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Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Participatory Development


by Anne Banwell, Programme Officer, NPF

Recently, I spent a week wandering around an Ottawa neighbourhood, drawing maps on the sidewalk, listening to the concerns of people living in a shelter for the homeless, and making statistical tables out of dried kidney beans. No, I had not lost my mind, although I am sure that many people thought so! I was taking part in a workshop on "Participatory Development: Concepts, Tools and Applications." The workshop was given by two Ottawa-based consultants and attended by about twenty people. As to be expected, many of us worked for CIDA, but the group also included academics, consultants, students, and NGO people from Haiti, Mali and the United States.

At the workshop, we learnt that, although participation is "the flavour of the month" in development circles, the origins of participatory development are not terribly new. Much of the philosophy behind participatory development comes from other fields: adult education, the work of the Brazilian educator Paolo Freire, social anthropology, and feminist research. However, most of the tools and techniques used in participatory development have been created in the South by southern development practitioners. This is yet another area where we in the North have much to learn from our colleagues in the South.

Engage local people

The goal of participatory development--"to reveal the meaning people give to particular aspects of their lives so that development activities may better enhance people's ability to improve their own living conditions, as they see fit"--grew out of the dismal performance of projects that were essentially parachuted into communities with no local input. The critical difference between participatory development and more conventional approaches to development is that it attempts to engage with local people as co-analysts, co-planners, co-implementers and co-evaluators. Essentially, in a truly participatory process, the status and power differential between outsiders (the "experts" and the ones with the money) and local people (the "beneficiaries" of the outsiders' expertise and money) is erased, and both emerge as co-learners through a transformational and empowering process.

Indeed, the whole emphasis of participatory development is on the process. The content and the outcome are secondary to the process--project development, implementation, monitoring and evaluation are all iterative activities, each building on the lessons learned and capacities gained during earlier stages. There are NO blue-prints in a participatory process!

Although we spent some time talking about the origins, philosophy, and goals of participatory development, our days were mostly spent practising the tools and techniques used in the field. The range of techniques available was a real eye-opener for us. We learned how to use role-playing and skits, portraits, community mapping, transect walks, seasonal calendars, daily schedules historical time-lines, Venn diagrams, matrix ranking, flow diagrams, pic charts, focus group discussions, testimonials, participant observations and triangulation.

Handing over the Stick

The highlight of the course was our three day "field placement." My team was assigned to use participatory methods to look at the question of what should be done with abandoned mansions in Sandy Hill, a highly diverse neighbourhood in Ottawa. Our team -- two CIDA people, one consultant, and two NGO people from Haiti and Mali -- became a fixture in the neighbourhood, and locals would either go out of their way to avoid us, or came up to us asking "are you the community development people who spoke to my friend/mom/neighbour yesterday?" We learned that team-work has its challenges, but can also be enormously fun. We learned that most people care deeply about where they live and are very happy to talk. We also learned that the basic rule of participation -- "handing over the stick"-- is absolutely essential to the success of the process. "Handing over the stick" means giving local people the tools to do the process themselves. It means sitting on your hands and letting local people make the maps out of local materials, providing their own interpretations of reality and of possible solutions, and taking their own time. Most importantly, it reverses the status order; it gives ownership of the process to local people, since it is their map/chart/diagram, and they are doing the explaining and analysing.

Of course, participatory development is not the panacea for what ails development initiatives around the world. We spent much time talking about the inherent contradictions we saw between a participatory process and the reality that most outsiders come into a community with some sort of agenda. We asked: "what happens when a participatory process reveals that our planned intervention, or area of expertise, is not one of the local priorities?" We asked whether outsiders could ever really participate in someone else's development, although we all noted the benefits that a trained and creative outside facilitator can bring to any process. We were also very concerned about participatory development and raised expectations. What are our responsibilities to a community after we have introduced an empowering and transformational process? Is it moral to simply say good-bye? We also talked about whether a participatory process would satisfy donor requirements in terms of project design, baseline, monitoring and evaluation. However, at the end of six exhausting days, I think all of us felt that we had the theory and the tools to at least begin the process of understanding other people's lives better, and "to see things from the other end."

We were given a limited amount of paper during the course (the mantra during the week was, that to really understand participatory development, you have to "practise, practise, practise! ") including descriptions of some of the tools, a list of contacts world-wide, references to books, articles and training manuals, and information on how to join USAID's electronic discussion group, "Global Participation Network." Please ask your Programme Manager if you would like this information, and we will be happy to send it to you.

Food for thought
Next to the sun's energy, cooperation between people is our greatest renewable resource.
Professor Clive Thomas (Caribbean economist)