What goes on inside spaces?

Who creates the space is critical to who participates in it. Those who create it are more likely to have power within it, and those who have power in one space, may not have so much in another. In some settings, the ‘claimed or created’ spaces may indeed have more influence and control over decisions that affect peoples’ lives than the closed or invited state spaces, especially in settings of weak or illegitimate states. In other settings, such as we have seen in the rise of participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil, shared forms of authority between state and society may in fact have more influence than those that are legally ascribed. So, for the student of power, to ask ‘who governs?’, also necessitates asking, ‘in which space?’

We must also remember that these spaces exist in dynamic relationship to one another, and are constantly opening and closing through struggles for legitimacy and resistance, co-optation and transformation.  Closed spaces which are being challenged may seek to restore legitimacy by creating invited spaces; similarly, invited spaces may be created from the other direction, as more autonomous people’s movements attempt to use their own fora for engagement with the state.

Similarly, power gained in one space, through new skills, capacity and experiences, can be used to enter and affect other spaces.  From this perspective, the transformative potential of participation in one space must always be assessed in relationship to the other spaces which surround it. For instance, invited spaces of participation may not have much potential for change, unless there is also strong mobilization from outside the space, and strong political will on the inside to hold the space open and ensure that it is listened to.  For an example read the case study Taking a Seat on Brazil’s Health Councils.

The inter-relationships of the spaces also creates challenges for civil society strategies of engagement. To challenge ‘closed’ spaces, civil society organizations may serve the role of advocates, arguing for greater transparency, more democratic structures, or greater forms of public accountability.  As new ‘invited’ spaces emerge, civil society organizations may need other strategies of how to negotiate and collaborate ‘at the table’, which may require shifting from more confrontational advocacy methods.  For an example read the case study Crossing the Line: UK Activists Team Up with Health Officials.

At the same time, research shows that ‘invited spaces’ must be held open by ongoing demands of social movements, and that more autonomous spaces of participation are important for new demands to develop and to grow.  Spanning these spaces  – each of which involves different skills, strategies and resources  – is a challenge. In reality, civil society organizations must have the ‘staying power’ (Pearce and Vela, 2005) to move in and out of them over time, or the capacity to build effective horizontal alliances that link strategies across the various spaces for change.

The Citizenship DRC has done a number of case studies on the dynamics of various ‘invited spaces’ for change, which illustrate these dynamics in a number of ways.  For a short overview about ‘spaces of participation’, see the Making Space for Citizens IDS Policy Brief on this theme. For an overall description of the concept and some of the challenges of participation across various types of spaces, see the introduction to the volume on Spaces for Change (Cornwall and Schattan, 2007).  For short, accessible two page cases studies on participation in various types of spaces, which can be used to illustrate these concepts, see the Citizenship DRC’s  Citizens in Action case study series: Citizen Prescriptions for Better Health Policy.

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