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Explain and critique barriers to political participation in contemporary societies.

Introduction The basis for political participation is the belief that it is crucial in the political process. This makes it key to democracy because participation confers legitimacy on choice of leaders and how decisions are made (Campbell et al., 1960). As a form of behaviour, political participation aims to influence government policies through such acts as basic as voting or more composite actions such as participating in public meetings (Verba and Nie, 1972; Verba et al., 199 5). Participation has gained ascendency in the last decade or two and has featured prominently in the discussion of not only politicians but also policy makers and practitioners. There has also been an explosion in the literature on participation (White, 1996; Jochum, 2003; Cornwall, 2008). The interest in participation also spans across continents (Dunn, 2007). Despite sustained interest from several quarters, participation as a term is contested and there is no single universally accepted use of the term as reflected in the varied ways it is used by authors. In this essay, the meaning of participation is first explored and its various forms and usage. The subject of participation has been discussed under several categories that include political, social and individual. However, in this essay, consideration is given mainly to political participation. This mainly refers to the extent and the level to which individuals partake in democratic processes such as voting. However, it should be noted that despite the differences in the broad categories under which participation is often discussed, the distinction between them is often not clear as there are areas of interaction whereby

some activities straddle individual, social and political types of participation (Melucci, 1996; Ginsborg, 2005). Secondly, the barriers to active political participation will be critically discussed to understand why they obtain and how they are perpetuated . Even though barriers to political participation exist more in emerging democracies, even in advanced democracies there are significant obstacles to individual/community participa tion in the political process. In all, several barriers to political participation are discussed and they range from economic to social and ideological/cultural. Finally, in the conclusion, an overview of the previous discussion is given and the reasons why barriers to political participation exist are critically analysed. Also, some

recommendations are given on how to overcome barriers to participation through various types of empowerment. Understanding Political Participation As indicated in the introduction, participation is usually discussed under several categories. For instance, under the theme of social participation, the collective and daily activities of individual actors such as membership to a certain group/organization are studied to understand the nature of their engagement. On the other hand, individual participation is used to refer to everyday association and decisions of individuals as it relates to the way they live their lives and the nature of the society they live in. The wide range of actions through which people are able to build up and express their opinions on issues that relate to how their society is governed and their activities in shaping the decisions that affect their lives is what is referred to as political participation (Weitz-

Shapiro and Winters, 2008) . This primarily involves the ability of people to make a significant input in the processes of formal politics such as the freedom to join a political party, campaign and stand for elections. However, it could also embrace the people s ability to organize into groups or organizations to achieve specific goals. In addition to that, political participation could further comprise of community p articipation whereby communities are directly involved in the developing and implementing policies that affect them. This goes beyond simple consultation to considerable involvement in decision -making and thus shared responsibility for problem solving . Despite the ascendency of participation in policy circles, the notion itself (i.e. how citizens relate to the structures and institutions of governance) is not new but has been the subject of philosophical debate and questioning. Western thinkers over time, such as Aristotle, Marx and Habermas have all extensively discussed the relationship between the individual and the state/government. According to Gilchrist (2004, p. 1), anthropological research shows that community-type organisation is a feature of all human societies and studies of humans and other higher primates suggest that we share an inherent sociability, a willingness to connect and cooperate. Similarly, there is a rich history of participation in political philosophy. Writing on American democracy, de Tocqueville argued that the very survival of democracy and by implication civilisation, is couched on the ability of people to free ly associate in their daily ordinary lives (Tocqueville, 2000 [1835 -1840]).

In the UK for instance, participation has a long history in many fields that include health, economic development, housing and environmental planning among others (Davidson and MacEwen, 1983; Warburton, 1998) . For long times in its history, it is argued, several alternative participatory activities have existed alongside more formal government structures at all levels in the UK. Thus, social participation in the UK is said to have its origins in two broad traditions: informal self-help and solidarity and mutual aid (Gilchrist, 2004). Subsequently, it developed and shifted roles and focus with the introduction of programmes meant to tackle poverty in the 1960s through to the 1980s (Taylor, 1995). Generally, there was a steady rise in the influence communities had on politics and greater emphasis on equality. The advent of sustainable development in the 1990s created spaces for

participating in various forms of action on issues from global poverty to climate change (Brodie et al., 2009) . Several reasons are advanced for participation by its advocates. The first of these reasons is the point that through participation, individuals ar e more closely involved in the political process and play a major role in deciding how the society is run and hence influence the key decisions affecting their lives. Similarly, participation is seen to confer or reinforce legitimacy as well as ensure that democratic institutions and structures are transparent and accountable (Creasy, 2007; Beesley and Littlechild 1983; Cornwall, 2008) . In addition to the above, some have further argued that social cohesion is strengthened through participation as the people rally around a common goal to improve and empower their communities (Blake et al., 2008; Foot, 2009) . Equally, proponents of the idea of widespread involvement of decision m aking maintain that it can serve to reform public service and make it better oriented to the needs of the people rather than big government

(Leadbeater, 2004). Finally, some of the benefits of political participation are said to include psychological/personal rewards such as satisfaction which in turn increase political efficacy that results from the individual s increased feeling of self-worth (Barnes and Shardlow, 1997; Popay et al., 2007) . So participation not only increases the efficacy of citizens as well as the effectiveness of public services, it is actually inextricably linked to the general issue of social justice (Brannan et al., 2006; Beetham et al., 2008) . Barriers to Political Participation A Critical Assessment

The lives of millions of peoples across the globe have been improved and enriched due to the transition to democracy; this is especially true in the nascent democracies of developing countries. The trend towards democracy means that political participation has significantly increased in these countries. This is in addition to macroeconomic stability and economic growth. These gains notwithstanding, political participation has not been automatic as millions of people are still excluded from decision making processes and democratic processes particularly in emerging democracies. One glaring effect of this is that these people continue to live on the fringes of democracy and society and in poverty. For instance, some have argued that an evidence of exclusion from the political process is evidenced in the exclusion of entrepreneurs who are engaged low-income, low-growth business activities outside the formal economy. These citizens feel that democracy and market based economy have not brought them the expected benefits. As a result, an increasing number of citizens in emerging democracies and economies are disappointed and disillusioned (Kuchta-Helbling, 2000)

There are several barriers to political participation as already highlighted above and this is often regardless of democratic elections. Thus, elections are considered as important but only as the first step towards political participation. One barrier to political participation is said to be the unfavourable cost of carrying out business in the formal economy which in turn endangers fragile democratic and economic transitions. These transaction costs of conducting business in the formal sector are said to include the following; the difficulty in obtaining business licence or acquiring land titles/leases, unclear or complicated government laws and regulations, insufficient information flow, difficulty in hiring employees and acquiring loans, complicated tax systems and infrastructural deficits (Ibid.). Transaction costs mainly result due to poor information flow and the unpredictability of business frameworks resulting from weak and poorly designed institutions. As a result, entrepreneurs often face crucial obstacles that include onerous rules and regulations as well as bureaucratic and corrupt government officials and agencies. Another key barrier to political participation is social exclusion which leads to disengagement. Research shows that democratic participation is falling and political

influence is polarising according to class and wealth (IPPR, 2004). Victims of deprivation are often the most politically alienated whose voices are often stifled turner (Turner, 2002). This means that disenfranchisement is closely tied to social exclusion and this directly hinders political participation. Some have therefore argued that political participation can be fostered through effective policies that aid social excluded people and disadvantaged groups. According to the New Politics Network, in the UK, the most significant barrier to political participation is social exclusion and the reason for voter apathy fr om this group of people is the belief that voting does not s ignificantly alter their lives (Johnson, 2005). The

reason for this is that when an individual feels unable to exert any influenc e over the most basic elements of their live housing, education, food asking them to vote becomes

meaningless. In short, individuals from socially excluded groups have had all agency removed (Lawrence-Pietroni, 2001) . Incidentally, this does not apply only to voting as socially excluded people fail to participate in wider democratic processes. Related to the above is the fact that political participation presupposes certain minimal skills which automatically means that not everyone has the competency and/or confidence to participate (Lowndes et al., 2002). The key factors encouraging participation are outline in table 1 below. It emerges that relevant as socio-economic status is to participation, other factors influencing political participation include a feeling of relevance, direct invitation to participate and a perception by the people that their opinions matter. The core criteria for people s participation include the following: has anything happened, has it been worth the money and have they carried on talking to the public (Ibid)?

Table 1: Factors promoting participation CLEAR Source: (Johnson, 2005)

In addition to the above, a related barrier to political participation involves socio-cultural obstacles. Discrimination for instance continues to hinder political participation in many emerging democracies. In many countries, membership to a minority ethnic group is a significant barrier to political participation. Thus, language, discriminatory rules and physical threats can all combine to limit participation by minorities. It has been found out in some countries like India (the Dalits) that the level of participation of minorities is limited even in instances where they have been elected into offices due to a combination of practices that

degrade and exclude them from decision making. For instance, it has been observed that as a result of the caste system women Dalit local politicians are often either forced to sit on the floor in council sessions or wash off their chairs at the end of the meeting (Manjula Pradeep in MRG, 2009) . The barrier discussed above is often related to another major obstacle to pol itical participation, extreme poverty. This excludes many minorities from ta king part in the political process. For instance, the Batwa community in Central Africa cannot be fully engaged in the democratic process (such as voting) as many of them do not have their births registered and hence cannot vote or stand for election (MRG, 2009). There has been a sustained campaign in these areas to bring about electoral reform and empower minorities to exercise their franchise. Another major example of discrimination that has attracted attention is that against women. In 1979, the UN adopted the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Signed by more than 170 countries, the convention seeks to promote gender equality and ensure equal access to, and opportunitie s in political and public life (Bylesjo and Ballington, 2003) . The rights provided for in the convention include the rights to vote and be considered eligible to stand for elections. Notwithstanding these, women face considerable barriers to political participation in many countries around the world. Several factors and constraints limit the participation of women in the political process. It is often the result of inhibiting political structure, cultural and traditional values, the perception of women as home makers and not political actors. As a matter of fact, in many cases, women cannot take up leadership roles even if they wanted to due to the burden of family responsibilities and cultural expectations (Onubogu, 2002).

In a study of barriers to women s participation in the political processes in Indonesia, several factors were identified to hinder participation. Categorized under three broad catego ries (political, socio-economic, ideological and psychological) these factors mean that women cannot fully participate in governance. Political barriers to women s participation include inadequate/poor support from political parties which makes it difficul t for men take up roles and participate in the democratic process. Due to the gendered nature of the political process and parties, women are often disregarded and issues relevant to them treated with levity. Women in Indonesia have argued that in order to improve political participation, there is a need for change in legislation to bring about systems that are favourable to women, such as proportional systems. A related barrier with regards women s participation is a perception of their role as being primarily as those of housewives. This means that women are seldom regarded as political actors and it is within this framework that the political parties themselves operate. This restricts the participation of women in the political process, a situation worsened by the fact that party structures and hierarchies are male dominated. Related to the political barrier to women s participation is an underlining ideological and psychological factor. Sometimes the barrier to participation is not external but ascribabl e to the unwillingness of women themselves to participate in the political process. A research found out that most women in Indonesia consider this to be an important factor. This unwillingness is usually due to security and safety fears as physical violence that often characterize party meetings and conventions. This of course aggravated by the glaring absence of systems and structures that support women and ensure their participation and

also by the fact that women are often not organized enough to mobili ze and promote their cause. However, barriers to political participation also obtain even in developed countries. In a study of the UK, it was found out that there are cultural barriers to political participation. Thus government officers and elected officials face the difficult task of promoting participation to people and communities who find it irrelevant. On the other hand, sometimes, political participation is perceived to be a threat to their position by government officials. For instance, some councillors are averse to participation and dislike the idea of greater involvement and leadership roles for community members. This especially the case where they think that government programmes bypass them and instead run directly with communities (Morris, 2008) . Even where efforts are being made to foster political participation, it has been found out that this is not universal as explained by three factors. Firstly, it is widely assumed and for some time now, that professional opinion is superior to that informed by local experience. The unwillingness to rely on local opinion is in part due to delays and previous experiences in which they were said to have failed. A related problem to political participation especially at the community level has to do with the problem of legitimacy where doubt is cast on the authority of community members selected to represent their communities on boards that make decisions. Such ambiguity often undermines the ability of community activists to represent their communities. To improve legitimacy, it is suggested that participation structures should be better protected and the process of decision making made more transparent and accountable. A related problem is what has been described as the participation catch whereby the fact that a

community member is actively engaged in decision making brands them as unrepresentative precisely because, unlike their peers, they are involved and are therefore see as atypical or dismissed as the usual suspects (Morris, 2008). Similarly, even where the drive for participation is genuine, there is a significant barrier in budget which often limits what outside proposals can be incorporated no matter how valid. On the other hand, many people are sceptical of participation due to the fact that it is often regarded as mere talkshops with no potential for results. Another significant barrier to political participation is disability where those concerned abstain from the political process due to the perception that those in power do not take seriously their concerns and challenges. There is also a feeling of helplessness on the part of disabled people influence decision-making and bring about change. Hence, through political participation, people with disability can be further empowered thereby making their voices heard and improving their access to health, education, livelihood and social sectors (Count Us In, 2007). Conclusion A Critique of Barriers to Political Participation

In the previous sections, the nature of political participation was explained and a brief historical background of its rise and spread was given with the UK as an example. Subsequently, the barriers to political participation were critically discussed to show how they vary within different contexts. Whereas these barriers obtain more in emerging democracies, they are not restricted to these countries as developed countries with more advance democracies also grapple with obstacles to community and political participation. However, much the literature reviewed so far tend to assume that political participation is automatic and not necessarily requiring any external impetus or mobilization. Yet, a growing

body of evidence points to the contrary as participation seems to be the result of mobilization and not some random self -direction (Verba and Nie, 1972) . In a model developed by Leighley (1995) called the mobilization model, participation is said to be the result of certain cues and opportunities that are structured by the people s environment. Thus, participation does not result randomly but largely depends on the ability of groups, political parties and activists to convince citizens on the value of participation (Jordan and Maloney, 1997). Similarly, (Jenkins, 1983, p. 532) argues that mobilization is the process by which a group secures collective control over the resources needed for collective a ction . Some of the most popular sources of mobilization include groups with political, religious or professional leaning. Thus, there appears to be an essential relationship between mobilization and involvement in social life which encourages people to be more involved in politics or activism (Rosenstone and Hansen, 1993) . Some of the steps to community mobilization are indicated below:

Figure 1: Four steps of community mobilization

For instance, the relationship between membership of individual and religious organizations has been amply proved (Verba et al., 1995). Thus, drawing from the rational choice theory, it has been found out that few people spontaneously take an active part in public affairs. Rather, they participate when politicians, political parties, interest groups, and activists persuade them to get involved (Rosenstone and Hansen, 1993, p. 161) . Thus, in societies where such incentives are minimal or non-existent, political participation becomes difficult. In conclusion therefore, rather than the random and spontaneous process that it is assumed to be, participation is often possible only when citizens are mobilized or receive incentives to do so (Crow, 2009). As a result, desirable as participation is, the barriers to its full actualization can only removed when democratic structures are put in place that encourage political mobilization and this in turn depends on the willingness of elected officials to provide incentives for participation and make themselves open to input from citizens. Achieving political participation and removing barriers to it therefore depend on the collective actions of individuals, governments, the international community and civil society groups.


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