Participation: more than a buzzword?

Participation has become a development buzzword. Seemingly all nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) aspire to have local communities be active participants in development work, taking the lead in identifying changes they want to see in their communities, the means for achieving those changes and methods for assessing progress towards those changes. But just what participation looks like varies greatly from NGO to NGO and from project to project. In a vast sea of guidebooks, complicated methods, toolkits and manuals it is easy to become overwhelmed by just what participation is, who is participating and what they are participating in. In many ways this is encouraging. The ideological battle of participation is largely won. NGOs have become increasingly aware of the ineffectiveness of projects imposed on communities.

The ongoing challenge for MCC and all NGOs is moving participation from an aspiration to a reality. Unfortunately, this participatory reality is yet to be fully realized. As was documented in the book, Time to Listen, local communities are receptive to aid but desire a stronger voice in NGO projects (Anderson et al., 2012). Despite our own aspirations at MCC, we also struggle to make the ideal of participation a reality. These challenges are symptoms of more fundamental power imbalances among and within communities, local partners, international NGOs and donors.

This power imbalance is not the only challenge. Participatory methods themselves are often poorly facilitated. At times implementing agencies lack the capacity or resources to carry out the methods. As participatory methods have been mainstreamed they have become increasingly complex. That complexity can lead to a certain type of procedural elitism in which the methods can only be carried out by highly educated (and often highly paid) consultants. A review of the humanitarian response to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines indicated that the jargon, complexity and lack of consistency among NGOs’ participatory approaches hindered local communities’ abilities to participate meaningfully in humanitarian responses (Jacobs, 2015).

On other occasions the challenge for meaningful participation emerges when the understandable pressure from donors to see results for planning and reporting do not allow for space and time for these methods to take place. One misguided trend among donors looking for increased accountability is a system of Payment by Results. In its most troubling form, local agencies do not receive money for a project from donor agencies until the anticipated project results are achieved. These approaches assume problems and solutions are embedded in simple systems where cause-and-effect relationships are clearly understood, something that is rarely true. Although assessing project outcomes is a key component to learning, results-driven project management with strict timelines can often be emphasized at the expense of the messier components of community participation.

These challenges to meaningful participation may arise because participation is no development panacea. Meaningful participatory processes do not always pair well with clean budgets, clear activities that lead to clear outcomes and known timelines. Instead, genuine participation is an iterative process in which activities are constantly being reflected on and adapted. On the other hand, strong participatory processes demand strong advance planning. Unplanned participatory processes can often lack transparency with a community and give too much power to facilitators. There is a delicate balance between planning and flexible responsiveness to developing contextual conditions that is difficult to achieve and maintain. Participation is also not an obvious moral victory. Power imbalance is not a simple linear progression from donor to partner to community. Power exists in a multiplicity of complex relationships. Consequently, gender and rights proponents have had an uncomfortable relationship with participatory methods, as participation can assume a monolithic community and can ignore local power dynamics. For example, if a local community determines that it is culturally appropriate for decision making to happen through local male-dominated institutions, what impact will this insistence have on the inclusion (or lack thereof) of women and girls in participatory processes? Participatory methods can at times be troublingly gender-blind, depending on how they are implemented.

Despite these challenges, participation continues to be promoted as a key component to sustainable development. There are many reasons why participation is worth the complexity it adds to project implementation. Participation promotes learning and adaptation within the community. As communities participate in development projects they learn what works and what does not. This capacity building is more sustainable, strengthening the abilities of communities eventually to assume full control of projects. Another reason is that participation increases the possibility of project effectiveness as communities are able to contextualize projects and provide crucial information for their success. Finally, participation as community ownership and leadership within projects is essential because communities and individuals simply have a right to be decision-makers in the things that impact their lives.

So how can participation be more effective?

  1. Participatory methods need to become re-simplified and accessible. As Luz Gomez Saaverdra of Oxfam said at a recent development conference, “the most amazing tool [is] sitting down under a tree with people” (Chambers, Who Engages with Whom?, 2014).
  2. Facilitators of participatory methods need to be able to negotiate local power dynamics and ensure that all community members are able to meaningfully participate in NGO projects. Most methods are not inherently participatory or non-participatory. How methods are facilitated greatly impacts how participatory processes are.
  3. Participation needs to happen at all stages of a project. Often participatory processes are heavy on front-end assessments, while evaluations are conducted by external consultants who write reports that rarely make it back to communities. Analysis of the data often is done by the consultant and not by community members. Local partners and international NGOs should find more creative ways of using monitoring and evaluation requirements to promote learning and adaption at a community level.
  4. Facilitators of methods should build capacity with mixed methods approaches that use both qualitative and quantitative methods. Often qualitative methods are seen as the only participatory methodology. However, exciting work is being done in research facilities with quantitative methods such as participatory statistics and citizen science that has yet to be mainstreamed in development work.
  5. Donors and NGOs need to find ways of being flexible with timelines, recognizing that the process itself is an important component of a project’s success.

In this issue participation will be explored through analysis of case studies from Vietnam, Ethiopia, Palestine, Bolivia and Colombia. As the case studies make clear, participation is essential for sustainable and effective peacebuilding, development and relief work, but achieving genuine participation remains elusive. The essays in these pages offer ideas or how to ensure that participation is more meaningfully integrated into the development landscape.

Daniel Leonard is Operating Principles Coordinator for MCC.

Learn more by reading the Spring edition of Intersections – Participation.

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