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Getting ready for a wee hours class at 4:30 was not an easy option but to be ‘there’ with the ‘Global Team’ was both a challenge and motivation for me. Participants of the Diplo Foundation’s advance course on e-participation (IGCBP12 AdvEparticipation) came from different time zones and the tutor has to manage two sessions in different times to accommodate all.
As the class chat began with the participants’ introductions, they also explored a great deal on what it meant by the participation in different cultures. The class offered a unique e-participation venue in itself as it was a melting pot of different nationalities and culture stretching from Asia to Africa through the Pacific. The participation process in different cultures has to take into account the different local situations. In many instances availability of resources and the willingness of people alone were not always conducive to good participation.
The participants from Asia and Pacific Island countries spoke of the ‘culture of silence’ in their communities. Until probed effectively with a good understanding of the local culture the participation exercises have been difficult in those situations; whether it was in a formal setup such as schools or in informal settings like public gatherings. At the same time the participants also gave it a thought that the virtual space created by e-participation would hopefully be different due to the absence of the emotional ‘other’. This absence might also facilitate more participation as one can easily overcome inhibitions in such (e)participations. The examples cited were the social media and e-networking platforms like Facebook, Twitter and other similar places on the web.
Access was one of the major practical issues highlighted by the participants during the class. In an interesting note of the event, the trainer could not hold herself available full time to moderate the class chat for the first session as her internet connection was constantly dropping out. “I drove to another location so hopefully it will be OK now” she informed the class while opening the second session. It was one of the good examples on the intricacies of participation, where access is possible but it would require other important elements for its successful implementation. This should be an inherent lesson learnt for anyone who wishes to use e-participation for the larger benefits of common people. Both the access and availability has to be built into the local context for the successful implementation of e-participation.
The participants also discussed the potentiality of the e-participation across gender, language, identity and race. They were of the belief that the internet can help discuss the issues, which were hitherto hidden due to the oppressive power structures of the society. Some defined ‘e’ in the e-participation as an ‘enabler’ before or together with being electronic.
The effect of e-participation through the use of social networks is ever growing among those who were traditionally left out from the mainstream discussions. Mainly the youth, students, women and other marginalized are found to be the main beneficiaries on these virtual spaces. The participants agreed that the enabling capacity of the e-participation must be explored beyond its access. Access in many instances is taken as the hindrance, especially in the context of discussing the ‘digital divide’. The participants tried to look the issues of access beyond its impeding characteristics and towards an opportunity for collective action.
Another important issue of discussion was on the experiences of successful e-participation. The participants unanimously agreed that blogs, twits and Facebook updates are helping not only the commoners but also those considered as the sources and players of information. For example, the more journalists are using blogs to express their reporting encounters, which would not otherwise have found the space in their respective media. Social media is empowering journalist to overcome the editorial ‘gatekeeping’ and giving their readers the ‘complete’ story. In this sense, e-participation also helps in promoting transparency and accountability.
Towards the end of the class the participants felt the need for more discussions on issues of e-participation and its practical implementation.