Participation: The reversal of relationship?

[dropcap]P[/dropcap]articipatory approach in development has now become the utmost essential component of project designs which aim for equity and sustainability. Its ambitious commence forwarded by the goal of meeting pro-poor, grassroots, and sustainable form of development has attracted development actors, namely government, multilateral institutions, and international and national NGOs, to adopt the approach to their agenda in accordance with the global trend.

The term participatory approach takes multiple forms depending on how development organisations choose to use the term. Participatory approach can be performed only as a part of data collection and planning before and during the intervention, as a means of achieving the goal of empowerment and engagement of local people or local government, as a knowledge sharing and consultation tool, or simply to reduce costs for meeting project objectives (Pretty, 1995; Cornwall, 2008). Throughout the paper, participatory approach will be used as an overarching term to indicate the participation practice in development, including participatory initiative and participatory learning and action (PLA). However, the nature of the participation concerned in this paper is specific to the form called “invited participation” which indicates participation practices arranged by external agencies such as NGOs or bilateral agencies, but not the cases organised autonomously within a group.

This paper will explore participatory approach as a reversal of relationship between development actors. In order to do so, it will present the shift of position of two main actors, namely local population in intervention area indicated as participant and development worker as facilitator, in a critical view on the reversed position.

From respondents to participants

Before the participatory approach gained much emphasis, the designing and decision-making process for projects heavily depended upon the competency of development agencies or representative local governments in finding and analysing local’s need. The problematic side of this tendency is that a specific group of people, often consisting of elites and expatriate agents, represents the need of locals using the bureaucratic means of inspection on problem-location and problem-solution. It also poses a risk of overlooking problems on a country level while resulting in simplified, homogenous solutions for different parts of the country comprising with different causes of problems. The agendas for problem solutions, instead of being made in the “field” which is often used to indicate and to separate the functional difference and the distance from the headquarter, are crafted according to headquarter’s interest that is consistent with global agenda or national interests. This top-down approach did not open up much space for the locals to address their needs and figure out the mode of solutions themselves but, at its best, only allowed local people to respond to interviews or surveys as a way of engaging local views to the project cycle.

With the awareness of the problems of the previous development approaches, the participatory approach has gained attention as an alternative and more democratic way of achieving development goals. The participatory approach has allowed local people to actively engage in decision making process with varying degrees, instead of positioning them as passive respondents to questions asked by development practitioners.

As appropriate and basic as it sounds to engage “insiders” of development in each stage, it is also important to make sure that who represents local’s needs is taken into account. Although it is necessary to engage different stakeholders in dialogue through invitation, how effectively it may result in cannot be easily guaranteed with the exertion of the approach alone (Cornwall, 2008). There are issues of selection and the relevance of representatives that should be concerned to see how effectively participatory approach can release the local knowledge. For big scale projects involving government to government or institution to government, opening spaces for all members of a multiplicity of stakeholders by no means facilitates cost-efficient operation, not to mention the time and energy spent on the procedure for the gathering itself, which is likely to transform into bureaucratic procedures. It is not the only difficulty from the participant side. Some may choose not to participate and others, possibly those with strong interest, may wish to assert their own interest as opposed to that of their group (Mosse, 2005). When the local needs are raised by an aggregated group of people labelled as local people, it could also be problematic to assess the relevance to the needs of everyone including marginalised groups, as the group consists of heterogeneous characteristics such as sex, social status, occupation, religion, age, wealth, and preference (Cohen & Uphoff, 1980).

From extractors to facilitators

Prior to the rise of participatory approach in the 1980s, the mode of participation offered to local people as opposed to the outside practitioner was mostly through filling out pre-coded questionnaires or responding to interviews, composed and performed by the practitioner and his agency. In this dynamic, locals did not have much control in shaping and shifting the direction of interventions in any stages of project cycle. With the turn to participatory approach, however, the power of control appeared to have given a significant share of its power to the local people who are the users of development intervention. With the turn of events, the expected role of development practitioner in engaging with field information has turned to “facilitating” from “extracting” (Chambers, 1996). That is, the practitioner no longer takes control of collecting data and analysing information with his own view, instead he takes charge to ensure that all stakeholders are able to speak, assess, and, to a large extent, offer solutions. With the previous approach, development workers have a clear territorial boundary between data collection and data analysis. Collecting data requires the basic knowledge in local environment, such as household finances, farming practice, education preference, and relationship between people, and it means the development worker should engage with local people and their knowledge. This process is rather extractive than performative because the gathered information is interpreted and analysed by development workers while excluding local people’s active engagement with the information. With the participatory approach, in contrast, what Scoones and Thompson (1993) call “performative” process breaks down the clear boundary between data collection and data analysis and enables practitioner to start a process with relatively less weight on gathering data in the beginning of and during the process (Chambers, 1996). When locals participate in the process, they are encouraged to utilise their own knowledge in addition to coming up with it. This role of the participatory approach is claimed to be the primary platform for the reversal of power relations between development actors.

Having said that, the idea that participation is the solution for transforming the power relations should be approached with caution. The idea derives from the assumption that as long as people are given opportunities to speak out, they will provide all essential knowledge which will eventually transform into decisions. First, the knowledge expressed or accepted during participation is limited to specific types of knowledge. According to Mosse (2005), “. . . PRAs [Participatory Rural Appraisals] privileged a certain type of knowledge, that which was explicit, codified, recognised as such and expressible in language to outsiders as rules, norms, or ‘indigenous theories’: ‘this is why we do this … this is what this means’ (p. 83).” Second, the claim that participatory approach will reveal the knowledge that villagers have and that it will shift the power in development hierarchies, is short-sighted and should be reconsidered (Chambers, 1997). It is not to say that participatory approach is ineffective in bringing out “local knowledge” on the table, but the articulation of knowledge, be it local or external, is in itself the product of power relationship and cannot stand alone without the influence of interactions between development workers and the locals (Mosse, 2005; Pottier, 2003).


It is to some degrees true that participatory approaches are often associated with well-meaning and fair inside-democracy compared to top-down approaches which are more associated with authority and rigidity of outsider. But how much impact does it have on achieving project objectives? With the increasing number of evaluations, there are evidences that prove the impact of participatory approaches. Gaventa and Barrett (2012) show that participatory initiatives have positive impacts, yet it does not necessarily accommodate successful outcome achievements. Mansuri and Rao (2013), on the other hand, suggest that they have not found compelling evidence that proves that participatory initiatives are more successful than the top-down approaches in efficiency, equitability, and sustainability. Be that as it may, we should not disregard the fact that the relevance between means and objectives can factor in different results.

Also, participatory approach should not simply be mistaken as a local-driven mode of engaging people as against other methods such as top-down approach. Because, first, the result of the participation may turn out differently depending on community environment, resources, time, urgency, and relevance. Second, the application of participatory approach alone cannot ensure equitable distribution of power. Assuming that local communities are democratic and trustworthy can potentially undermine the result, considering the diverse nature of communities and individuals. It is tempting to think so because, according to Platteau and Abraham (2002);

. . . communities are usually considered to have important informational advantages. They know better the prevailing local conditions (such as who is poor and deserves to be helped, or the characteristics of the local micro-environment), and they are better able to monitor the activities related to interventions and to mitigate incentive problems (p. 105).

The misconception that local knowledge, also known as indigenous knowledge, is superior to any other source of knowledge masks the diverse human nature and characteristics. While it is true that local communities possess the important advantage in the easy circulation of information over other mode of organisation (Platteau & Abraham, 2002), operating under the assumptions that locals will always work in cooperation, distribute benefits equitably, and identify who are most needed, in spite of all other circumstances such as relationships between interest groups, individual willingness to participate, will not help bring about effective and inclusive project delivery.

Most important of all, participatory approach itself is rather a policy than an implementation logic. Mosse (2005) suggests that good policy does not necessarily translate into effective implementation strategy in that policy and practice need two different structures. Policies are intrinsically designed to mobilise and maintain political support and they do not provide the necessary framework for action. That is, while participation as policy has drawn supports from diverse actor networks, it fails to provide action guide that has more detailed and precise interpretation of the concept. In reality, due to the ambiguous concept of participation designed for policy use, what it means generally differs by stakeholders. Mosse (2005) argues about the project design and its relation with ambiguity;

It is precisely the ability to achieve a high degree of convergence of disparate interests, contained in the official language of a single validating model, that characterises successful policy and project ideas. To achieve this the policy process requires ambiguous concepts like ‘participation’ which mediate or translate between divergent interests (p. 46).

The concept of participatory approach is ambiguous enough to allow broad interpretation ranging from success to failure. In spite of the conceptual issue, it cannot be disregarded that the approach does not have any potential to encourage empowerment in development practice. In fact, it is the logic and the culture of the organisation that shape the groundwork for translating the approach into practice (Mosse, 2005). If aligned with the logic and the culture of the local area, participatory approach can be a useful tool to reverse the relationship between locals and development workers. Nonetheless, it is important to note that application of one approach cannot be a solution for prolonged problems in development no matter how great a potential it has. As White (1996) writes, “recognising that people have always used such tactics, however, suggests that the problem is not simply ‘enabling the people to participate’, but ensuring that they participate in the right ways (p. 14).”



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Originally submitted for Special topics in cultures and development, KU Leuven.

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An anthropology novice with passion for small things. A development worker in a world of imponderabilia.

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