Feminist Social Work Practice


  1. Introduction
  2. Development and the State, Social Movements and NGOs
  3. Critiques of the ‘Development’ discourse
    1. Gender and Development
    2. Post Development Critique
  4. History and Context of Participation
    1. International Discourse on Participation: International Donor Language
    2. Situating Participation in Methodology and Research
    3. Governance and Policy
  5. Transformative Potential of Participation
  6. Summary 


All development programmes now use the terms "participation" and "participatory approaches to development" as catchphrases. However, it is important to investigate and comprehend these terminology within their historical settings, particularly within the framework of women's rights. The reader is guided through the historical progression of development and participation in this blog before it is explained how development frequently overlooks the actual circumstances in which women act in a gender-neutral or gender-blind manner. It also explores the politics of participation and the manner in which it must be comprehended to place women's empowerment and power within the context of development initiatives, programmes, and discourse.

Development and the State, Social Movements and NGOs

After the Second World War, post-colonial states began to prioritise development as a top national objective. The socialist Nehruvian style of planning and governance in India emphasised the complicated connections between development objectives and the State. It was extremely difficult to integrate many ethnic and religious groups in the new nations; the state frequently utilised force in this process. New social movements were forming all over the world in the 1960s and 1970s to oppose state violence and control. State-led development was under attack, and groups that were disadvantaged because of their caste, gender, or ethnicity called for democratic inclusion. The eighties saw the rise of NGOs, despite the fact that they had a history in the 18th and 19th centuries in context of charity and missionary organisations in the capitalist, industrialist western states. As the role of the state in delivering development was increasingly questioned (Subir Sinha). NGOs that defended the interests of those who were left out by the "development" project arose during the national movements in the post-colonial republics. In order to deliver "development" to the third world, where there was dissatisfaction with state-led development, NGOs were more and more affiliated with international development organisations of the UN and others in the 1970s and 1980s. NGOs have multiplied dramatically over the past three decades, and while they were previously acclaimed as movements for social change, empowerment, and democratisation, they are now accused of being depoliticized and perceived as being deeply ingrained in the neo-liberal environment.

The "limits to growth" (Oakley and Marsden 1984) of the development discourse appeared to be emerging in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly in the debate over structural adjustment programmes. Demands for a "rethink" (Oakley and Marsden 1984) in development discourse were sparked by the questioning of dependency theories from the 1970s, which had risen to challenge modernization theories. In some quarters, development was also seen as "dead." There is an increasing need for alternatives to economic-centric growth because its linear, teleological, and even destructive course has resulted in growing ecological harm, marginalisation, and poverty. 'Alternative' and 'post-development' discourses began to challenge and even reject development at this point. These views viewed development as a discourse and a "historically singular dynamic process, an arena in which diverse types of regimes of power, knowledge, and representation meet one other" rather than an irreversible "final state" (Marglin, 2001).

Feminism, dependency theory, post-development theories, and postcolonial theories are just a few of the theoretical perspectives that have questioned and challenged development in terms of theory, policy, and practise. They all criticise the development impositions that are "top down," "linear," "standardised," and "gender ignorant," with the idea that the advantages will "trickle down" to the community. These criticisms are particularly pertinent in the neo-liberal environment, where the market has been gradually taking over the function of the State in delivering essential services like social security, health care, employment, and education. Dependency theory seeks to comprehend the power imbalances between the colonial and post-colonial worlds by placing "under development" in a colonial historical context. Theorists of gender and development challenge the notion that development is "gender ignorant" and aim to incorporate discussions of gender identities and relationships, as well as their many lived realities and contributions, into the development debate. Post-colonial theories place economic and social growth in a colonial and capitalist past and neo-liberal present, challenging the colonial and western interpretation of it. These criticisms also cast doubt on the creation of "third world" issues, or what post-development theorist Escobar refers to as the "problematization of poverty," as well as the creation of categories like "developed" and "underdeveloped," which are derived from conventional Modernization Theory.

These criticisms highlight the necessity for a "bottom-up" perspective on development based on people's involvement. Robert Chambers, who is regarded as one of the founders of participatory methodology, called for the "awareness of different local and individual realities" and aimed to integrate local communities' knowledge into mainstream development discourse through Participatory Rural Appraisals (PRAs) (Williams 2004). The concept of participation was accepted by organisations like the World Bank, United Nations, and other donor agencies and incorporated into the discourse on international development, which resulted in its misuse, project-based application, and depoliticization. What is the scope of involvement in gender and development in this context? How is it being put into practise? And what are the possibilities and its range? The possibilities for engagement in development theory, policy, and practise, particularly in the Indian context, will be understood and discussed at the end of this module after covering the aforementioned topics in detail.

Critiques of the ‘Development’ discourse

Gender and Development

The gender theorists' critique of mainstream development is among the most critical and has caused a reevaluation of both development discourse and practise. Some of the key points of the Beijing Declaration from the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995 included the recognition of women's rights as human rights, their entitlement to equal rights, acknowledgement of their contributions to development, rights to equal participation and decision-making, the right to live a life free from poverty, violence, and discrimination, and the right to realise their full potential and aspirations. "It is essential to design, implement, and monitor, with the full participation of women, effective, efficient, and mutually reinforcing gender-sensitive policies and programmes, including development policies and programmes, at all levels that will foster the empowerment and advancement of women," states one of the declaration's key points regarding women's participation. 1 The third UN Millennium Development Goal, "gender mainstreaming," which aims to foster gender equality and women's empowerment, was formally endorsed during this summit. Since then, there has been a long-standing relationship between gender and development. From Women in Development (WID), which arose from liberal feminist politics and advocated for including women in development processes equally with equal access to markets and resources, to Gender and Development (GAD), which focuses on structural and relational aspects of gender as well as the inequalities that arise and are maintained through institutions and norms. Gender has become a "buzzword" in the international development community despite the fact that significant efforts have been made to incorporate a gender lens in development projects and policies. These efforts are allegedly project specific.

 Post Development Critique 

Discourses about alternative development or development as an alternative evolved among people who were dissatisfied with the neoliberal agenda-serving goals of the mainstream development initiative. According to post-development theorist Arturo Escobar (1995), a discourse is not a linear process that is imposed and willingly accepted, but is also resisted and negotiated. Rather, a discourse is a domain in which various forms of regimes of power, knowledge, and representation come to encounter one another. In the 1980s, post development theory originated as a critique of traditional development, which it saw as being western, capitalist, and dominant. He contends that the "developing world" is subject to hegemonic, western-derived development discourse. It depends on the 'developing world' producing issues, creating a 'field of the interventions of power' and a 'field of the control of knowledge', and leading to the 'professionaisation of development'. Escobar places emphasis on the ability of indigenous and social movements to confront and reject these hegemonic top-down processes. As they analysed modernity as a tool of Western power, post-colonial and post-structuralist critics came together.

History and Context of Participation 

The importance of involvement was made clear against the backdrop of significant social movements, including the US Civil Rights Movement, national movements in Asia and Africa, the Indian Women's and Socialist Movements, and China's Cultural Revolution (Friedman 1992). Following its anthropological criticism of being ethnocentric, centralised, and exclusive (Escobar 1995), participatory development started to make incremental inroads in the mainstream development discourse and quickly gained endurance. It was viewed as the "missing ingredient" of development that would offer a genuine bottom-up approach and bring the people, fields of local knowledge, and cultures into the mainstream of development (Oakley and Marsden 1984: p. 17). One of the first donor communities to enter this arena was the Swedish International Development Cooperative Agency (SIDA), with its "Strategy of Rural Development." These initiatives were continued by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the World Bank, and their "Learning Group of Popular Participation." The NGO community made additional efforts in this area, under the guidance of the NGO WORKING GROUP on the World Bank and the Institute of Development Studies.

The emergence of the New Poverty Agenda3, which was marked by a rekindled interest in the international community regarding poverty reduction by investing in labor-intensive policies and human resources in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as well as the "problematization of poverty" (Escobar 1995) following World War II, created the ideal conditions for participatory development to flourish. For a variety of reasons, including "post-colonial guilt" and the need for new markets, the issue of poverty in the developing world started to take centre stage in discussions of international development (Escobar 1995). Participatory Rural Appraisals, or PRAs, and Participatory Poverty Assessments, or PPAs, have become effective instruments for assessing and quantifying poverty and informing policies aimed at reducing it. Robert Chambers pushed for the "awareness of different local and individual realities" and tried to integrate locals and their knowledge into development through PRAs (Williams 2004). Through participatory development, power could be transferred from the "higher" to the "lower" levels, allowing the agents to act as development facilitators (Hickey and Mohan 2004). As a result of accusations that it views the community as a project and a static, spatially constrained, homogeneous entity devoid of power dynamics and social capital, participatory development was sharply criticised in the 1990s. Additionally, it disregards the presence of differences between community segments and the potential existence of susceptible segments within the vulnerable. Unfair relationships may end up being sustained and even aggravated by an uncritical and general treatment of the community (Williams 2005). Williams (2004) cites Kothari (2001) who asserts that participation has depoliticized development and that PRAs, despite their claims to include marginalised communities, instead wind up further tying those people to structures of power. Furthermore, the distinction between "top-down" and "bottom-up" approaches does not necessarily indicate whether a goal is technocratic or transformative. NGOs that remain stuck in the "project approach" risk becoming nothing more than conduits for neo-liberal agendas that use them as platforms for the delivery of services. According to Sonia Alvarez's argument in Engendering Democracy that Latin American women's NGOs may be used by state apparatuses to serve as conduits for donor objectives, their contribution to enhancing political capabilities may be modest. The shifting of responsibility and potential blame from project creators and specialists to participants, which obfuscates agency and accountability, is another component of participatory development that is criticised (Williams 2004).

International Discourse on Participation: International Donor Language

The Participation and Civic Engagement Group of the Social Development Project of the World Bank encourages governments and civil society organisations to adopt participatory approaches in the planning, execution, monitoring, and evaluation of projects receiving funding from the World Bank. It also promotes public participation. By concentrating on Social Accountability, Enabling Environment for Civic Engagement, Participatory Monitoring and Evaluation, and Participation at the Project, Programme, and Policy Level4, it attempts to promote participatory processes and social accountability. In the World Bank, the UN, and other donor organisations like the USAID, Department for International Development, International Development Research Centre, etc., participation and gender have evolved into crucial components, and implementing agencies are required to include these in their methodology and research. This frequently results in the depoliticization of gender and participation, both of which are frequently used in ineffective ways. Without understanding the political and social contexts of the areas, such as caste, gender, race relations, and differential access to political and economic resources as well as social capital, research and participatory M and E programmes are frequently designed and implemented. This frequently leads to "elite capture" and the derailment of participatory processes. Female audits, which are based on PRAs and tailored to address gender needs and concerns in a community around safety, access to resources, and political involvement, frequently disregard the local and political settings, with a few influential community actors controlling the process.

Situating Participation in Methodology and Research

In social research, participation is crucial, especially when examining the issues and needs of vulnerable and marginalised groups. Informed consent, preserving confidentiality and sensitivity, and ensuring participation are among the ethical research principles5. To assure participant involvement in research processes, participatory methodology is being adopted more and more. The consequences of this are primarily felt in underdeveloped and vulnerable environments because the majority of researchers apply these concepts in superficial rather than significant ways. How many researchers, for instance, truly communicate their findings to the community in a manner they can understand? How many researchers hold community-based feedback sessions for their research findings? How many times do the participants learn about the locations and methods of representation of their voices? It may be challenging to secure participation at every stage of the study process3, but that is the obstacle that researchers must overcome.

Governance and Policy 

In 1992, the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Indian constitution sought to establish an institutional framework for local government involvement through the creation of self-governing local governments in both urban and rural areas. However, research on panchayats and how they operate shows how frequently there is a concentration of power in the panchayat, which reinforces socioeconomic inequities, particularly those based on caste and gender. This is not to suggest that the institution has failed, and its success varies greatly by region, but The Bhagidari Scheme is an example of participatory governance in an urban setting that was first established in Delhi in 2000. It is built on a partnership between citizens and the government. Bhagidari scheme, which is coordinated through Residents Welfare Associations, Market Traders Associations, Industrial Associations, village groups, and non-governmental organisations, gives them a significant stake in Delhi's urban governance, empowering them to overcome administrative barriers and facilitating an alternative, pluralistic, and participatory form of governance (Chakrabarty, n.d.). Bhagidari, which strives to promote better service delivery and other initiatives like polio eradication, literacy, and environmental improvement, is based on recurring conversations and consultations with several government departments that are a part of this scheme. But some of the criticism directed at the Bhagidari system, like other participatory models, is that the state frequently uses it as a political instrument, neglecting its primary duties (Gaurav and Singhal, 2003).

Although reflective of a politically engaged public, participatory citizen models may provide issues with power and control. For instance, the Delhi-based Aam Admi Party's Mohalla Sabhas. Some have questioned this setup, claiming it lacks a constitutional foundation and frequently runs afoul of elected officials and established organisations like the Residential Welfare Associations. This is especially true when it comes to allocating finances, as there is always a risk of a person or group being harmed or under the community's control (Mukherjee, 2014).

Transformative Potential of Participation  

Many are wary of this otherwise moral idea because to growing concerns that participation is a type of technocratic control that is arbitrarily imposed from without. A complex term like participation, which is a process that grows from inside rather than is imposed on a "unwilling public," may not be best understood in this manner (Nanda 1999). A group that is far from homogenous is experiencing a constant power dynamic, therefore attributing it passivity and predictability could be deceptive. The Bhoomi Sena (Land Army), highlighted by Oakley and Marsden (1984), serves as a good illustration of how community participation can grow. In 1970, the tribal tribe in Maharashtra, India, started a struggle to reclaim their land after it had been appropriated by moneylenders. The movement reappeared in 1976, reflecting "self-reliance and conscientization," despite having fallen victim to "technical aid and financial paternalism" (Oakley and Marsden 1984: p. 47). (Oakley and Marsden 1984: p 47). Another similar movement in which women collectively battled the commercial loggers who sought to destroy the trees that were essential to their livelihoods occurred in the 1970s in the Garhwal Himalayan area of India is the Chipko Andolan (Shiva 1988 as cited by Gardner and Lewis 1996). Although it has been "glorified and mystifying," this was a part of a larger movement that expanded to other regions of India and became a symbol of women's liberation.

Hickey and Mohan have made an effort to defend participatory development by recommending that methodologies be improved and varied across all levels of participation, the political component of the agency be recognised, and the overlap with governance, political space, and citizenship be investigated. Williams (2004) claims that this complete rejection of any positive and sincere motives underlying these participation endeavours, which may not all be innocuous exteriors covering neoliberal impulses, has a certain suspicious and conspiratorial tone. A critical perspective of participatory development may be constrained by the obsession with "control" over projects and the undermining of its potential to provide inclusive and engaged settings. In reality, participation is a diverse, multidimensional process with an innate dynamic of power, cognition, space, time, and motion that is impossible to forecast or manage. Participation can occasionally follow a completely different course than that recommended by project developers or donor organisations, and it can also have effects that were not initially envisaged (Williams 2005: p9). It is impossible to technocratically manage or control all participatory movements, and if this is attempted, the rhythm of involvement may be seriously hampered.

Participation must be broadened to encompass unified forms of multiscaled citizenship and located at the local or grassroots level in order to become meaningful (Gaventa 2004). There appeared to be a "crisis in governance and people felt alienated because of growing corruption, criminality, and political unaccountability," according to the Voices of the Poor report by WDR (quoted by Gaventa 2004). Both in rich and developing nations, overall involvement was falling, and it was becoming clear that there was "weakness or lack of public commitment to local democracy" (Clark and Stewart 1998:3, cited by Gaventa 2005: p. 26). According to Gaventa (2005), integrating the civil society and good governance agendas can significantly increase involvement by altering the processes of citizen participation and systems of responsibility and responsiveness. By incorporating local participation processes, going beyond mere representation and toward inclusion, the relationship between the state and the public should be strengthened (Commonwealth Foundation 1998: 82 cited by Gaventa 2005). The idea of citizenship is very broad and is viewed as an instrument of empowerment that offers individuals a say in how decisions are made. The Right to Food Campaign and the recent landmark decision that decriminalised homosexuality between consenting adults in India serve as two examples of how Public Interest Litigation (PIL) is a very beneficial vehicle for encouraging citizen participation.

A network of people and organisations known as the Right to Food Campaign are working together to make sure that everyone in India has access to food. The People's Union for Civil Liberties of Rajasthan filed a writ suit with the Supreme Court in April 2001, requesting that the state make food stockpiles for those experiencing severe food insecurity available. The Supreme Court became involved when a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was filed (PUCL vs. Union of India and Others, Writ Petition [Civil] 196 of 2001). Although the recent Food Security Act is a step in the right direction, the right to food is still not a fundamental human right.

Similar to this, the NGO community under the leadership of NAZ Foundation, an organisation focusing on HIV/AIDS and transgender problems, which filed a PIL in 2001, succeeded in repealing the long-standing statute that criminalised homosexuality in India, which seemed like an almost impossible feat. These movements began as modest endeavours but over time attracted a sizable following, demonstrating the potential of such citizen-driven efforts. The movement is still going strong even after the Supreme Court of India reversed this decision in 2013.

The Indian women's movement has diligently fought for women's rights and against violence since the 1970s. Rape, custodial rape, and dowry were brought to the forefront of national attention through national campaigns, media engagement, protests, PILs, and lobbying, which resulted in changes and advancements in legislation, including the Dowry Prohibition (Amendment Act),1984, which added new sections to the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPrc) and the Indian Evidence Act. These acknowledged the necessity for the confidentiality of rape victims, redefined consent, and set forth the sentences for gang rape, custody rape, rape of pregnant women, rape of girls under 12, and other types of rape as seven years (Kannabiran and Menon 2007). The Nirbhaya case, a recent gang rape of a 23-year-old girl in Delhi, sparked widespread demonstrations in that city and other states, which resulted in the 2013 Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, which recognised offences like acid attacks, sexual harassment, stalking, and voyeurism. Although the women's movement achieved these wins, it was criticised for being middle class and caste-based and for failing to reflect Dalit women's interests and concerns (Chakravarti). The recent rallies in 2013 were criticised for being predominately urban and for lacking similar protests for the Badaun rape case, which took place in an area of Uttar Pradesh the next year. As a result, the issue of involvement does arise. Whose involvement are we referring to? We represent whose voices, right? These issues have been kept in mind by the women's movement, which is attempting to carve out places for participation and transformation.


Making involvement meaningful and examining its potential for transformation can be done in a number of different ways. Creating programmes that are fit for local sociopolitical environments can make or ruin an initiative. Jennings made an attempt to group participatory development methods into three categories in 2000: participatory transition techniques, participatory development methodologies, and participatory emergency methodologies. At this point, a good question to address is, "At what stage of the project cycle should participation be introduced to make it effective?" Participation can be skillfully incorporated into the project cycle at each level to achieve this. With enough opportunity for feedback, community involvement during the design and planning stages can aid in understanding the sociopolitical context of the place, enhancing the effectiveness of the development project. To try to close the "theory-practise gaps" and facilitate a seamless implementation, involvement should also be included during the implementation stage. At the monitoring and evaluation stage, which is critical for policy, involvement often plummets sharply.

A lack of dedication can harm the community and breed reliance, particularly when it comes to humanitarian assistance efforts (Jennings 2001). Additionally, it appears that after the project is finished, people return to their pre-project states. This can be avoided by intensifying local support for the project and developing their capacity to carry out similar tasks independently in the future. Participation is a very delicate and risky process that, if it goes wrong, can have negative effects ranging from escalating already-existing divisions and disputes to igniting new ones. For instance, setting up consultative sessions at dusk will be useless in some situations when women are prohibited from attending meetings. Strong accountability, openness, and power devolution processes are further strategies that might improve involvement. Ample knowledge and information about the project must be provided to participants through easily accessible consultative channels. According to Oakley and Marsden (1984), these organisational structures should develop naturally inside the community rather than being imposed from without. This would include "negotiating political spaces" in order to create a "new political imaginary" of empowerment.


  1. A. Escobar.1995, Encountering Development. Princeton University Press 
  2. R. Chambers.1997. “Whose Reality Counts? Putting the First Last”, London: Intermediate B. 
  3. Chakrabarty. (n,d). Participatory Governance in India: A Field Experience”, file:///C:/Users/user/Downloads/1778-5009-1-PB.pdf 
  4. Gaurav and Singhal (2003). https://ccs.in/internship_papers/2003/chap7.pdf 
  5. F.A. Marglin and S.A. Marglin. (2001). Dominating Knowledge: Development, Culture and Resistance , Reprinted 2001, Oxford University Press 
  6. Mukherjee,S (2014). “Why AAP govt's Mohalla Sabhas can trigger many a conflict”. FirstPost http://www.firstpost.com/india/why-aap-govts-mohalla-sabhas-can-triggermany-a-conflict-1376847.html 
  7. Nanda M. (1999) “Who Needs Post-Development? Discourses of Difference, Green Revolution and Agrarian Populism in India,” Journal of Developing Societies, vol. 15 no. 1, 1999


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