By Hugo Ribadeau Dumas
Recently on Terra Urban (Participation and the “Han ji syndrome” ) we argued that opening participatory arenas is not sufficient to empower the most marginalized citizens. The urban poor often reveal to be uncomfortable, helpless if not apathetic when invited to participate in the public sphere. To put it very bluntly, organizing meetings and joyfully cheering citizens to “Speak up! Speak up!” does not appear as the most relevant strategy to make them “speak”. We coined the expression “han ji syndrome” to express the fact that destitute populations usually tend to passively say “yes” to whatever is proposed to them, rather than defending their own opinion.
In this article, we will try to reflect on the possible antidotes to this han ji syndrome. Rather than a miracle recipe, we will propose here some elements likely to generate within the urban poor a culture of public contestation. Similarly, instead of practical recommendations (that would be anyway hard to replicate universally) we will rather describe general guidelines. The objective of this article is to determine how is it possible to transmit fragile citizens the power to say “nahin” and enable them to truly seize the opportunity offered by participative arenas.
1) Instead of being normative, let us be rational: why the urban poor should participate?
Normative arguments will not suffice to convince marginalized communities to participate. Stating that the engagement in the public sphere is something good by nature is both poorly persuasive and inaccurate: participation can indeed be very costly (time and money wise), and even hazardous (when confronted to aggressive authorities), for weaker citizens. Therefore, generating a culture of public contestation requires the use of more rational arguments. To truly engage themselves in the participatory process, local communities should be able to visualize the concrete benefits that they could gain by raising their voice. Participation should make immediately sense to them rather than being an abstract theoretical democratic project.
However, making participation “concrete” is not necessarily an easy task. The major challenge here lies in the fact that slum dwellers are often submerged by very various sorts of urging issues and might have difficulties to focus their attention on one given problem. As a consequence, the participatory process often appears blurred to inhabitants, who do not perceive quite well where the project is taking them. This lack of horizon reduces their interest in the project, and eventually fuels the han ji syndrome. To tackle this difficulty, it is important to help the community to quickly set up priorities and, even more importantly, to stick with these priorities. Similarly, in order to make meaningful the participatory process, it is also indispensable to go beyond emergency, and to try to make inhabitants aware of the long-term coherence of their action (for instance by showing them that solving one issue might help them out to solve the next one).
2) Knowledge as the key to participation: yes, but how to “sustain” knowledge?
Appropriate information should be considered as the foundation of any successful participation. If citizens are aware of their rights and of the strategies to defend them, they will themselves feel the need to raise their voice. This affirmation has nothing revolutionary: informing has always been a central pillar of social work. The question we now have to ask ourselves is “how”. How to inject regular and updated information and how to ensure a satisfying level of penetration of this knowledge within the community?
The “Slum Improvement Committees” set up by PRIA in Patna, Biharsharif, Chhapra and Bodhgaya might provide an answer to this question. These committees, comprised of 5 members chosen among the inhabitants, work as channels of information for the neighbourhood: in constant interaction with PRIA, they are able to collect regularly the intellectual material relevant to their particular issues, and are then supposed to spread this knowledge to the rest of the community. For PRIA, this system is really helpful: it allows to save a lot time and to enhance the circulation of its message within the urban poor.
Yet, does this system of transmission of information – based on a constant connection with a NGO – truly help local communities? On the short-term, it does seem so: the inhabitants can get access to crucial information in order to combat their fights. But, on the long-term, is this channelling of knowledge sufficient to empower citizens? The answer seems here less categorical. Observations on the field suggest that, in such configuration, citizens become heavily dependent on the NGO. If they do not get the information provided by the NGO, they do not move on. Most often, indeed, inhabitants wait passively that the NGO tell them “what to do”. Henceforth, they do not have the capacity to be pro-active, to obtain by themselves the information they need, and eventually to tackle autonomously their issues. This dependency leads in the end to the perpetuation of apathetic behaviours (aka the “han ji syndrome”).
Therefore, while providing knowledge to the urban poor seems absolutely crucial, one should always have in mind that the transmission of information should not be alienating. Genuinely empowering marginalized citizens would imply to generate a “dynamic of learning” within the community and also to be able to extract ourselves from this dynamic afterwards. In a word: we should find a way through which citizens could inform themselves independently. The challenge is here obviously immense and not necessarily gratifying for NGOs. But it should be in the horizon of any social worker aiming at “awakening” poorer citizens.
One alternative here would be to create a dense network of slum dwellers (and, possibly, of slum improvement committees) through which destitute communities could exchange their concerns, their successes, their strategies. Such internal circulation of knowledge – which could be possibly fostered by an NGO such as PRIA – would for sure allow a greater appropriation and autonomization of the process of information.
Concretely, how about a gazette written and published, with the assistance of an NGO, by slum dwellers themselves and then distributed in all the slums of the city. Such gazette would offer a platform for marginalized citizens to learn about the challenges (and possible solutions) faced by their counterparts, and thus favour an internal flow of information.
3) Are we ready to let the marginalized speak? Changing our way to interact with marginalized citizens
A third “ingredient” which could potentially spark a culture of “nahin” instead of “han ji” would be to stimulate a true sense of self-confidence within destitute communities. On this point, once again, social workers share a great responsibility. While it has become banal (if not fashionable) to invoke community participation as a tool for empowerment, the truth is that the voice of marginalized citizens is rarely put at the centre of the process.
In the last two months, I have attended a dozen of community meetings organized by different NGOs across the State of Bihar; all these meetings officially aimed at offering the urban poor the opportunity to learn and to speak up. In practice, however, inhabitants usually spoke for less than 5% of the total duration of the meetings. And when they spoke, it was usually to say “han ji”. It was striking to see how NGOs, while appealing at the very same moment for a greater participation of the urban poor, ended up invariably by monopolizing the microphone. Interminable monologues, disproportionate amount of time dedicated to deference vis-à-vis state officials, very little attention paid to feedbacks from the participants, etc… When interrogated about this disequilibrium, the organizers of the meetings would invariably reply that “inhabitants know nothing, so they need first to be informed, and then they will talk”.
If we add up to this approach other biases in the organization of the meetings – such as the fact that inhabitants would frequently sit on the floor while organizers would enjoy chairs, or the fact that excessive politeness would often be unilateral – the final result did not appear absolutely empowering for the participating citizens. One might argue that these elements are merely symbolical. But isn’t the symbolic of power highly meaningful? One might also point out that inhabitants themselves, especially in the Indian context, usually give credit to the hierarchical relationships; but isn’t it the role of social workers to change these mind-sets? The clear-cut divide between knowledge-providers and so-called populations to be enlightened seems to represent a real barrier in the emancipation of the latter.
Our argument here is that promoting participation is one thing, but truly considering marginalized citizens as equal intermediaries is another one. Too often, citizens are “invited” to speak but are not truly proven that their voice as an equal value. Rather than perpetuating hierarchical relationships (most of the time unconsciously), social workers should be the first to foster self-confidence within the targeted populations. It is the responsibility of NGOs to give up paternalistic approaches, according which inhabitants need to be lectured, and instead give a real room for the citizens’ voice. Offering them the possibility to speak right at the beginning of a meeting or, even more importantly, accepting ourselves to sacrifice our own airtime would be a good starting point.
An optimistic conclusion: NGOs can actually do something to eradicate the han ji syndrome.
What we wanted to show in this article is that NGOs have a prime responsibility in the han ji syndrome. They have the possibility to struggle against it, but they can also potentially feed it. Creating structures for participation is a first necessary step to enhance the capacity of destitute populations to defend their rights; but it must be complemented by further measures if we want to see citizens genuinely empowered in the public sphere. Creating sustainable channels of information, enhancing the self-respect of inhabitants, and making them integrate the possible benefits they can derive from participation are objectives that NGOs could easily implement. It might not be a miracle recipe, but it seems to be indispensable ingredients for empowering participation.