they are able to advance the interest in a programmatic, systematic fashion; and lastly that they are continuously adapting the practice through learning, through critical reflection and understanding that they’ve got to always evolve in a changing context. If we then conclude this lecture, we can begin to think about last set of distinctions.

Yeah, it is important to recognize that there are different scales at work: the household, the neighborhood, totality, the nation-state and of course the global scale.

Secondly, we have to understand the differences between the short-term, the medium-term and long-term and thirdly, that there are various organizational organizations, you get non-profit interest driven organizations, you get strategic intermediaries that can fulfill a connecting function between the state, private sector and civil society and of course you get coalitions and networks. All of these public forms are really important for different kinds of participatory development at different scales and then finally, we’ve got to recognize that there’s always a multiplicity of incentives at play.

So people need material incentives, they need to know that they will get access to better quality water, that they’ll get access to better health care etc., and so forth but they also may want recognition, they want their identities, their collective identities to be seen, to be acknowledged they may simply want voice and of course in an ideal vibrant inclusive polity all of these incentives will come together and people will be able to both access material improvement in the quality of life but in that very process deepen the citizenship through a recognition of their identities and their cultural practices.

And so all of these elements help us to understand what is the importance of participatory processes, well-structured public institutions and civil society organizations and how participatory processes can deepen the quality of the polity.

Now to conclude this lecture, I’d like to reflect on a case study from Cape Town. In Cape Town, we’ve got a relatively new social movement called the Social Justice Coalition- they emerged in 2009-2010 when there was a crisis of gendered violence in Khayelitsha. The conditions they are such that most people don’t have access to sanitation within their dwelling, within the household and so they have to use communal toilets that are between 50 and 500 meters from their dwellings, and of course they often have to use these facilities at night and in a context of high crime rates, high levels of violence this is incredibly precarious.

After a woman was murdered while she was trying to use one of these facilitiesm there was a public outcry in the community and social justice coalition emerged in that context to begin to advocate for the right to development in the form of sanitation, but also better policing and safety and security.

Over the years they’ve matured two campaigns: one was focused specifically on making sure the police was held accountable and the second was to engage with the local authority to improve the quality of sanitation services in the community.

What is noteworthy about them is that they use full spectrum of democratic practices. They will litigate if that’s required, they formed a coalition with the premiere of the province to get a formal Judicial Commission around policing, they would use the media to expose the lack of service delivery, they will even go so far as contract analysis and management to make sure that the private sector players were meant to manage these services are held accountable to their contracts and they will mobilize the community to get directly involved in forms of service delivery to compensate for the absence of proper state provision whilst these campaigns are going on. So this is very unusual to have these kind of strategic dexterity to move between very pragmatic responses, but also being very alive to the importance of militant politics- nonviolent militant politics that can exact accountability from public authorities.

To date, they’ve achieved incredible awareness across the city, they’ve been able to mobilize middle-class elements in these struggles and they’ve been able to get significant attention focused on the problematical  sanitation. However, they still have not been able to get a higher quality of service because of political opposition to the modality of operation and so in their case they’ve suffered because they’ve insisted on being both using direct action and using collaborative methods and the direct action has upset the mayor and the political leaders of the city and so they are withholding additional investment in sanitation. But as they would say – the struggle continues.


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Pedro Pereira Leite (2017, 16 Abril). Museologia Social e Urbanismo XLIV. Global Heritages. Recuperado em 24 de Junho de 2024, de

Pedro Pereira Leite

Researcher and professor. He had his PhD. on museology in 2011, with the title “Muss-amb-ike Homeland: The commitment on musicological process”, that was published in 2011. In 2012 he finishes a Post-PhD Research on "Biographical Glances: The intersubjectivity poetry on museology, at Lusófona University (Lisbon). Presently he is working in his Post PhD. Research about: “Global Heritages" with the aims to build a network on local cognizance and memory manager has a tool to build the will of action in 3 different communities, linked by past communed heritages.” He works at CES. He participates on different Research network, presented papers in national and international conferences, and had published books on research subjects.

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