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Community participation: ‘activists’ or ‘citizens’? (PLA 58)

Jackie Haq

Journal article

Guest editors: Tom Wakeford and Jasber Singh. The author first became involved in community activism to improve medical care for mothers and young children with other local residents, working with staff at a pioneering local health clinic. She saw the potential for collective local input to influence positive change within hierarchical institutions. Towards the end of the 1970s she worked as a volunteer in another local community project, in the centre of a housing estate, which led to the launch of the first credit union in the region. The critical principle underpinning all the work was a commitment to collective action.

Subsequent state-funded regimes aimed at encouraging inner-city regeneration. The emphasis shifted from working on community-led, community-identified priorities to funding-led, local and central government-themed priorities. Despite rhetoric about partnership working, power and control remained with the local and central government: to divide and rule, limit and sanitise community participation.

A new mode of ‘community engagement’ is now being promoted. Citizens’ juries usually have a singular focus predetermined by funders, lack sustainable structures or long-term resources, and rarely inspire direct action. Their long-term impact, if any, is uncertain. They offer a veneer of participation that is little more than theatrical consultation, and in practice, may contain or even stifle genuine community participation.

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 aimed at practitioners, researchers, academics and activists. All articles are peer-reviewed by an international editorial board.

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