Andrea Cornwall is a professorial fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, Brighton BN19RE, and director of the Pathways of Women's Empowerment research programme consortium (www.pathways-of-empowerment.org)
The world over, public institutions appear to be responding to the calls voiced by activists, development practitioners and progressive thinkers for greater public involvement in making the decisions that matter and holding governments to account for following through on their commitments. Yet what exactly ‘participation’ means to these different actors can vary enormously. This article explores some of the meanings and practices associated with participation, in theory and in practice. It suggests that it is vital to pay closer attention to who is participating, in what and for whose benefit. Vagueness about what participation means may have helped the promise of public involvement gain purchase, but it may be time for more of what Cohen and Uphoff term ‘clarity through specificity’ if the call for more participation is to realize its democratizing promise.