“Active Participation Empowers”

Active Participation EmpowersEditor’s note:  As the IMAXI Cooperative and friends are currently ‘all active’ on the All Aboard research project on meaningful participation in global health governance, the post below from Claudio Schuftan rings a timely bell.  With our severe lack of capacity and resources, the bell resonates loudly.

Human Rights Reader 287
by Claudio Schuftan

In human rights work, it is the highly unequal relations of power that severely limit the terms of citizens’ active participation and representation.

1. Oppressed people that lack the capacity for collective action are historically doomed. That is where empowerment comes-in in human rights (HR) work. Actually, for us, the very meaning of participation is empowerment. It pursues a significant input in decision making processes rather than mere consultation. In our case, among other, empowerment implies that, to make progress, claim holders have to use tools such as legal* and political action, i.e., we see participation as exercising a painstakingly earned political right.

As someone said, the problem is that: “Part of being powerless is that people are always speaking on our behalf”. Are we those “people”…?

*: Seeking a redress for HR violations, access to justice and justiciability constitutes one of the tools for strengthening community empowerment initiatives; another is organizing the de-facto, vocal expression of community demands through active mobilization.

2. As the Occupy Movement around the world has shown, the voices of protest become insignificant and devoid of power when they are contradicted by the media and the computers of officialdom (…and of the secret service). As Amartya Sen rightfully reminded us, some of the real progress that has happened in recent years has come from public discussion –and from agitation.

3. From a HR perspective, a country can be doing well or bad. But in order to be doing well it has to want to do well. Do most countries want to do well? I have my doubts. If they do not really want to (beyond the lip service of their too often undemocratic leaders), it shows, because community efforts in them are thwarted and vanish before becoming a-political-force-to-reckon-with. Social cohesion, pragmatic solidarity across social classes and ultimately moral and political power are key ingredients to see change materialize in any society.

Participation as exercising a political right

4. To exercise this right, the new form of participation we foster in HR work is not ‘reactively-problem-oriented’, but ‘proactively-solution-oriented’.

5. As mostly applied at present, participation has been ‘fetishized’ and applied reactively, blinding its potential to foster needed structural changes. But when powerful enough to be heard, the collective voices of people can make themselves heard, can reform local institutions and can open access to wider avenues of action. So, how power is negotiated and finally allocated provides either incentives or disincentives for social actors either to become involved or remain apathetic.

** Let us not forget that self-supporting empowering participation begets further participation.

** Let us also not confuse tolerance with indifference here; they are distinctly different; tolerance is the product of a choice (that can be changed) to coexist with what is eminently unfair.

6. So, as you can gather, I am here talking about active and meaningful participation –not token, not just bringing-in the strongest groups among the marginalized.

7. Finally here, be very clear that, when fostering real grassroots participation, one cannot overlook the need to accommodate to poor people’s time availability (poverty of time); it may be necessary to compensate poor community members for their time spent in participating (with food, small per-diems or sitting allowances). Participation and representation do not simply come about on their own; they have a cost and, therefore, require some funding.

A critique of ourselves is overdue

8. Whether local people open their mouths or not has not mattered much since, so far, we have quite routinely not considered them. Be honest: we do not really take them into account. (We too often have the tendency to want to teach others too much, no?). The worst is that we often are not even aware of local people’s quite desperate plight, so we do what we normally do –over and over again. Sorry, but this is akin to post-colonial arrogance. Moreover, if we accept the position of the government, we are in practice, more often than not, turning against the plight of the most marginalized people.

9. Empowerment is still possible for those-who-have-nothing-to-lose, but their social and political consciousness has to be raised first and foremost. They have to be convinced that there is no reason for them to remain bound to a feeling of impotence. In last instance, their failure is ours!

10. Furthermore, we too often underestimate the force and power that is exacted against poor people; this is a reality. We also too often fail to accept that the power of the people is/can also be real.

11. You re as aware as I am that we like to complain and to blame others; but the truth is that we do not show the necessary constant zeal about HR; we are short-winded-enthusiasts, quick to compromise, short of tenacity… Don’t we need less pretension and more ambition on this issue? (Am I overstating my case to you here?).

12. Bottom line for HR work: it is crucial to ensure the participation of all marginalized groups taking into account all that is said above. In that effort, being transparent in how claim holders are selected to face relevant duty bearers, e.g., involving communities and their legitimate spokespersons in this process, ensuring gender balance and a deliberate focus on the most marginalized groups, is key.

i) A thought to be reckoned here, when we speak about participation and representation, is in Albino Gomez’s words: “Sometimes it is better to be included, but outside, than it is to be excluded inside…” (Does this make sense to you?).
ii) Beware that not only pioneers for change and genuine HR change agents are with us fostering participation; enemies can also be within –thus our need to help develop good leadership attributes to produce enlightened and vigilant HR change agents.

Claudio Schuftan in Ho Chi Minh City

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