Does Every Voice Have to be Heard?

by Merlyne M. Paunlagui, Philippines, ELP 2013

It was the work of Gelia Castillo, the well-known Sociologist in the Philippines, “How Participatory is Participatory Development” which prompted me to talk on this topic.  The book was published 30 years ago and it is still very much relevant to what we do today.  The eagerness to pursue this topic was further intensified when we, the Environmental Leadership Program (ELP) 2013 participants, visited and heard the story on how the City Government of Oakland gave Lake Merritt a new “life.”

A number of authors like Robert Chambers and Paulo Freire have contributed in making participation a people-centred approach to development.  Paulo Freire (1970) stated in his seminal book 'Pedagogy of the Oppressed' that positive results cannot be expected from development programme which fails to respect the particular view held by people.

There are those who considered the participatory process to be causing delay in designing and eventually implementing development programs. However, for me, participation of the different stakeholders is more of an advantage rather than a disadvantage.  There is the saying, “Go Slow to Go Fast”.  Particularly at the initial stage of the project, it may take time as there are numerous stakeholders with divergent views who have to be considered but once “heard and counted” the implementation would be faster.    By not making the process participatory, many of the policies, programs and projects remain unimplemented and even challenged in the court before being implemented.

Going back to the field visit at Lake Merritt, I would say that this is an excellent example on the role of participation in getting things done. The main objective of the restoration was to restore the quality and accessibility of Lake Merritt and its amenities. To date, projects including parks, trails, bridges, a recreation center and an arts center, land acquisition, and creek restoration have been completed and many others are in progress. According to Mr Joe Peter, who was the Project Manager, the participation of the different stakeholders including park users, local business owners, residents, issue advocates, and other members of the public from planning to implementation is one of the key factors contributing to the success of the project. Through a participatory process, the vision of making Lake Merritt a popular site for all types of users- people, birds, and invertebrates, became possible.