The Development Contact Zone: Practitioner Perspectives on Culture, Power and Participation

Author: Vandra Harris

Harris, Vandra, 2006 The Development Contact Zone: Practitioner Perspectives on Culture, Power and Participation, Flinders University, School of International Studies

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This research examines the function of culture and power in Development praxis, as defined by Post-Development theory, the Participation approach to Development, and Development workers in Cambodia and the Philippines. Practitioner perspectives have been gathered by means of informal interviews conducted in Cambodia and the Philippines. The primary inquiry of this thesis is whether Development is culturally destructive, whether the current paradigm can deliver effective results, and what effect power relations have on these outcomes. The research approaches Development as a contact zone, in which Southern Development workers function as border crossers, moving between the cultures of funders and local communities as they work to implement Development projects and programs. This affords practitioners privileged insight into the cultural negotiations of this contact, making their input critical to this inquiry. Their input is placed in the context of Post-Development theorists’ assertion that Development is a culturally destructive discourse, and the proposal by other theorists that a participatory approach to Development adequately addresses Post-Development’s key concerns. Participation addresses issues of power and context in Development practice from a different perspective from the Post-Development theorists, and outlines a series of strategies designed to overcome well-recognised limitations of Development practice. Practitioner responses are grouped into three discussions, addressing their overall perspective on Development and Participation, their attitudes to cultural change and Development’s role within that, and their experience of power in Development funding relationships. Their responses were overwhelmingly supportive of participatory approaches to Development, and advocated a stronger role for the grassroots organisations that are pivotal to the Post-Development approach. Different attitudes to cultural change were expressed by practitioners in the two countries, however they consistently named Development as a source of positive cultural change, naming this as a key aim of their work. Finally, practitioners were critical of their relationships with funding organisations, which they felt were unduly controlled by the funders. This research concludes that participatory Development fosters cultural liberty by reinforcing collaborative cultural traits and strengthening communities to make choices about culture. While Post-Development provides important critiques of Development, its proposed alternative of turning to the grassroots is not supported by practitioners, who seek ongoing relationships with Northern organisations and individuals. In particular, practitioners desire a model of funding relationship that reflects their own practice, by conforming to the paradigm of people that underpins the participatory approach to Development. This thesis contributes to Development debates by presenting Southern perspectives that contrast with Post-Development, and by proposing a framework that can underpin further development of funding partnerships. Furthermore, it demonstrates that practitioners believe that Development is a reinforcing factor at a time when cultures are exposed to increasingly diverse cultural influences.

Keywords: development studies,participation,post-development,culture,Philippines,Cambodia,NGOs,aid,development workers

Subject: Development Studies thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2006
School: School of International Studies
Supervisor: Susanne Schech