Who participates? Who decides?

“I participate

You participate

We all participate

But then they decided”

says the community pointing at the professionals


“I participated

You participated

We participated

And now they are deciding”

says the professionals pointing at the community

Reading the postings on favelissues, I continue to muse over the relationship between the built environment professionals – people like myself – and informal dwellers. And I giggle as I repeatedly wonder if we don’t learn more from informal dwellers than they get from us! We learn about complex forms, self-determination and organization, the human scale, efficiency and relevance, etc.

To ensure their voices are heard and appropriateness we put them through participatory processes. But still with so much learning, we find it difficult to ask the right questions.

Even when we know that every household has, with varying levels of success, some kind off sheltering strategy to house themselves we ask “how can we can build a home for this family?” But what would happen if we ask “why are they not building safer homes?”

The answers might be unexpected. Housing might not be their priority as there might be more urgent matters to attend to. This includes school fees costs and funerals. A home, especially one built without full security of tenure or in a place at risk from flooding, can be lost from one day to the next. So why invest? Another reason is that some communities such as in places where the government and the humanitarian sector compensates after each disasters, even if flooding occurs periodically, investing is not awarded. This is because families living in ‘good’ housing tend not to receive aid or governmental support.

The hailed approach of ‘participation’ to empower the slum dwellers, actually systematically reinforces, rather than bring down, present inequalities.(1) I tend to agree with Dudley and Haaland: “The only form of building improvement programme which has the potential to result in widespread improvements is one which changes the building decisions made by the poor in their own construction projects, designed and paid by themselves” (2)

So instead of encouraging the insiders (the community, the vulnerable, the beneficiary, … ) to participate in our housing processes shouldn’t we, the outsiders, participate in their housing processes? I often think about if it would it be possible to replace the Insider participating in the action of Outsider (the participatory process so universally accepted as THE way) with the Outsider participate in the action of Insider?

What would it look like?

The goal would then not be to build houses for the most vulnerable; the goal instead would then be that most vulnerable build safer homes themselves. But then a professional has to be able to redefine its role to assure no dependency by handing over responsibilities and determination from the onset. Possible? Would love to hear your views!*

(1) Participation, The new tyranny? Edited by Bill Cooke and Uma Kothari , Zed Books 2007

(2) Dudley and Haaland, 1993

One thought on “Who participates? Who decides?

  1. Interesting thoughts Anna. There are parallels to draw from the product design world, and user-centred design, and even further with – in research terms – ‘action/ participatory’ research. Great idea to learn how the slum dwellers make their own dwellings…… there are also interesting parallels with the whole wave of 3d printing and home manufacturing with the customers becoming ‘makers’ – this has interesting potential to shift the role of product designer/ manufacturer!

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