Participatory Action Learning System (PALS)

PALS is the original, generic methodology underpinning the other GAMEChange empowerment methodologies.

PALS started to be developed in 1999 – 2002 as a set of pictorial empowerment tools for life visioning, planning, analysis and networking that could be used by members of savings and credit groups as a sustainable process of learning and action.

PALS tools and facilitation techniques were then further developed as ‘Participatory Action Learning for Sustainability‘ methodologies that promoted the business and development case for empowerment methodologies, particularly gender empowerment. These were adapted as an integral part of ‘mainstream’ livelihood, business and value chain methodologies. The most comprehensive and recent Toolkits are:

  • micro-finance organisations looking for a way of making micro-finance groups more empowering, particularly for women with organisations like PRADAN, ANANDI and CARE in India, Aga Khan Foundation Pakistan, PASED Sudan and partners of Trickle-Up US in India (Jamghoria Sevabrata) and Uganda (Bukonzo Joint and GreenHome).
  • gender and participatory impact assessment for the DFID-funded EDIAIS project on enterprise development impact assessment (1999-2001) and USAID AMAP project on micro-finance (2005). This was developed further in Uganda with Kabarole Research and Resource Centre Uganda, partly funded by Hivos (2002-2005).
  • participatory approach to local economic development planning with SDC and World Bank in the West Africa ECOLOC process (2004).

The most comprehensive and recent Toolkits are:

Rhythm Change: distinctive features

PALS uses participant-led facilitation and listening techniques, adapting pictorial diagram tools to different purposes for people from different backgrounds.

PALS is like learning to dance. First you need to feel the underlying basic rhythm – the principles of respect, inclusion, equality and empowerment for all – belief in the possibility of change – need for discipline and self-reliance in order to achieve in life. In order to really experience the benefits and changes you need to regularly practise particular routines learned from others who have already been dancing for some time. So that the rhythm becomes automatic. Finally you can really be creative with your own dance – fit, energetic and responsive to the dances of others.

The ‘new rhythm’ underpinning all stages of all PALS implementation are:

  • Inspiration is key: Start with visions and opportunities and start where the ‘spark energy’ is. Be clear where you want to go, what can help you get there, who will support you and what you can do fast. Tackle the negatives and more difficult things later, from a position of strength and optimism.
  • Inclusion and respect for all: everyone has a right to be listened to and respected without prejudice or stereotyping.
  • Self-reliance is seen both an end in itself, and also essential to building negotiating strength for people who are currently disadvantaged to articulate and communicate together what they really need from external agencies to best use scarce resources and avoid corruption.
  • Everyone can be a leader of change in their own lives and the lives of those around them. To just sit back waiting for ‘leader heroes’ is not an option. If each person has a vision to be active against injustice around them and inspire others, then real change is possible and democratic civil society can thrive.
  • Action from day 1: All tools and sessions, right from the start and at all levels, identify goals and actions for change that participants themselves can take. So that they can move immediately towards those goals without waiting for external assistance.
  • Reflective learning: Actions must also be tracked and achievements and challenges analysed on an ongoing basis by people themselves as individuals and groups to increase their achievements. Participants’ own action learning for their own benefit is then the basis for external empowering enquiry and organisational action learning.
  • Community-led and multi-stakeholder: bringing together those without power and those with power around a common agenda – as far as possible. The process of consensus-building is never complacent and content with ‘sticking plaster’ on the cracks. The process aims as quickly as possible to build empathy, respect and confidence for as many participants as possible. So that it is easier to address more sensitive conflicts of interest further down the road.
  • Empowerment strategies on gender and diversity are mainstreamed and non-negotiable as essential components of the effectiveness and sustainability of  any development intervention. Human rights are contextualised from a community-led perspective, but ultimately non-negotiable, including women’s human rights under the 1979 Convention on Elimination of ALL forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and child and minority rights under different UN Conventions.

Fun with a serious purpose: facilitating ‘rhythm change’

In PALS concepts of equal rights and social justice for all are progressively internalised as ‘natural rhythm change’ through fun processes: drawing, songs and theatre. This internalisation transforms the perceptions of men as well as women, inspiring them to share what they have learned with others. As the basis for a sustainable movement for social change, in which equal human rights of all people including those currently most disadvantaged: women, young, old, poor, people with no formal education, ethnic minorities are an integral and no longer questioned element.

The key task of PALS facilitation is to inspire and constantly reinforce an excitement and enthusiasm for change – the new rhythm. As an exciting process of self-empowerment and exploration, a process of breaking barriers that prevent men as well as women of different ages and from different backgrounds from achieving their full human potential. This means:

  • having ‘fun outside the comfort zone’ – leaving top-down mechanical school-type teaching to being ‘creative (and subversive) with culture’.
  • facipulation of chaos – the facilitator has to give voice, power and responsibility for learning to participants, but also know when to intervene and build on what emerges in order to reinforce the rhythm change and underlying principles.

As integral to ‘teaching tools’ is facilitation through ‘fun with a serious purpose’, particularly:


A key part of empowerment and inspiring change is to develop inclusive multi-stakeholder communication that is clear, fun and help people think more deeply about their prejudices and preconceptions through drawing and diagramming. Drawing is not just ‘pretty pictures for illiterates’, but a way of clarifying and communicating very complex concepts. The aim is not ‘correct pictures’ but sophisticated analysis of complex issues and identification of realisable change strategies. Participants create their own pictorial manuals and notes – not only reducing costs, but also making it more likely they will remember and implement what they have learned. Using drawings means that people who cannot read and write, as well as embattled CEOs of global companies and government officials, are able to put their experience and ideas on paper and communicate clearly to each other. For facilitation details see: Fun with a Serious Purpose: Drawing and Visual Communication.

Songs and dance

Songs and dance are used to subvert existing cultural stereotypes and reinforce and communicate the tools. Groups of participants work together as a participatory exercise to produce a series of songs, often with dance, and ‘song competitions’ are held to decide the best songs for each process. These songs and dances then become an integral part of group meetings and dissemination. The aim is not a polished karaoke-style performance to raise awareness, but to directly engage ALL participants in identifying and rehearsing changes. There are no professional actors or singers, no one leads and everyone participates. For facilitation details see: Fun with a serious purpose: songs and dance.

Transformatory drama

Participatory role plays and theatre are used to directly engage participants in identifying and rehearsing changes, and new ways in which women and men can relate to each other, and new ways of addressing inequality. Role plays are an important part of developing confidence to change, examining peer sharing strategies and ‘significant changes’ impact assessment looking at past, current and future scenarios. The aim of transformatory drama is not polished performance theatre by ‘good actors’, but EVERYONE BEING AN ACTOR, STRENGTHENING THEIR VOICE AND EXPLORING CHANGE. For facilitation details see: Fun with a serious purpose: transformatory drama.

The choreographed routines: visual communication tools

PALS ‘dance step routines’ draw on ideas and diagrams from information graphics, concept mapping and graphic design as well as other participatory methodologies. PALS processes use variations on four basic diagram types for use at all stages and all levels:

  • Journeys as strategic planning tools to examine and plan changes over time and analyse opportunities and challenges, strengths and weaknesses.
  • Circles as relationship and resource maps that identify people and institutions that can help or hinder change.
  • Trees as concept mapping and flow diagram tools that look at challenge/solution, inputs/outputs and contextual forces involved in achieving change.
  • Diamonds as a consensus-creation/conflict-resolution tool that facilitates detailed analysis of visions and participant concepts like empowerment and leadership, dimensions of difference between stakeholders and establishes common ground of goals, roles and responsibilities.

Each has its own characteristic 5-6 steps to maintain the basic empowerment rhythms of visioning/leadership, action, gender and diversity mainstreaming and participation. But very detailed ‘choreographed routines’ are designed with participants by experienced practitioners to adapt the rhythm to specific project aims and context to achieve maximum empowerment within given time, budget and other resources constraints at all levels. Once users have sufficient confidence and practice, they then tailor the tools to their own needs to make the manageable within the context of busy lives.

The tools are sequenced in different ways for different purposes, depending on the nature of the issue and process and the needs of participants. But all sequences aim to help people:

  • vision how their lives, families and communities could be in a more gender equitable world
  • identify achievable steps to change that they can implement immediately and also over the longer term
  • develop a belief, confidence and discipline to plan, track and review their progress over time to achieve their visions
  • build confidence and creativity in visual communication, songs and theatre
  • form new friendship networks within which women and men treat each other as equal human beings.
  • develop partipatory, listening and leadership skills for collective action
  • develop facilitation skills to become champions of change in their households and communities

Action Learning System

PALS as a Participatory Action Learning System brings together different stakeholders in an empowering learning process, rather than simply checking boxes for donors. Monitoring and Evaluation and impact assessment are only part of a bigger Participatory Action Learning System based on the immediate learning and reflection needs of stakeholders to improve their progress towards their visions at different levels – particularly people in communities. It combines:

  • Individual tracking of empowerment process/progress towards visions and action commitments in notebook diaries at each level: individual changes in communities, private sector, organisation staff.
  • Participatory quantitative monitoring and aggregation by groups and associations to share experiences and strategies – what from experience they learn does and does not work – for collective strategic planning.
  • Collective participatory review by all the stakeholders to analyse all these experiences and the implications for collective visions and actions and/or best focus for external support to address those things that cannot be achieved through individual action.
  • Qualitative and multimedia methods by stakeholders, NGOs and/or external agencies for deepening understanding of processes


PALS (and other adaptations like GALS and FALS) has been adapted to different cultural and organisational contexts – including communities where no organisation exists, cooperatives of varying sizes, private commercial companies and NGOs and donor agencies.

Each PALS process is unique. Both the implementation process and the specific versions of the diagram tools used are designed with women and men community ‘champions’, an experienced PALS practitioner and a core of implementing staff/local leaders. The local adaptation is then scaled up through a combination on community-level peer training, organisational capacity-building and inter-organisational replication and further adaptation.

Implementation for the first year is generally conceived in the following three stages at community and organisational levels:

  • Stage 1: Catalyst Process 0-3 months: introducing and upscaling the core visioning, action planning and networking tools at community and organisational levels. Preliminary upscaling and sustainability plans are agreed at community and organisational levels. Participants at the different levels track their action commitments, share change experiences and strategies in groups and upscale in their own communities.
  • Stage 2: Advanced Tools and Leadership Strengthening: deepening analysis on these same tools adapted to the needs of specific types on intervention. These then continue to be upscaled by the champions at different levels, and changes tracked on the diagrams. The organisation aggregates the information from the groups, setting up a participatory information system and starts to respond to and support the collective needs identified.
  • Stage 3: Annual Review and Sustainability Plan: A participatory review assesses the achievements and challenges. Then on the basis of experience establishes participatory protocols on gender and social justice and an upscaling, integration/mainstreaming and sustainability plan.

What happens beyond Stage 3 depends very much on experience and overall aims. It is important that PALS is seen as a means to an end of mainstreaming empowerment and gender justice and movement-building, not as an end in itself of numbers of people with pretty Vision Journeys.

Sustainable freestyle: mainstreaming and movement

The ultimate aim of a PALS process is to provide a methodology and structures that bring different stakeholders – women and men in communities and also government and private sector together to mainstream empowerment and social justice across decision-making and policy.

Sustainability is planned and monitored from the beginning, with short-term targets and activities as well as the longer term vision. It is built into the tools and facilitation process – provided the emphasis is on the change rhythm through inspiration, not mechanical steps and organisational policing that see champions as unpaid project workers for development agencies. The methodology is based on:

  • success and self-interest – people are motivated by their own wish to achieve their own goals and sharing with others for their own learning and progress. THIS MEANS PRIME IMPORTANCE IS ON PERSONAL SUCCESS OF EACH CHAMPION from using the tools, not rapid superficial upscaling.
  • no free lunch or training kit costs: tools are accessible using cheap local pens and notebooks that can be used independently. Those minimal costs are covered by each participant so that large numbers of people can be reached and resources can be focused on responding to advocacy and other issues.
  • everyone is a leader to ‘go viral’: part of this self-interest is increasing their social status as wise leaders within their own networks. And personal satisfaction of being a ‘good human being’. THIS MEANS EACH CHAMPION STARTING WHERE THE ENERGY IS and with people who will easily listen to them. Sharing should be enjoyable as a social activity, not an unpaid chore for the project.
  • upscaling beyond original communities is done after one year by a continually renewed pool of certified community trainers selected from the most effective volunteer trainers. Selection is based on the changes they themselves have enacted in their own lives and families (proven commitment to CEDAW and youth and minority rights is a must), the quality of their voluntary sharing and numbers of people reached.
  • optimum use is made of IT: social media, mobile networking and other IT is used by people in communities to develop peer to peer exchanges of images and information.

After the Annual Review and Sustainability Plan the process should be in a position to fully integrate the empowerment methodology across all other interventions eg micro-finance, value chain development, civil society strengthening and reach to the total population intended to benefit from any intervention.

Integration of the methodology across the organisation and other development interventions.

Multi-stakeholder change movement: Although the prime focus of the methodology is to empower women and men to vision, plan and achieve their goals through individual and community-level actions, this process seeks to link stakeholders in private sector companies, government and other agencies to make the process both sustainable and enable significant gains in wealth creation, development and social justice. Through developing mutual understanding, communication and listening skills of powerful stakeholders. How this is done depends on the purpose and also context, but includes:

  • Training local government and other stakeholders by the champions
  • Identification of local funding from private sector, local government and community-based organisations for continued upscaling to new communities and organisations and other gender, livelihood or leadership activities to further deepen the local process.
  • Advocacy research and media linkages through local research institutes and media to document and promote the process on an ongoing basis.