Civil Society or “Comprador Class”, Participation or Parroting?

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    This article critically looks at the interfaces between the ideal notions of civil society and participation within the remit of Bangladesh’s Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) formulation process. On the one hand, the idea of civil society has been likened to a renaissance and is often considered to be the most likely route out of development ‘problems’, particularly in the poor countries. Dominant development discourses have scripted the liberal interpretation of civil society as the only game in town. However, on the other hand, as a consequence of growing criticism on the failure of top-down development approach in the late-1960s, and throughout most of the 1970s, there was a sudden upsurge of interest that ordinary citizens might have a part to play in the development process. A generalized consensus took shape that people’s participation in projects is an important component of development programmes and a means to their success and hence participation has turned out to be a ‘new paradigm’ of development. The PRSP framework, that precepts a romantic marriage between civil society and participation, was foisted by two major International Financial Institutions (IFIs) as a condition of further debt and other development assistance for all poor countries. Participation from ‘all relevant stakeholders’ including civil society was trumpeted as a significant policy shift from previous development prescriptions of these IFIs. This article presents observation from 36 semi-structured interviews with civil society representatives including key people who prepared and finalized the PRSP of Bangladesh and the review of six daily national papers (September 2004 to October 2005). This piece argues that, in theory, participation can be manifested as the ‘key’ for development, but in practice, participation can be an iron hand in a velvet glove. Participation can turn into parroting and often resemble similar views that are ‘expected’ and required to validate external framework. Moreover, through such process of mainstreaming participation, an interest group within the civil society can emerge who has the technical knack of producing development policy according to donor recipe with some flavour of participation. This work therefore asks whether civil society and participation should be used as technologies of social control or as anti-hegemonic and anti-clientelistic forces in order to empowering marginalized members of the society.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)31-49
    JournalProgress in Development Studies
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - 2013


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