Influencing Global Policy Processes through Participatory Approaches

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This is part of a series of chapter summaries of the Handbook of Participatory Research and Inquiry

In this chapter, the authors present the experiences and dilemmas faced in their aims to influence global policy through participatory processes with people experiencing poverty and marginalisation. The two experiences presented are: 1) The Participate Initiative, a participatory research network convened by the Institute of Development Studies in 2012 to influence the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); specifically the Ground Level Panels and 2) The actions developed by the global movement ATD Fourth World; particularly The Merging of Knowledge approach used in the Hidden Dimensions of Poverty global research project.

The issues presented in this chapter are important and relevant because:

  • As the rights of all people to participate at all levels of decision-making and public affairs is a human right codified in international law, it is imperative that organisations keep enabling opportunities for people in poverty to exercise this right
  • Meaningful participation can alter the structures and institutions that lead to marginalisation and exclusion, challenging their historic domination by a few; both the Ground Level Panels and the Merging of Knowledge approach are testament to this
  • More than ever, there is a pressing need for recognising the value and contributions of knowledge that is generated ‘at the margins’, i.e. outside professional or academic spaces. This is a pre-requisite for people to participate meaningfully.

Summary of Experiences

The first section of the chapter presents the step by step process followed by the Participate initiative and ATD Fourth World in developing and implementing the following participatory processes:

Participate’s Ground Level Panels (GLPs)

Initiative created to confront the UN High-Level Panel report’s recommendations with direct perspectives from people living in poverty and/or marginalisation, i.e. to provide a reality check. They took place in four countries: Brazil, Egypt, India and Uganda. The panels were recognised as a way of moving beyond ‘the perfunctory “clictivism”’ that characterised the post-2015 consultations and debates.

Hidden Dimensions of Poverty

ATD Fourth World’s participatory research developed with the Merging of Knowledge approach, and the associated global policy work. The research stemmed from the need to revise the existent ways of measuring poverty and create new ones alongside marginalised groups. Using their Merging of Knowledge approach, it aimed to fill this need by bringing knowledge from. activists, professionals and academics in the global North and South to co-create a holistic proposal.

Dilemmas faced and lessons learnt

The second section presents the dilemmas faced, lessons learnt and how each of the experiences practically dealt with these.

1. Bringing diverse people together to influence complex policy processes

The first dilemma relates to convening people who live in poverty to discuss a global policy agenda. It is essential to think about the reasons behind doing so and the ways of making these discussions truly relevant to them whilst also drawing out relevant points for advocacy.

Lessons learnt

  • People who live in poverty must be able to have the necessary time to recognise the value of their knowledge and their right to contribute to these global debates: Discussions must be presented in ways that are close to people’s lived realities, placing their knowledge at the centre. Translation and interpretation in multiple languages is essential for true dialogue to occur.
  • Facilitators must be open and flexible: Facilitation should give the opportunity to divert from the plan to prioritise the groups’ needs, and accommodate the needs and opinions of people with different identities and mindsets.
  • Tools and activities must allow for balanced participation, making sure that opinions from the weakest voices in the room are heard and respected. Creative forms of expression are fundamental to allow the knowledge existent within groups to manifest in more organic ways.

2. Creating advocacy messages suitable for global policy audiences without losing the depth of the participatory dialogue

Linked closely to dilemma 1, it is the need to ‘shape’ research findings in ways that speak to the jargon and terminology used by global policy audiences. This becomes particularly difficult in a rapidly changing environment when opportunities for influence arise unexpectedly.

Lessons learnt

  • Having a clear plan of advocacy activities, mapping out the audiences, the type of messages suitable for each and the source of these in advance, can help with creating key messages that are both appealing to global audiences but also still connected to the participatory process.
  • Creating key messages once the participatory process is finalised is ideal, but this needs to be balanced with the fast-paced global policy consultations, and an increasing demand for realtime data rather than ‘outdated’ inputs.
  • Policy influencing, particularly at the global level, is mostly about contribution: by linking with others who align with your proposals and gathering a critical mass behind them, a tangible contribution can be achieved. Aiming for attribution can be strenuous and ultimately lead to unacceptable compromises.

3. Navigating the complex and multi-layered power dynamics in global policy processes

Power dynamics in global policy processes take time and expertise to be understood and navigated. Organisations and movements should see themselves as enablers of marginalised people’s knowledge rather than speaking on their behalf.

Lesson learnt

  • Having members of staff and/or trusted intermediaries, whose role is to specifically navigate these complex power dynamics, is essential. Particularly, actors who can broker entry points to have one-to-one conversations with high level people; otherwise, presence in global fora can become a waste of resources, as messages shared in large events will inevitably get lost.

4. Considering pros and cons of bringing people in poverty to global policy spaces

It is important for networks, movements and organisations to weight the pros and cons of bringing people with direct lived experience to global policy spaces where there is a high risk of falling into tokenism. However, done with due care, the participation of marginalised people can result can be meaningful and transformative for them and for those of who are able to witness it.

Lessons learnt

  • Suitable conditions and resources must be in place for the meaningful participation of people living in poverty in global policy spaces; this includes investment in long-term preparation and constant accompaniment before and during the events.
  • Logistical challenges should not be underestimated; these range from having the right legal documents in place to apply for a passport to dealing with institutional discrimination. These hurdles can become real obstacles that decrease motivation and willingness to participate.

5. Communicating back global discussions and agreements to people on the ground

Organisations often face challenges to communicate back to people on the ground issues discussed and agreed at global level and how it speaks to their realities, i.e. the feedback loop is not closed. This can result in people feeling disenfranchised and that the effort and time put in participatory activities did not yield results.

Lessons learnt

  • Creating ways for closing the feedback loop between the global policy discussions and the communities is essential to keep accountable to people on the ground. To do so, resources should be set aside from the beginning in any project or programme.
  • Connecting global debates to community realities can be done on a regular basis so people progressively develop an awareness of the connections between the local and the global.


Both of the experiences in the chapter emerged as ways for shifting the power balance by putting at the centre of deliberations knowledge from marginalised groups to question what experts in research, policy and practice have to say about the causes and consequences of poverty and marginalisation. In this way, they recognise and share the unique contribution that comes from the lived experience of poverty.

The chapter also provides practical insights for other actors who want to advance further the recognition of the knowledge of people who experience poverty and marginalisation in global policy processes and fora, as a way of advancing human rights for all. It is only when ‘poor and marginalised people’ recognise themselves as political subjects with rights and the right to claim those rights, that their participation at any level of decision-making becomes truly meaningful.

Recommended reading

ATD Fourth World (2013). Guidelines for the Merging of Knowledge and Practices when

Working with People Living in Situations of Poverty and Social Exclusion

Bray, R., De Laat, M., Godinot, X., Ugarte, A. and Walker, R. (2019). The Hidden Dimensions of Poverty. Pierrelaye: International Movement ATD Fourth World.

Burns, D., Howard, J., López Franco, E., Shahrokh, T. and Wheeler, J. (2013). Work with

Us: How People and Organisations Can Catalyse Sustainable Change. Brighton: IDS.

Howard, J., López-Franco, E. and Wheeler, J. (2017). Using Knowledge from the Margins

to Meet the SDGs: The Real Data Revolution. Participate Policy Briefing 3. Brighton: IDS.

López Franco, E. and Shahrokh, T. (2013). Informing Post-2015 Development with

Ground Level Knowledge. IDS Policy Briefing 44. Brighton: IDS.

Participate (2012). What Do We Know About

How to Bring the Perspectives of People Living in Poverty into Global Policy-making? Brighton: IDS.

Participate (2013). Bringing Ground Level Experiences to the Post-2015 Global Development


Shahrokh, T. and Wheeler, J. (Eds.) (2014). Knowledge from the Margins: An Anthology

from a Global Network on Participatory Practice and Policy Influence. Brighton: IDS.