[When Participatory Learning and Action is done well] “local people, and especially the poorer, enjoy the creative learning that comes from presenting their knowledge and their reality. They say they see things differently. It is not just that they share knowledge with outsiders. They themselves learn more than anyone knew alone. The process is then empowering, enabling them to analyse their world, and can lead into their planning and action. It is not the reality of the outsider which is transferred and imposed but theirs which is expressed, shared and strengthened. In this final reversal, it is more the reality of local people than that of outsider professionals that counts.

(Chambers 1994c and quoted in a number of donor agency Evaluation Manuals)

Participatory development methodologies have their roots in organizational, research and planning methodologies developed in the 1970s.  They include particularly:

  • ‘Activist Participatory Research’ (APR) and Participatory Action Research (PAR): techniques for community conscientisation and mobilisation developed under the various names of
  • Rapid Rural Appraisal (RRA), Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) and Participatory Learning and Action (PLA) diagrams and oral research techniques which originated in farming systems research and anthropology
  • Appreciative Inquiry and ‘DIPs’ (Deliberative and Inclusionary
    processes) focusing on community-based participatory planning, including evaluation of existing policies
  • NGO experimentation with systems of internal participatory
    monitoring, evaluation and impact assessment.
  • World Bank participatory consultations in the form of Beneficiary
    Assessment and use of participatory methods generally in a series of Participatory Poverty Assessments by the World Bank at the end of the 1990s.
  • Empowerment Evaluation looked at ways of facilitating people to conduct their own evaluations as individuals as well as groups.

These participatory processes vary widely in:

  • the actual purpose of the participation and who initiates it
  • who is participating and how participants are selected
  • stages in a project where participation occurs
  • tools and processes involved – whether these are pictorial or verbal
  • ways in which participation is linked to decision-making.

Participation as transformation?

Participatory development methodologies have been promoted on the basis of a number of arguments:

  • Rights argument: Participation, and particularly and explicitly participation of the poorest and most vulnerable participants is a human right and an inherent and indivisible component of pro-poor development strategies and empowerment.
  • Effectiveness argument: Participation of the main stakeholders increases the accuracy of information and relevance to the realities of peoples’ lives and policy decision and implementation processes.
  • Cost-efficiency argument: Involvement of the main stakeholders increases ownership of the development process, better use of resources and is likely to enable mobilisation local resources to augment or even substitute those from outside
  • Process argument: the participatory process, through building skills, capacities and networks is a contribution in itself to pro-poor development, civil society and empowerment.

Participation as Tyranny?

Since the mid-1990s, parallel to the rapid expansion of participatory methods, have been a series of critiques of both practice and the underlying theoretical underpinnings of these methods. ‘Participation’ in the sense of ‘taking part’ in collective forms of action and decision-making at some level and between some individuals is an inherent part of all social life. Even slaves ‘participated’ in the building of ancient and recent empires. Many people ‘participated’ in the Nazi rebuilding of Germany and in ethnic cleansing of minority groups. There is nothing inherently desirable about ‘participation’ per se.

Many of the theoretical critiques of participatory development have their roots in very much earlier debates about the nature of democracy and political systems for representation.

  • Participatory development cannot be seen as a substitute for strategic policies to address poverty, inequality and empowerment.
  • Participatory processes, even those initiated from the ‘bottom-up’ are not necessarily either inclusive or egalitarian. People’s Movements frequently exclude or marginalise the very poor, women and other disadvantaged groups.
  • Outsiders may further reinforce existing inequalities because of their ignorance of local inequalities and/or their dependence on these power structures to gain access to ‘communities’. Reference to ‘cultural sensitivity’ and the need for ‘community participation’ are often cited as reasons for not addressing gender issues without even consulting women or men about gender concerns they may have.

A key concern in critiques of participatory methods from the empowerment/rights perspective has been the ways in which development agencies (from multilateral agencies to NGOs) and politicians have used the rhetoric of participation and participatory development to mask processes in which participation is extremely superficial and/or unequal and/or manipulated to support their own ends.

Participatory Development: Some key questions

Participatory development which aims to make a significant contribution to poverty eradication and empowerment must be constantly reflecting on the following questions:

  • Why is participation being advocated
  • Who is participating
  • When they are participating
  • How they are participating
  • Who benefits from the participatory process
  • Who benefits from the outcomes.

The understanding of the participatory pictorial methodologies being explored here is that goal of participatory development needs to be clearly this last issue ie ensuring that the poorest and most vulnerable people benefit most from the outcomes of the participatory process. It is this concern which should determine decisions about who participates, how and when and not any inherent commitment to ‘as much participation by as many and at any cost’. It is also crucial that these people should benefit directly and as far as possible from the time and energy they give to the participatory process and not treated as unpaid labourers for agendas determined by outsiders.

Source: Mayoux, L 2005 Between Tyranny and Utopia: Participatory Evaluation for Development and references therein (also many other reviews and published articles by me on these issues that I need to relocate/upload on gamechangenetwork and then link.)