Participatory Learning and Action (PLA) is one of the names now given to participatory processes of critical reflection, analysis and collective action by local people.
Many participatory methods (PMs) are used to support PLA and other similar processes. They are ways of learning that empower people to imagine a different world. Through facilitation that aims to bring about change, such processes focus on learning by all participants, valuing diversity, supporting group interactions and addressing the importance of context.
Learning approaches to development
Learning approaches to development emerged in response to the perceived failures of the bureaucratic blueprint approaches to development assistance which were dominant in the post-war era. They have contributed to the development and evolution of PMs, and to PLA’s focus on learning
Particularly important was the work of David Korten, who in 1980 put forward a ‘Learning Process Approach’ to development that embraces mistakes, plans with people, and links knowledge and action. This approach overlapped with organisational learning theory and practice, which has explored how and why learning happens in organisations, and how this learning can be used to improve their work.
Reflective practice is a collection of methods for both personal and social development. It supports practitioners and participants in participatory processes to undertake cycles of learning, reflection and action about their own experiences, with the aim of transforming themselves, their relationships within groups, organisations and social systems, and ultimately those systems themselves.
By building the self-awareness and creativity of individuals and strengthening their connections to their values, reflective practice contributes to both personal change and collective development.
If participatory methods are processes of learning and reflection that empower people to imagine a different world, what do we mean by empowerment?
Empowerment is defined and supported in many ways by different actors, reflecting different underlying understandings of power. But often, understandings of empowerment in participatory practice include the importance of making the space to envision a different world, and creating the possibility to change existing power relations in order to realise that vision.
Translating empowerment into social change?
If citizen participation and engagement can lead to empowerment, what are the outcomes in terms of social change?
According to findings from ten years of research on citizen participation and accountability, positive outcomes of citizen engagement include greater access to state services and resources, increased capacities for collective action, inclusion of new actors and issues in public spaces and a greater sense of empowerment and agency.
But the path from participation to empowerment to positive social change is not linear. The research also found that negative outcomes – ranging from tokenistic participation to violent state response – were nearly as common as positive ones.
Asking what makes the difference between the positive and the negative, researchers highlighted six key areas that shape the outcome of citizen engagement.