by Tristan McCowan
Laboratory of Public Policy, University of Rio de Janeiro State, Brazil
The Landless People’s Movement of Brazil (MST) fits uncomfortably into any simplistic categorization of contemporary society. It is a political organization engaged in the struggle for land reform, while at the same time developing radical new forms of grassroots democracy, environmental care and co-operative production. It is a constant foe of the government, implementing an almost unending series of occupations of land and public buildings, and yet runs its settlements and schools in partnership with state bodies. It has a strong hierarchical structure and at the same time a deep involvement of all members in short and long term policy making. While having an atavistic and romantic attachment to the land and traditional agriculture, the movement is committed to a modern progressive education for all in the communities.
Perhaps it is this unusual combination that explains its remarkable success. Starting in the early 1980s from a unification of various landless people’s mobilizations in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, the movement has grown into a vast national enterprise. Through its non-violent land occupations, intended to pressurize the government into fulfilling its constitutional obligations as regards the redistribution of idle farmland, the MST has won 15 million acres for land reform (an area almost the size of the Republic of Ireland), and created 1,500 agricultural communities, settling over 250,000 families.
Its achievements have been no less remarkable in the area of education. Recognizing the needs of the many children in the new settlements, a series of makeshift ‘itinerant’ schools were established, led by the few qualified teachers from among the landless and by committed educators from the nearby towns. As the settlements became permanent communities, these were gradually converted into officially recognised public schools. In light of the specific needs of the rural world and those of a radical social movement a new pedagogy and philosophy of school organization emerged, based on the movement’s principles of social justice, radical democracy and humanist and socialist values. The movement now runs over 1,200 schools, educating approximately 150,000 children, as well as 25,000 young people and adults in literacy courses.
An area in which the work of the MST is of particular significance to social movements worldwide, and to public policy in general, is that of participation. Almost all the landless joining the movement come from a state of acute exclusion: the task of the movement is to enable them to participate in the different spheres of society - political, economic and cultural - and to exercise their full rights as citizens. However, in addition to this, the movement aims to enable a still deeper form of participation, one in which the individual and the community have a real influence on the formation of those societal structures in which they are participating.
Frameworks of participation
Participation is now so widely accepted as an essential feature of governance and policy formation that even unconstitutional dictators can hardly omit it from their manifestos. The understandings and practical applications of the concept are, however, startlingly diverse.
Participation has been defined as the principle that:
those who will be substantially affected by decisions made by social and political institutions must be involved in the making of those decisions.
All democracy requires some participation, yet levels of political involvement in contemporary democratic societies are most often limited to voting in national and local elections (with a limited selection of viable candidates). According to Barber (1984) our representative democracies have a combination of authoritarian, juridical and pluralist approaches, none of which provide a genuine opportunity for citizens (with the exception of politicians) to be active politically. Only participatory democracy (in its strong and not unitary form) is seen to provide an adequate model.
While models of participatory democracy have been developed since the time of Rousseau, it is only since the 1960s that the concept has gained real prominence, with growing demands for participation in decision-making in the work place, universities and local administration, as well as national government.
The growing movement for participatory democracy today is largely a response to globalization, neo-liberal economic policy - and the consequently increasing concentration of wealth and power - and the disproportionate influence of multi-national corporations and unelected supranational bodies such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Trade Organization (WTO). Neo-liberalism is characterized by a conception of the individual as consumer, participating ‘freely’ in the market, rather than as a citizen achieving freedom through active participation in the political sphere.
Even elected democratic governments, while using the rhetoric of participation, are seen to provide few real opportunities for involvement in decision-making. Gentili (1998) describes the falsification of consensus whereby neo-liberal policies are implemented on the basis of processes that are apparently democratic, but which deny the majority a genuine opportunity to consider alternatives and make choices. It is not only neo-liberalism, however, that is seen to be lacking: the centrally-planned socialist governments, and even the social democracies of the twentieth century rarely showed evidence of true participation by all members of society.
Participation, and lack of it, is today seen as a key indicator of quality of life. The oppressed suffer not just from poverty, but from exclusion, which can involve economic, political and cultural arenas. Social policy, therefore, must aim for the inclusion of all in society. As well as individuals within a society, whole countries and regions can be seen to suffer from exclusion. This has made the participation/exclusion rhetoric central to international development and the work of the large NGOs and transnational aid agencies. Increasing resistance has emerged to outside modes of development being imposed on communities without their active involvement. In addition to this, participation of local communities is also seen as leading to more effective implementation of development projects. All areas of development from the 1960s onwards began to consider participation as a vital ingredient.
One of the high gurus of participation in international development is Robert Chambers (1997), who has written extensively on the subject in the context of rural communities. He was closely involved with Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) in the 1990s, which aimed to harness rural people’s skills in order to plan, implement and evaluate their own development projects. These approaches are, without doubt, an improvement on externally planned development, but it is important to identify the exact nature of the participation involved. Are people able to define the structures of their participation for themselves, or are they participating in arenas that have been defined by others?
With PRA, although the villagers are strongly involved in the projects, there is little attention paid to their general ability to participate as citizens in society, or to challenge existing societal structures. Participation for Chambers is mainly technical, focusing on the geographic and economic without great emphasis on the political or the historical. Archer and Cottingham (1996) describe his view of culture as static and unproblematized and contrast it to the more dynamic approach of Paulo Freire.
One of the most scathing of attacks on the empty rhetoric of participation is made by Rahnema (1992). Opposing the forms of participation advocated by Chambers, he analyses the contradictions, dangers and hypocrisy associated with the term. Participation has universally positive connotations, but in reality people can participate in organizations that are harmful, or have a harmful effect on beneficent organizations. He shows how what was initially a radical proposal has been co-opted by governments and other powerful agencies. Far from being a threat to the state, participation is increasingly seen as an economically efficient and politically attractive form of governance.
Since the 1980s a major force in developing new forms of participatory politics (and a strong influence on the MST) is the Brazilian Worker’s Party (PT). Rebecca Abers’s (2000) study on the PT in the Southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre explores the decision-making process known as the participatory budget, which allowed widespread involvement in expenditure as well as local voting on neighbourhood improvements. The study seeks to show why the PT succeeded in mobilizing and empowering the poor where many other institutions have failed, defining as key elements of empowering participatory policy that it must be open to those hitherto excluded, involve discussion rather than just implementation, and involve effective citizen control.
Abers makes the distinction here between instrumental and empowering participation. The former is where participation is used as a means of implementing policy more efficiently, with no real desire for any power to be devolved to the participants. With the latter, people have genuine influence on decision-making and develop their own personal capacities in the process.
This instrumental participation is evident in many neo-liberal policies in the field of education. Researchers, such as Apple (1999) and Gentili (1998), have identified contradictions between elements of centralization and decentralization. While neo-liberalism is normally characterized by the latter, control over the content of education has actually been centralized in the form of national curricula and standardized assessments.
Decentralization is often financial, and used by the state as an opportunity for abdication of responsibility. The individual is seen to be participating not as a citizen involved in policy formation, but as a consumer in the education market.
Hawes and Stephens (1990) in their research on primary schools in Africa found that in practice participation was often limited to financial or labour contributions with little local influence over the content or nature of schooling, raising suspicions that governments were more interested in reducing expenditure than decentralizing decision-making.
Apple and Beane agree:
Moreover, much of the talk about ‘site-based’ management, while appearing to reverse such centralization, actually amounts to little more than localising struggles over limited resources and accountability for policy and programme decisions made in different places. (Apple & Beane 1999: 21)
However, there are signs of hope. Gandin and Apple’s (2002) study on the ‘Citizen Schools’ in Porto Alegre shows radical new forms of participation in education, with community members having influence over school organization, curriculum and choice of staff, with no extra financial burden. Other inspiring examples are presented in Apple and Beane (1999). The MST, in a different context, is aiming to achieve a similar degree of radical democratic participation.