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Participation is a concept in open and democratic society and a key component in human development as understood and pursued by UNDP. Literally, participation means taking part. All men and women should have a voice in decision-making that influence their lives, either directly or through legitimate intermediate institutions that represent their interests. Such broad participation is built on freedom of association and speech, as well capacities to participate constructively.

Participation can occur directly or through legitimate representatives. For participation to be effective, group members should have an adequate and equal opportunity to place their demands on the public agenda, raise their concerns to express their preferences about the final outcome during decision-making.

The notion of human development propounded by UNDP consists of three key elements: development of the people, meaning the enhancement of human capabilities and health so that people can participate fully in life; development for the people, meaning that all people should have the opportunity to receive or acquire a fair share of the benefits that flow from economic growth; and development by the people, meaning that all members of society should have the opportunity to participate in its development.

Development by the people, through increased participation, is not possible unless political, economic, and social power is widely dispersed throughout the community. This dispersal enables people to influence the social, economic, and political functioning of society, a cornerstone of human development. This view of human development implies that people, by right, should have access to a variety of avenues for exercising power. Its logic suggests that participation is both a means and an end, and that the decentralisation of government is desirable for its own sake. The mechanisms through which people may exert influence can vary widely: as individuals they can cast a vote or engage in entrepreneurial activities, as groups they can form community organisations of different types or belong to trade unions or ethnic associations. High levels of participation give natural expression to human capabilities and creativity and allow for the actualisation and fulfillment of the group and the individual.

In most societies a number of groups have been chronically disadvantaged in their opportunities to participate. Invariably, it is the poor, women, children, religious and ethnic minorities, rural populations, and the disabled who are the least empowered. The 1993 Human Development Report estimates that more than 90 per cent of the world's people are unable to exert meaningful influence on the economic, political, and social functioning of the societies in which they live. Giving voice to the mass of the people by increasing their levels of participation is therefore a major challenge of development. Equality of access and opportunity are key ingredients of this vision of the human condition.

Governments will need to search for culturally acceptable solutions to questions of popular participation so that human needs and aspirations can be dealt with fairly and expeditiously. Key considerations in this will be the extent and nature of decentralisation in public management and the amount of encouragement given to the establishment and autonomy of civil society organisations.

People's organisations represent their members' interest and tend to have participatory organisational structures. Civil society is the part of society that connects individuals with the public realm and the state. Civil society organisations channel people's participation in economic and social activities and organize them into more powerful groups to influence public policies and gain access to public resources, especially for the poor. More fundamentally, civic networks ease the dilemmas of collective action by institutionalising social interaction, reducing opportunism, fostering trust and making political and economic transactions easier. Well-developed civic networks also amplify flows of information - the basis for reliable political, economic and social collaboration and public participation of civil society members. Participation involves the freedom to establish religious groups, professional associations and other voluntary organisations with social, political or economic purposes. Technical assistance directed at organisations of these types, frequently channeled through NGOs, can be an effective way to reach the poor and other marginalised groups in society.

In designing and implementing governance programs and projects, UNDP emphasizes participation and consensus building. In building strategic national capacities, UNDP focuses on programmes that are sustainable and centered on people, particularly the disadvantaged.

To achieve the widest participation possible, UNDP strongly advocates administrative decentralization. Decentralizing government-from the national level to regions, districts, towns, municipalities, rural areas, settlements and communities - enables people to participate more directly in governance processes and can help empower people previously excluded from decision-making. In this way a country can create and sustain equitable opportunities for all its people. Closer contact between government officials and local communities and organisations also encourages the exchange of information that can be used to formulate development programs that are tailored to local needs and priorities, and thus are more effective and sustainable.

In sum, a participatory society is a precondition for development in today's world. Participation enables a society to make of the energies and capacities of its individual members, as well of organized groups. It calls for a greater role by civil society; necessitates decentralization of the public administration; enables citizens to share in the power structure and to influence social policies. Finally, participation liberates women's capacities and allows for gender based development.