By Beaven Walubita Public participation in decision-making and policy development processes is key to ensuring equitable, sustainable development. Including public concerns in policies and programs ensures that they are all-inclusive and meet the needs of everyone in urban and rural societies. Promotion of participation by all citizens in the country is a gateway to ensuring genuine development programmes. This is so because more often the public communities, particularly those in rural areas, are not well informed about upcoming projects in their vicinities. As a result, these projects tend to become white elephants The topic above was the main theme at a three-day seminar organized by the Ministry of Regional and Local Government, Housing and Rural Development last year. At the seminar, different speakers from UNAM, NEPRU, NID as well as the NPCS (National Planning Commission Secretariat) presented good definitions on Participation, Democracy and Decentralization. The definitions presented regarding these concepts and the link made between them was very educative. NPCS presented the Participatory Poverty Assessments (PPAs). This was an opportunity for us to inform participants about this new concept of public participation called PPAs. The presentation looked at defining participation in general terms, defining PPA, rationale and challenges about PPA. What Is PPA All About? PPA is about public participation It gives all citizens an opportunity to discus their livelihood systems by pronouncing themselves on the impacts of existing policies, programmes/projects and institutions. Its definition is described by the nature in which it is conducted. By definition, a process consulting poor men and women in defining, analysing and monitoring of poverty. It looks at broader aspects of human development as supported by different livelihood systems concerning aspects of perception of poverty, causes, effects, as well as importance of certain institutions in their daily lives. Many people still feel we are making a shopping list of projects based on the problems coming from the PPAs. With the full participation and support from the Regional Councils, this process will fulfill its goals which is to inform the Regional Development Plans with demand-driven projects, take the needs of the poor in planning processes and to influence policy change. The ranking of priorities is not a shopping list; it is the way of finding and analysing the pressing needs for policy intervention. An action plan developed by the communities outlines the roles of each player in development from the Government, NGO’s and the communities themselves. This action plan is intended to strengthen the work of the Regional Councils by focusing on the most needy projects/programmes. The whole process creates impressions to the communities, and yes, it does if it’s not carefully done. It should be explained in the beginning or during the preceding days to the public why you are doing it and what is expected from the exercise. Participatory Democracy Although pure or direct democracy does not actually exist in practice, there is something akin to it. The term democracy indicates a form of government where all the state’s decisions are exercised directly or indirectly by a majority of its citizenry through a fair elective process. In this definition there are components of majority, fairness and two others that do not come out explicitly – these are issues of freedom and consensus. These components play an important role throughout the PPA process. Discussions during PPA are guided and determined by the answers provided by participants. Everybody is free to participate without intimidation from others or researchers. Issues are discussed, agreed and only recorded when everybody agrees – in some instances people vote to reach a consensus. Hindrance A couple of issues that hinder public participation in Namibia were raised during the seminar by different presenters and speakers and I want to got through each of them and link them to PPA operationalisation. The issue of capacity inequality, this goes together with limited information by the public – the Namibian society is characterised by uneven distribution of income, not only is that affecting public participation but capacity as well. The public does not understand the laws that govern them and this affects their capacity to engage in policymaking processes. The public does not understand decentralization and the structures of the Regional Councils such as the Regional Development Coordinating Committees (RDCCs), Constituency Development Committees (CDCs) and the Village Development Committee (VDCs). The above is very true and the PPA process has found that in the communities we have been to. This implies that issues are written down but not explained to the people out there. This is a custom in Namibia, we are very good in putting the policies, plans and strategies in literature but very poor in implementing. The Ministry of Regional and Local Government, Housing and Rural Development has a lot of education to do to make the public understand the benefits of decentralization, particularly in rural areas. Language difficulties. Language barriers pose a challenge to public participation. In cases where meetings are held with the public, the main language used is English. Whereas we all know that English is the medium of instruction, I strongly think that translation plays a key role in making citizens understand the proceedings of the meetings, conferences and publications. The PPA is thoroughly addressing this issue from the beginning to the end. Firstly, the discussions at community levels are held in local languages and translated thoroughly if any other language is used. Site reports are translated into local languages, and during the poverty forums translations are made into local languages to ensure that everybody follows. Finally, Limited involvement of NGO’s and CBO’s. This is also true. Beside their comparative advantage in working with the communities on the ground, they are not playing the role they are supposed to, in advocating for policy changes. The issue remains true from the findings of PPA here and there. With the PPA, they tend to be involved only when they have to generate funds. We keep inviting them to startup workshops and the poverty forums, but their visibility is very limited. CSOs bring expertise, commitment and grassroots perceptions to the policy-making process. They can often mobilize popular support for or against policies proposed by governments, and they can offer alternative policies and solutions to problems. This could be strengthened by the existence of the State/ NGO policy in place. Main challenges however are funds. In a situation where funds are easily made available and the projects are initiated and take off the ground with the people themselves assisting in implementation and monitoring, the impact would be realized in a short while. The other challenge is the capacity at national and regional level, yes, some might argue that there’s capacity at national level but it’s not enough. Regions are arguing that there’s a misunderstanding of the concept of capacity building – “when you are at national level you have capacity but the moment you move to regional level you don’t have capacity”. What capacity is this? Is it a skill deficiency or human deficiency? I think the two types of deficiencies exist both at regional and national level. In conclusion, I would like to say that the successful formulation and implementation of poverty reduction strategies requires a thorough understanding of the socio-economic condition of the poor as well as accurate, participatory and sustained monitoring of the impact of such strategies by the poor themselves. Therefore, our task is not only to reduce poverty, but also to create such an enabling environment in which each citizen capable of work would have an opportunity to earn a living and to improve his well-being. When government calls for broad participation in decision-making it may be seeking different degrees of power sharing and input. This for me was the underlining objective for having a seminar of that nature in the country. – Beaven Walubita is an economist at the NPCS (National Planning Commission Secretariat). He holds a BA degree in Economics from UNAM and an MA in Development Economics from Williams College, USA.