Participation in development activities at the local level : case studies from a Sri Lankan village

G.E. Frerks

    Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


    This study is a sociological analysis of popular participation in local level development activities in Tegashena village in the Matara District, Sri Lanka. Social, economic, political and administrative factors that influence this process are identified.

    The study discusses how the topic of participation emerged as an issue in contemporaneous thinking on planned development and identifies its implications. It further inventories a number of sociological contributions towards the understanding of dimensions and determinants of popular participation and derives a conceptual and analytical framework. in this framework the individual actor plays a central role. It is assumed that within the context of development activities or projects, individual actors Pursue their own goals, i.e. have their "private cycles of planned development". This is elaborated through the concept of the basic linking loop. Cooperation between actors, leading to action- sets of actors, is reached mainly through patterns of dyadic alliance building, while brokerage prevails in case linkages with systems or persons outside the village have to be forged. The dynamics at the interface influence the way local level development is carded out. However, despite the emphasis given to the role of actors, it is recognized that local level development is not taking place in a structural vacuum. It is, therefore, analysed how structural properties like values, norms, command over resources, distribution of power, relationships with the institutional set-up etc. facilitate or constrain actors' behaviour. The participation of actors is approached from an empirical-descriptive angle by using various qualifying principles.

    Chapters on the physical, historical, social, economic and developmental characteristics of the region and the village are included to provide a descriptive background for the discussion of these factors. Five case studies on local level development inTegashena are presented, which are written from an actor oriented perspective. Finally, these cases are discussed with the help of the above mentioned conceptual framework. The main findings of the study indicate that the analysis of linking loops and their interplay, of the processes and dynamics of interaction and interface, of the networks utilized and action-sets constructed can throw light on the complexities involved in local level development and facilitate a deeper understanding of the process of participation. It was, in contrast, found that the current usage of concepts as programme, project, plan or planned development implied such a degree of rigour, formalization and specification, that these were largely not applicable to the cases reported. Development in Tegashena mostly resembled an unspecified process of  "muddling through". Plans existed in the form of flexible mental constructs, implemented in an informal, individualized way. Development evolved over time by the acts of human actors engaged in complicated and changing patterns of interaction, which made the course of the development activity unpredictable. The participation of actors shows definite patterns according to the employed qualifying principles and can be explained largely with reference to expected or perceived costs or benefits at the level of the individual actor.

    The participation process in Tegashena reveals a voluntaristic element with connotations such as pursuance of individual goals, alliance forming, empowerment and achievement. However, according to this study, participation in development activities should not be considered as communal action for shared common goals, but rather as individual interest articulation, perhaps presented in the form of acceptable ideology or rationalizations. Moreover, participation was patterned according to structural lines that confined its acclaimed benefits like equal access and equitable distribution of benefits in such a way that existing relationships were reproduced instead of changed. Participatory development activities tended to be manipulated on the basis of resource control, so that more powerful actors succeeded in acquiring most benefits. Socio-economic relationships, norms, patterns of patronage, brokerage and political clientelism worked together to effect this outcome.

    By way of policy recommendation it is argued, however, that by taking empirical factors into account and by designing participatory interventions accordingly, better results could be obtained. The close interrelationship between the socio-economic environment and participatory development and the consequent lack of standard recipes, warrants that in the identification and formulation stages of development activities participation is explicitly taken into account. Presently the role of intended beneficiaries in these stages in general is too limited, while no detailed ex ante institutional assessments are made of major actors and of their potentials and attitudes vis-a-vis contemplated participatory activities. Furthermore, it should be accepted by implementing agents and donors that participation renders the development process more complicated, unpredictable, localized and cumbersome. More time should be allotted to participatory projects. Current conceptualizations of development activities as projects seen as specified, isolated interventions on the basis of predefined goals and targets, timeschedules, locations, management structures and plans of action are out of tune with the reality of participatory development and its socio-economic context in South East Asia. An open(ended), flexible and interactive approach is indicated, while implementation cannot be centrally guided, but must be delegated to field level in response to local needs and emerging circumstances. In such situations, it is essential to develop a well-designed monitoring and evaluation system, including a management information system, for timely and appropriate action by project management. Finally, in order to effect a more equitable distribution of costs and benefits of participatory development activities, countervailing power among weaker segments of the population against existing centres of power is a precondition.

    Original languageEnglish
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • van Dusseldorp, D.B.W.M., Promotor
    Award date15 Feb 1991
    Place of PublicationS.l.
    Print ISBNs9789698132002
    Publication statusPublished - 1991


    • participation
    • rural planning
    • rural development
    • socioeconomics
    • sri lanka
    • economic planning


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