How to (not) do participatory development

Participatory development has gained enormous popularity among practitioners wanting to encourage active participation in project decision-making and implementation. The idea is that communities gain a sense of ownership over the project instead of seeing it as an external intervention. In theory, participatory development puts local knowledge on the same level as expert knowledge and brings people together as equals, making it a sustainable, beneficial and bottom-up tool to address challenges and empower people to be active agents of social change. In practice, however, the approach has a number of issues:

  • Facilitation: Participatory development uses an array of methods to encourage people to voice their needs, understand the challenges they face and assess their decision-making power within the community, however, it is usually outsiders – whether national NGO workers or staff of overseas agencies – who introduce people to the methodologies, facilitate the process of data collection, analyse the gathered information, and translate it into development projects. This begs the question, is the outcome a true portrayal of power dynamics and people’s needs or are the results appropriated to serve organisational priorities?
  • Power versus no power: Imagine you are a recruit of a national NGO conducting participatory research for a future poverty reduction project in a rural community. You have the contacts of a few people actively engaged in development activities and you invite them to carry out a transect walk and a social mapping exercise to help you identify the most vulnerable people and the poorest households. The community representatives include themselves and their friends in these categories because they are aware that a future project will bring benefits and they don’t want to miss the opportunity. Overlooking local power relations may lead to the empowerment not of the most vulnerable, but of those who already have a dominant position in the community.
  • Participation as a cost: A poor cocoa farmer in rural Ghana is asked to participate in a community discussion for a project targeting poor educational infrastructure in his village. It is October, the cocoa crop year is starting and the farmer is in a hurry to harvest and sell as much cocoa as possible. It is hard to imagine that he would participate in a discussion in which he fears he would only be a passive listener instead of engaging in an income-generating activity that would pay for his children’s school fees.
  • Government through community: The words ‘participation’ and ‘empowerment’ are very common in development discourse. External development agencies may use the participatory approach as a pretext, to interfere in local patterns of decision-making and change practices to ones that are easier to manage, transforming local decision-making structures into ones that are more easily governable by outsiders.
African man holding up jar of honey

Thomas Djangme, bee keeper in Ghana supported by Village Aid | photograph © Village Aid


So, what does work?

When projects are sensitive to the cultural, social and political context of the community and the facilitators have an awareness of the critiques of participatory development, they have the capacity to achieve something truly empowering. Village Aid, a UK NGO working in Africa, developed an approach combining the rights-based and participatory methods, and focuses specifically on citizenship building and ‘deep’ political literacy but uses participatory processes that are already present within the community. Village Aid projects are context-specific and facilitate interactive participation which creates a more overarching transformation. People begin to understand their rights and gain an ability to secure them which, in turn, helps them find solutions for their problems without the need for external interventions. Isn’t this the ultimate goal of participatory development?

Find out more about the work of Village Aid here

Read more about participatory development

Feature image: Village Aid

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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