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Petals and thorns: the dilemmas of PLA and debt bondage (PLA 40)

Successful participatory activities rely on community interest and enthusiasm. The very involvement of participants is assumed to demonstrate their consent and the number of activities or rates of attendance often serve as process indicators for monitoring a project. Skilled facilitators try to reduce shyness and encourage active interactions between all the participants, attempting to draw out ‘silenced voices’.

What if the community members do not control their daily movements? How can the principles of participation and ownership be maintained if community gatekeepers prevent people who would choose to be involved from attending activities, while they force others to do so? In such circumstances, can participation become a liberating and nurturing process, or does it actually result in
collusion with coercion? This article examines the dilemmas faced by a community development project working with debt-bonded sex workers in Cambodia. It outlines the ethical concerns that the project team has faced so far, and describes in detail what steps were taken to try to address the most important of these issues: that of consent.

This article was published in PLA 40: Deliberative Democracy and Citizen Empowerment (February 2001). Participatory Learning and Action (PLA, formerly PLA Notes) is the world's leading series on participatory learning and action approaches and methods. PLA publishes articles on participation aimed at practitioners, researchers, academics, students and activists. All articles are peer-reviewed by an international editorial board.

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