Participatory methods (PMs) include a range of activities with a common thread: enabling ordinary people to play an active and influential part in decisions which affect their lives. This means that people are not just listened to, but also heard; and that their voices shape outcomes.
Researchers, community members, activists and donors all use PMs. Because respect for local knowledge and experience is paramount, the result is interventions that reflect local realities, often leading to better supported and longer lasting social change.
Where and when?
PMs have been used in many settings – urban and rural, poorer and wealthier – in countless countries. It is important that people feel relaxed and at ease when PMs are used, so locations vary from village halls, religious centres or school buildings, to less formal areas such as homes, parks or under village trees.
Whether people are involved in analysis, collective decision-making, planning or reflection, PMs can be used at all stages of the project cycle associated with development aid. But they are also useful in political processes, as tools for strengthening citizen engagement, claiming rights and holding the powerful to account.
A brief history
There are many different, overlapping threads and traditions of participatory practice all over the world. The information on this site is grounded in the work of The Participation Team at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex in the UK.
One of the original members of the Participation Team, Robert Chambers, has been a driving force behind the use of PMs in the field of international development. The PMs that Chambers and his many colleagues in South Asia, Africa and Europe began working with in the 1970s are now a well-established feature of development practice. They emerged as an alternative to mainstream approaches to development, which were top-down and linear, and often comprised Northern ‘experts’ telling Southern ‘poor people’ how to go about ‘development’.
The first set of PMs to emerge from this work with a clear identity was Rapid Rural Appraisal (RRA), which focused on how outsiders could quickly learn from local people about their realities and challenges. Reflections on RRA led to the development of Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA), which had a stronger focus on facilitation, empowerment, behaviour change, local knowledge and sustainable action. PRA, now used interchangeably with Participatory Learning and Action (PLA), embraces reflection, learning and an understanding of power and relationships.
Key Principles of Participatory Learning and Action
The right to participate
That all people have a right to play a part in shaping the decisions that affect their lives sounds obvious, but is not easy to achieve. Maximising the participation of the less powerful is a key feature of PLA.
Hearing unheard voices
Using PMs involves seeking out unheard voices and creating the safe spaces that allow them to be heard. It is often people who have the least say in decisions about their lives that are most affected by using the methods.
Seeking local knowledge and diversity
Local people have their own expert knowledge of their community, and this should be the starting point for outsiders using PMs to work with them. But it is also crucial to recognize that there are always different perspectives and realities within communities, with every individual bringing their own unique experiences and interpretations.
PMs are about letting go of preconceptions in order to learn from the wisdom of community members. This means being prepared to unlearn what has already been learned.
Using diverse methods
Using a range of PMs helps draw in as many people as possible to undertake learning and analysis on an equal basis.
Handing over the stick (or pen, or chalk)
The phrase ‘handing over the stick’ came out of some of the early work using PMs with communities in South Asia and Africa. It involves those considered ‘expert’ – or powerful, or of higher status – sitting back, keeping quiet and allowing space for others to participate. Thinking about the relationships between more and less powerful people, and what those relationships imply for who can speak and who cannot, is an important aspect of using PMs.
Attitude and behaviour change
Changing the attitudes and behaviours of the powerful is a vital aspect of participatory practice, summed up by Robert Chambers in his 1997 book on PMs, Whose Reality Counts? Putting the first last:
“As PRA approaches and methods spread, the prime importance of facilitators’ behaviour and attitudes became clear. Again and again, outsiders wagged their fingers, criticized, lectured, interrupted, suggested what should be done, put forward their own ideas, and contradicted and put down local people. All these were inhibiting. All made local people appear, to outsiders and themselves, incapable. So the new imperatives became to establish rapport, to sit down, listen and learn, to be patient, to respect, to facilitate, to be nice to people, to learn not to interview, to know when not to speak and when not to be present. The task for outsiders became to hand over the stick, to empower local people, to enhance their confidence, to enable them to define, express and analyse their reality, and not to reflect that of the upper (outsider).”
Many practitioners all over the world continue to use the methods and principles associated with PRA and PLA. They also continue to develop and innovate new techniques, many of which now use digital communication technologies.
While the explosive growth and development of PRA and PLA continued, by the 1990s many members of the Participation Team were looking beyond the frameworks of PRA, PLA and the project cycle to ask broader political questions about participation, examining citizen engagement and rights-based governance.
This led, in 2000, to the start of a ten-year research programme on Citizenship, Participation and Accountability which examined the proposition, frequently put forward by John Gaventa, then leader of the Participation Team, that participatory, rights-bearing forms of citizenship contribute to more responsive and accountable forms of governance, which are in turn good for poor people. Amongst many other outputs, the decade of research in 20 countries uncovered a multitude of strategies and methods that citizen groups use to strengthen their participation in the decisions that affect their lives.
These changes in name – from RRA and PLA to citizen engagement and rights-based governance –represent a shift in focus, but are based on the same underlying principle: that participation can contribute to equitable development and social justice.
Looking through the lens provided by the work of the Participation Team, we can see that PMs moved from methods based on ‘us’ finding out about ‘them’, to approaches that involve appraisal, analysis and action by local people within the framework of development interventions, to learning about the strategies citizens use to initiate and participate in positive social change.