Submitted on Monday, 6/16/2014, at 11:58 AM

March 6, 2014

The Promise of Participation: Experiments in Participatory Governance in Honduras and Guatemala by Daniel Altschuler and Javier Corrales

Politicians and social scientists alike have long extolled the benefits of having citizens participate in the business of running the government—by serving on a school board or joining a budget council, for example. But they have also wondered: Can civic engagement affect behavior in other areas? Can such involvement benefit other aspects of society? And can the state fuel participation in developing countries, where getting citizens take part in such activities can be particularly difficult?

After spending years gathering and examining data in poor communities in Latin America, Javier Corrales, the John E. Kirkpatrick 1951 Professor of Political Science, and Daniel Altschuler ’04, a visiting scholar at the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy at The New School for Public Engagement, have some answers to these questions.

The pair found not just that civic participation can be stimulated, but that it can also lead citizens to become more involved in other areas. Participatory governance can have “spillover effects” that produce greater “civicness” (civic and political engagement) beyond the participatory arena itself, they discovered.  

The professor and his former student and advisee explain this and their other findings in The Promise of Participation: Experiments in Participatory Governance in Honduras and Guatemala  (Palgrave Macmillan, November 2013). In the book, the pair discusses the large survey—among the broadest of its type—that they conducted of participants in community managed schools (CMS) in Alta Verapaz, Guatemala, and throughout rural Honduras. The authors also explore case studies and other historical institutional factors and argue, first and foremost, that participation can be generative. Watch a YouTube video on the new book here.

Javier Corrales

The duo, who first met in 2001, were thrilled that they could work together again on The Promise of Participation over the course of several years. They were also pleased that several Amherst undergraduates—including some from Corrales’ Mellon Tutorial Seminar “Advanced Topics in Latin America’s Political Economy”—were able to contribute to the book and learn firsthand what it means to do advanced research. “This is a great example of the type of faculty-student research collaboration that is increasingly common at Amherst,” said Corrales.

From the beginning of their research, said Corrales, he and Altschuler had a hunch that they would discover spillover effects of civic participation and were very excited to see evidence of their hypothesis, “especially in areas where there was very little preexisting civicness and where the ground was not exactly fertile,” the professor said. “Social scientists don’t get to see signs of rising civicness all that often.”    

But there were other interesting findings. Corrales and Altschuler learned, for one thing, that the state can do its part to stimulate new forms of civic participation. The CMS they studied, they said, were able to quickly increase their numbers with moderate financial support from the Guatemalan and Honduran governments. “This expansion was the result of parents voluntarily responding to state calls,” they write. “They invested substantial time and energy to ensure that the programs would come to life, survive and thrive.” As such, “the rapid spread of CMS … suggests that states can generate participation even among individuals with little organizational experience.”

They also learned that spillovers from participation are possible even in what they called “least likely” geographical areas. The regions they studied are two of the poorest in the Americas, and their work “demonstrated civic and political learning and increased subsequent participation” from a significant number of community members.

Perhaps most interestingly, the pair learned that participation “need not be exclusively a recycling affair” and that there was evidence of spillover even among participants who had no prior experience with community groups. “Many inexperienced parents were able to gain new skills and apply them to other organizations,” they write. This contradicts pessimistic arguments that participatory opportunities benefit only those who are already prone to participate, said Corrales.

Daniel Altschuler '04

That might be due, in part, to the dedication of the mothers and fathers involved with the schools, he added. “We are so used to thinking that collective projects decay due to neglect or indifference on the part of stakeholders or the state,” he explained. “Yet so many of these parents, despite their lack of preparedness, low levels of education and overall difficult lives due to severe poverty, took so much time and effort to work on these programs. It’s a story of how a private interest—in the education of one’s child—can be harnessed to produce a public outcome, community-managed schools. These experiments were by no means problem-free, but lack of interest by affected parties was not one of their problems, and this is perhaps one of the most uplifting lessons from this study.” 

At the same time, the pair did emphasize that simply creating spaces for participation was not the be-all and end-all of civic life in the societies they studied. “Historical legacies reduced these programs’ ability to foster greater participation and reshape civil society and local democratic life,” said Altschuler. “For instance, patronage networks in Honduras captured CMS, undermining the program’s ‘accountability’ framework and constraining participation.”

Still, two lessons of their work are clear, said Altschuler: “States can stimulate participation and help citizens develop political capabilities through participatory governance, but positive results are far from being a foregone conclusion. Those looking to design development and governance solutions need to pay close attention to political and social context before trying to prescribe any ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions.”