Participation and the “han ji syndrome” Part. II – What antidotes to genuinely strengthen the voice of the urban poor

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. 


8 thoughts on “Participation and the “han ji syndrome” Part. II – What antidotes to genuinely strengthen the voice of the urban poor

  1. Richard February 28, 2013 at 6:34 am Reply

    Sometimes, we tend to make a small issue a big issue. In planning, a true urban planner should not advocate for the poor or the rich, rather plays a neural role to represent everyone fairly and equitably. If the planner is not pretty much know (even if not 100%), then he/she should ask why? NGO is not the answer, neither are grass roots. I understand that some people do not like authority or government, that is fine since they sometimes are not efficient or even correct. Are NGO or grass roots all correct or do good things, the answer is no! Especially in planning. It is not hard to imagine that if each plan were done by NGO or grass roots or bottom-up way, it would be a mess, less desirable than plans done through top-bottom way.

  2. Hugo Ribadeau Dumas February 28, 2013 at 4:20 pm Reply

    Richard, I got your point. Participation does not necessarily means efficiency. Yes, clearly, I do agree.

    However, this article does not tackle “participatory planning” at such. It mainly questions how is it possible to make citizens capable to raise their voice in the public sphere. It is not just a question of planning, it is a question of social justice.When you have citizens unaware of their entitlements (unaware, for instance, they are supposed to benefit certain schemes/pensions) and, even more importantly, when you have individuals incapable to face a non-cooperative/not-always-so-efficient State, it seems crucial to offer them the tools to defend themselves. To do so (and it is the idea of this article) making sure that marginalized populations are able to speak up in the public sphere appears to me as a priority.

    So, here, the issue is not to know whether or not it is desirable to integrate citizens in participatory processes, but rather how it is possible to give poorer citizens the capacity to defend their rights through active participation.

  3. Bhuvana March 1, 2013 at 11:32 am Reply

    Points well asked. But ‘han ji syndrome’ is a helpless output of desolate human – irrespective of poor or rich, educated or uneducated, NGO or any Organisation. If we want the other person to talk or participate – one needs to be ready to listen. Most often discussions in such events move beyond the set agenda – as the poor may have other urgent needs to be addressed – but how ready is the organisation to cater to their needs in order for the poor/desolate to participate. For active participation the desolate human needs to know that her/ his points will be valued and considered. Your points on marginalization are of importance, but poor man would not worry where he or other members sit when he is aware that the aiding organisation is there to better their living condition.

  4. sush March 1, 2013 at 6:24 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on reflections on the everyday.

  5. […] via Participation and the “han ji syndrome” Part. II – What antidotes to genuinely strengthen …. […]

  6. Elizabeth Philip March 4, 2013 at 3:35 am Reply

    NGOs are the means to communicate with the desolate/poor/slum dwellers reg.their rights and the purpose of a plan. But often the role is taken by political mediators who do not understand the projects. This leads to people blindly say ‘ham ji” and go with the crowd following the forceful political party.

  7. Md. Aktarul Islam Khan July 11, 2013 at 6:42 am Reply

    Thanks I will read this report and I thing some new idea shared by your report.

  8. Gerry de Asis July 17, 2013 at 12:42 pm Reply

    Interesting and a more developmental take on what social psychologists refer to as ‘learned helplessness.’ There is no clear-cut and singular approach to participation. My speculation is that participatory strategies ten years ago may no longer be ’empowering’ as we thought them to be. But the role of NGO is clearly significant in this aspect as government consultative/participative strategies often fall short in being more inclusive that NGO strategies.

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