The current discourse and practice of international development rest on the assumption that community-based participation is an essential component of efforts to facilitate change across the global South. Such participation is thought not only to ensure efficiency and sustainability, but also to accelerate broader structural transformation by empowering individuals to exercise agency in relation to development. This article seeks to contribute to critical participation studies by analysing the broader processes and structures that shape participatory opportunities in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The author argues that by promoting community-based organizations (CBOs), national and transnational development actors have produced and legitimated a system of popular participation that, in contrast to their claims, disempowers local citizens. Paradoxically, these CBOs have further contributed to the exclusion of the majority of community actors.