The omnipotence of the World Bank on a global scale means that it is often regarded as the most influential partner in bringing about transformations in developing countries. This article contributes to ongoing discussions of this issue by examining some effects of the Bank's participatory agenda in one of its flagship projects, the Nam Theun 2 (NT2) hydropower scheme in Laos. Critical accounts suggest that the Bank's promotion of participation in donor-dependent countries like Laos is either a guise or an imposition. These propositions are considered in two settings where participation was debated around the time of the Bank's loan appraisal for NT2: first, an international stakeholders’ workshop held in Vientiane; and second, some international attempts to identify the concerns of villagers living near the NT2 dam site. In workshops and villages, participation is a negotiated performance whereby competing representations emerge through the interaction between village, state and international actors. More generally, this article shows that a grounded view of development can attend to the practices that constrain the hegemonic tendencies of the World Bank, even while maintaining awareness of the potency of its policies and interventions.