Rethinking participatory empowerment, gender and development
The PRA approach
Jane L. Parpart
The failure of development efforts to either ameliorate or eliminate poverty in much of the South has inspired numerous critiques of established development practice. In the 1960s and 1970s, dependency scholars blamed the South's underdevelopment on the North (Amin 1974). In the 1990s, another critique emerged, one more concerned with development agencies' power to control discourses and interpretations of development. Scholars and practitioners such as Arturo Escobar (1995) and James Ferguson (1991) argued that development discourse reinforced Northern, modernist assumptions about development and undervalued the knowledge and experiences of the poor, often leading to tragically inappropriate policies and practices. They called for a more people-centred approach, one that recognized the importance of local knowledge, and encouraged participation and partnership in order to empower the poor so they could challenge the status quo.
This critique inspired an interest in participation and empowerment that was initially taken up by small-scale alternative development organizations with a focus on small-scale, grassroots initiatives. These organizations evolved a participatory empowerment approach that emphasized social transformation, especially in small-scale, impoverished and marginalized communities. This approach emphasized the local and often rejected state interventions as unfriendly and even destructive (Friedmann 1992). By the mid-1990s, however, some mainstream development agencies began to adopt the language of participation and empowerment as well. Perhaps affected by the limitations of structural adjustment policies, participatory empowerment advocates in mainstream institutions argued that this approach would improve economic performance and good governance without challenging the status quo (World Bank 1995).
These different interpretations of participation and empowerment have been reflected in debates about gender and development as well. The gender initiatives of alternative development agencies, such as Oxfam and many smaller non-governmental organizations (NGOs), have generally emphasized the transformatory nature of women's empowerment efforts, particularly in grassroots, small-scale initiatives. In contrast, more mainstream institutions have tended to