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Barriers to Participation

This publication outlines the main obstacles that may be encountered when trying to plan and implement participatory processes.
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Obstacles to participation

There is no doubt that stakeholder approaches based on genuine participation can be very effective and useful but participation is generally not quick and easy. Although the broad principles are clear the participatory approach encompasses a variety of ideas and attitudes. The methods used are diverse in type and it is important to learn which to use in a given situation in order to elicit the information you need. Participatory processes will always involve problems and these will be specific to each particular process.

The list below gives some obstacles that may be encountered when trying to plan and implement participatory processes:

  • Participatory processes that are lip-service and not genuine participation.

‘Participation has become a politically attractive slogan’ Rahnema, 1995. People being asked to participate in a process may be led to believe that those asking the questions are sensitive to their needs. The rationale for participation is difficult to argue against. Of course, individuals and groups with a demonstrable interest in an issue should be included in decisions concerning that issue. However, many organisations call their work ‘participatory’ in the hope of gaining favour and access to resources, but have not changed their decision-making approach in any way.

  • Exclusion of key groups from the dialogue

This may be:

  • Inadvertent: through failure to elicit sufficient information.
  • Deliberate: certain stakeholders may not be identified through the normal procedures as those identifying the stakeholders (the other stakeholders) may be unwilling to mention their name (e.g. through fear of intimidation, perceived threats to business etc.). If a key group is excluded they will be unlikely to accept the outcome of the decision and the process will fail. It is thus vital to have a good understanding of the social dynamics in each context.
  • Engaging technical and non-technical communities in a common dialogue

Scientists and other technical specialists have their own language and lay people can feel excluded by this. Scientists may, in turn, feel frustrated by what they perceive to be the loss of precision of their information when it is translated into lay terms. Tools are needed to appropriately integrate the more qualitative information with the quantitative. When there are multiple agendas or the issues are particularly emotive the amount of value based information inevitably increases reducing the weight of the scientific information.

  • Lack of planning and forethought

Participatory processes often suffer from a lack of planning and forethought. As much attention needs to be paid to the development and management of the participatory processes as to the collection and analysis of scientific data. This may be time-consuming but the time spent this way is worth it in order to achieve appropriate and high-quality data.

  • Lack of clarity in setting the objectives

It is vital that you are clear about your intentions and what you hope to gain out of the process as well as aware of what is realistically possible given the time available and resource constraints. Once you are clear about what you want from the process it will be possible to start to identify the main stakeholders.

  • Poor facilitation

The role of the facilitator is extremely important. Even the best-planned approaches can fail if the facilitator fails to enable everyone to contribute. One of the features of the participatory approach is that it is flexible and can be quickly adapted to different contexts in order to fit the needs of the participants and elicit the most appropriate information. However, this flexibility does not fit well in many situations or organisations where there may only be a set amount of time available and decisions need to be taken quickly.

Related Pages

Introduction to Participation

Benefits of Participation

Participation Methods

Power and Participation

Facilitation and Participation

Stakeholder Analysis

Social Learning

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