25, July, 2013

Review of ELLA Citizen Participation Materials: A Focus on Participation to Address Inequality

Here Dr. Felipe Hevia, Professor and Researcher at CIESAS, Mexico, offers his reaction to the ELLA knowledge materials on Citizen Participation.

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ELLA Expert Reviews: As part of ongoing efforts to ensure quality in our research and communications, the ELLA team asks recognised experts to conduct reviews of the knowledge materials in a given theme and produce a short written response. The purpose is to highlight a range of distinct perspectives amongst experts in the field and link readers with additional research, cases and arguments that the original ELLA materials may not cover.

In the spirit of discussion and debate, we encourage you to share your own comments about the ELLA materials and the review in the comments section below.


Latin America is the most unequal region in the world. Although improvements have been registered over the last decade, progress has been limited by asymmetrical power relations and other historical constraints on social cohesion, economic growth, women’s empowerment, opportunities for indigenous and ethnic groups, and rural-urban migration, amongst other factors.  This backlog of persistent and pervasive inequality represents a considerable challenge to Latin American countries as they strive towards more inclusive and sustainable development pathways. 

Political development is both a cause and consequence of this historical handicap.  Despite an increase in the establishment of electoral democracies across the region,[1] many citizens and social groups remain under-represented and excluded from decision making processes because of their colour, gender, economic situation, generation or ethnic group.[2]  It is important to analyse citizen participation in Latin America within this contextand understand how innovations and new capacities are increasing the range of voices that contribute to the formulation of public policy.

Citizen participation is a power issue. Participationcan be defined as the right of individuals and groups to influence the public space. Thus, citizen participation is a way of exercising popular sovereignty either directly or through representatives. Historically, access to civil, political and social rights in Latin America has been closely linked to the capacity of excluded social groups to gain official recognition as members of the nation-state and to increase their voice and influence in society at large.[3]

The ELLA materials represent a valuable source of information for introducing and analysing these issues in comparison with other regional experiences, and they are therefore useful both to Latin Americans and non-Latin American readers alike.  This reviewconsists of three parts. In the first, I discuss the analytical approach adopted in the ELLA materials for understanding citizen participation in the Latin American region. The second section discusses the political contexts that explain the diversity of citizen participation between countries. Finally, I suggest an agenda for further research by ELLA on the question of citizen participation in Latin America.

Actors, Strategies and Impacts of Citizen Participation

The main literature on citizen participation, from Latin America and beyond, generally focuses on three main issues, and in my opinion, the ELLA materials cover innovations from all of them.  Firstly, understanding the different types of social actors involved - such as individuals, community groups, social movements, NGOs and ethnic minorities - is essential for explaining the success or failure of citizen participation.[4]  In this sense, the ELLA Brief: Multi-actor Dialogues for Better Public Policies: Lessons from Latin America provides insights into innovative collaboration and alliances between social actors that have improved their access to regulated participatory mechanisms. The innovation of the Brief is that it moves away from an analysis that centres on only one type of actor, be it a social movement, CSO, or the like.  This allows ELLA researchers to show explicit links between several kinds of ‘civil-society actors’, an important feat which allows them to analyse more complex situations and include a ‘political’ dimension to the reality of the social actors, linked with their own empowerment.The Brief includes case studies from Argentina, Mexico and Peru, and highlights the importance of vertical (between local and national actors) and horizontal (between multiple actors in one territory) alliances for increasing the voice and influence of social groups on issues as diverse as public security, transparency and social development.  The Brief also demonstrates the importance of intra-social networks, intermediaries and a broad diversity of participants, such as academics, NGOs and local associations. And the case studies of report cards in the health systems in Guanajuato (Mexico), Bogota (Colombia) and El Salvador in the ELLA Brief: Citizen Participation in Evaluating Health Services: The Latin American Experience clearly demonstrate the indispensable role of social networks for successful citizen participation. In fact, the central role of social actors is emphasized in all of the ELLA Briefs analysed in this review.

The second main issue covered in the current literature is the design, variety and performance of citizen participation mechanisms like participatory budgeting, councils, committees and report cards. In terms of this issue, the ELLA Briefs are more descriptive and explore two of these mechanisms in depth - local citizen councils and report cards – but also include analysis of other mechanisms currently being implemented in Latin America.  As for local councils, the ELLA Brief: Increasing Citizen Participation in Local Governance: Latin America’s Local Citizen Councils presents case studies from Peru and Brazil to showincreased legal protection for participation, showing that legal protection is necessary, but not sufficient.The Brief also describes the importance of structure, functions and thematic focus to the design of local citizen councils. The experience of local citizen councils has also demonstrated that, in many cases, the design of the interface between the state and society can explain the failure or success of the participatory experience. ELLA also shows the importance of state actors taking a leading role in the process, despite the regional and thematic variations of designs and functions of councils.

In terms of report cards, the ELLA Brief: Citizen Participation in Evaluating Health Services confirms the significance of maintaining clear goals, using public information and building strong social alliances. Overall, I agree with the materials’ conclusion about the importance of clear design and functions in participatory mechanisms as critical factors to build success mechanisms.[5]

The third issue relates to the consequences and outcomes of citizen participation in terms of inclusion, service delivery, accountability and transparency. The case studies presented in the ELLA Brief Community Participation in IFI-Funded Development Projects: Latin America’s Experience show how citizens have tried to prevent large-scale projects from going ahead by using accountability mechanisms developed by international financial institutions. This is interesting since it shows how social groups can harness institutional mechanisms to increase their participation. In fact, organizations in Honduras and Guatemala have been able to mitigatedamage in some projects by using this mechanism.[6]  The Brief also shows how this mechanism can enhance accountability at the local level.

The last publication in the ELLA series - ELLA Guide to Citizen Participation in Latin America: Innovations to Strengthen Governance - summarises how citizen participation mechanisms have led to improvements in the formulation, effectiveness and monitoring of public policies and have helped reduced corruption by enhancing citizen oversight of government spending.

In short, the ELLA Briefs provide a concise summary of empirical data, present the principal issues relating to citizenship participation and shed light on innovations that are helping to reduce inequality in Latin America with active participation from both the government and social actors.

Political Will and Socio-political Ties

All of the ELLA Briefs emphasise the importance of political context to making (and sustaining) positive changes in citizen participation. Lasting changes require significant political will for modifying existing power relations between the rulers and the ruled. Yet once they are underway, new ties can be generated between political actors and civil society.[7] These issues are analysed in the ELLA Guide to Citizen Participation focusing on innovations for strengthening governance.

Readers will find the Guide interesting and useful, given its discussion of the importance of improving legal frameworks to increase consultation of the population, innovations orientated to enforce social control and the role of decentralisation reforms. The Guide highlights several key factors that have strengthened governance and citizen participation in Latin American countries, including reforms to legal frameworks and decentralisation processes, innovative mechanisms for increasing civil oversight, improving accountability and transparency beyond elections and building ties between different social actors.

The Guide also identifies two critical challenges that Latin American countries have had to face, challenges with which readers from other regions could likely identify. Firstly, many governments have been reluctant to implement these mechanisms and second, opening up decision making processes to excluded populations has been perceived as representing a risk to maintaining political power. Remember, participation is about power, in particular political power.

Pending Agenda

There are a few issues relating to citizen participation not covered by the ELLA knowledge materials, but for which rich empirical evidence exists on the Latin American experience.  This additional research in particular helps shed light on how citizen participationcontributes to reduce inequality. For example, one pending issue is how to include indigenous people in local, regional and national governments.[8] Bolivia and Ecuador provide examples of indigenous participation in national government, and at the local level there are several examples in Latin America of indigenous people participating in the most traditional way, via local elections.

Another pending research area is the use of direct democracy mechanisms in Latin America, such as popular initiatives, consultations and recalls. These mechanisms are showing the potential to both foster and constrain citizen participation, for example, illustrating the difficulties in using popular consultations, or the strengthening of vertical presidentialism after the use of “direct democacy” devices.[9] A final pending research area has to do with rethinking clientelism and intermediation in terms of the relationship between the social and political spheres.[10]

To conclude, I welcomethe publicationof the ELLA materials, and I would encourage readers to share them, as well as to share their own reflections and experiences, in order to contribute to breaking the inequality handicap that Latin America and so many other regions face.

[1] O’Donnell, G. A. 1998. Polyarchies and the (Un)rule of Law In Latin America. Working Paper 254. Helen Kellogg Institute for International Studies, Notre Dame.

[3] Carvalho, J. M. 2001. Cidadania no Brasil: O Longo Caminho(Citizenship in Brazil: A Long Path).  Civilização Brasileira, São Paulo.; Dagnino, E. 2005. Meanings of Citizenship in Latin America. Institute of Development Studies Working Paper No. 258. IDS, Brighton.

[5] Hevia, F., Isunza, E. 2012. Constrained Participation: The Impact of Consultative Councils on National-Level Policy in Mexico. In: Cameron, M., Hershberg, E., Sharpe, K.E. (eds.) New Institutions for Participatory Democracy in Latin America: Voice and Consequence. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

[6] Colectivo Madre Selva. 2010. Manual de Resistencia Ecológica (Manual for Ecological Resistence). Colectivo Madre Selva, Guatemala City. (Spanish only); For Honduras, see the website of the NGO Organización Fraternal Negra Hondureña (Spanish only).

[7] Font, J. 2001. Ciudadanos y Decisiones Públicas (Citizens and Public Decisions). Editorial Ariel, Barcelona.; Cameron, M., Hershberg, E., Sharpe, K. E. (eds.) 2012. New Institutions For Participatory Democracy In Latin America: Voice and Consequence.  Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

[8] Assies, W., Gundermann, H. (eds.) 2007. Movimientos Indígenas y Gobiernos Locales en América Latina (Indigenous Movements and Local Governments in Latin America). Universidad Católica del Norte, Santiago.

[9] Lissidini, A., Welp, J., Zovatto, D. 2008. Democracia Directa en Latinoamérica (Direct Democracy in Latin America).Prometeo Libros, Buenos Aires.

[10] Auyero, J., Lapegna, P., Poma, F. P. 2009. Patronage Politics and Contentious Collective Action: A Recursive Relationship. Latin American Politics and Society 51(3): 1-31.

Felipe Hevia, PhD, is a Mexican-Chilean anthropologist. He currently is Professor-Researcher at the Center for Research and Higher Learning in Social Anthropology (Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social - CIESAS) in Mexico, for the project ‘Participation and Social Control in Public Education’. He won the Stephen Koff Prize in 2009 from the RISC Consortium and Luxembourg University, the first edition of the Bolsa Familia Programme Award from UNDP and the Brazilian Government, third place in the CLAD Award in 2006, and he belongs to the National Research System in Mexico. He is the author of "Poder y ciudadanía en el combate a la pobreza: el caso Progresa/Oportunidades (Power and Citizenship in the Fight Against Poverty: The Case of Progresa/Oportunidades" and "¿Cómo medir participación?: Creación, Medición y Aplicación del Cuestionario Conductas de Participación" (How To Measure Participation? Creation, Measurement and Application of the Participatory Behavior Questionnaire). He has written more than 30 books, articles and chapters about participation, social accountability, anti-poverty programmes and education. You can contact him at fhevia@ciesas.edu.mx.


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