Participation in farming-oriented WhatsApp groups: theory and practice (Part 1).

Taruvinga Magwiroto

 If there is one concept that defines development best practice today, it is “participation” and “participatory”. I am more interested in the philosophical issues on participation, and less on “participatory” because I think once something is dubbed “participatory”, be sure that it is not! In fact the development sector (which is unfortunately prone to “herd mentality”) has elevated “participation” to the point of tyranny (Cornwall, 2008): a tyranny of participation!

Of course, there is an important rationale in why participation has taken on such prominence. Firstly, good development programming comes from, and depends on good communication. And good communication is premised on good listening. As Quarry and Ramirez (2013) counsel: communication for development can be summarised as listening before speaking! Communication is really all about participation.

Participation is not a monolithic concept: it has different shades and hues. But ideally, it should lead to transformative empowerment of people (White, 1996). Participation allows people to describe their problems and issues as they see them. People’s perceptions are critical starting points in transformation. Remember the old sociological dictum: If people define a situation as real, it is real in its consequences (Thomas and Thomas, 1928). How people define problems has a bearing on how the problems can be framed and tackled, through removing the structural, psychological, competency or opportunity shackles hobbling people’s development.

Participation: in theory

In development practice, participation is seen as a democratic practice that allows people to have a say in the decisions that affect them, thereby making development processes more equitable and democratic. Participation takes many forms, for example White (1996) identifies 4 forms of participation. These are nominal; instrumental; representative and transformative. Of particular interest is representative and transformative participation,which in my view are the proper forms of participation.

Representative participation has its goal as sustainability, to avoid creating dependency on outside intervention. It seeks that beneficiaries influence the shape of the project and gives people a voice in determining their own development (Cornwall, 2008). Transformative participation’s goal is to enable people to make their own decisions, work out what to do and take action, both as a means and an end, a continuing dynamic (White 1996) cited in Cornwall (2008). 

Participation in practice

From a recent study that I did on development-oriented WhatsApp groups in Zimbabwe (Livestock Matters WhatsApp Group), it was clear that membership was ipso facto participation. In other words, the fact of membership makes one a participant. When questioned why they joined the group, none of the respondents joined the WhatsApp group solely for the reason to engage or participate in the activities. Almost all respondents mentioned that they joined to learn about farming. However, it was obvious that members found the discussions engaging, robust and beneficial to them. In fact many respondents reported that what makes the Livestock Matters group distinctive is the level of participation. For example one respondent said he trusts the group’s solutions because “ideas are polished through debate”. Another cites “so much participation” as what sets Livestock Matters apart from others. Yet another one mentions that it is “vibrant, and there is participation of more people”.  

Clearly there was a lot of engagement in the group, which in fact is one of the factors that respondents attribute to its success. Why then did respondents not specifically report “participation” or engagement as a benefit of group membership? It is probably because they conceive participation as a means to an end, not an end in itself. Whilst none of those interviewed mentioned it, it was clear from my observation that a number of people got really animated when we talked about problems and issues in the national economy, rather than any specific livestock-related matters. The “engagement” in debate and having an opportunity to articulate their thoughts is clearly what interests them, a motivation I will briefly expand on this in the last paragraph.  

Another interesting phenomenon that could explain the situation is vicarious participation. This is where people may be quiet, but participating through “following” the discussions actively. They would be participating by proxy, and that is in fact an important example of the mediating and limiting influence of WhatsApp as a technological interface.

Partcipation in WhatsApp Groups: Goals and conflicts

One interesting insight from the adult education literature on motivation comes from Houle (1961)’s study on adults as learners. Houle developed a typology of learners as: 1.) goal-oriented 2) learning-oriented 3) activity- oriented. These different orientations denote that learners may be literally part of the same WhatsApp group but having different but legitimate motivations to participate. This has enormous implications for facilitating such groups, which I will tackle in my next instalment.

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