Through an original ethnography of an internationally-funded slum-upgrading programme, the paper seeks to contribute to critical participation studies analysing the effects on equality of the technical implementation of participatory policies seeking to get community democratic representation in a context of pre-existing consolidated power imbalances and overlapping informal authorities.
The local elite of landlords, who have learned through the years how to deal with project implementers, has found ways to subvert democratic policies and maintain their leadership through patronage politics. Community elections become tools to institutionalise pre-existing power structures by turning landlords into the legitimate representatives of the entire community. Development agencies obtain formally democratic community governance structures that fulfil their overarching participatory policy frameworks; however such structures are dominated by one particular class of landlords. This is very functional to a smooth programme implementation since recognising the established elite as the official representatives of the community creates an alliance between development agencies and the elites who have the resources to generate conflict.
The analysis of specific programmes’ activities will show the progressive process of exclusion of a section of the residents. This may have consequences on the increase of inequality and lead to gentrification, evictions, and exclusion of vulnerable categories.