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Participatory Processes

What are participatory processes? The main purpose, and the power, of any participatory approach, is reflection on the material generated to identify what has real meaning, and thus to ensure that the information that comes out of discussions results in real action.
Photograph of participatory resource mapping in the community of San Silvestre, Bolivia
Photograph of participatory resource mapping in the community of San Silvestre, Bolivia. Photo via Flickr /UNEP-WCMC (Marshall et al., 2006)

What are participatory processes?

“Participation is a way of viewing the world and acting in it. It is about a commitment to help create the conditions which lead to significant empowerment of those who at present have little control over the forces that condition their lives” – Marjorie Mbilinyi and Rakesh Rayani, Research and Social Action with the Grassroots

In a traditional ‘rationalist’ approach, data collection for science has been viewed as the collection of facts about the processes of interest, and the biases of the researchers – or the policy makers who used the outputs of the research – were rarely questioned. In a participatory process, when run well, the information that emerges through the process is constantly checked for accuracy. Information is checked back with the people who developed it to clarify if that is really what they meant to say and cross-checked with others to see if they agree. Facilitators of the process also reflect on their own biases to ensure that they are not being influential. Through completing such a process it is likely that the feelings and understanding of all the key players, are better represented than would be likely if only the most influential or most powerful groups had been consulted.

In participatory processes there is a deliberate focus on action. Why should we involve people in discussions about key areas of their lives, and raise expectations that things might change, if we are not actually going to do anything to improve their situation? Participation or consultation ‘fatigue’ is caused by lack of action resulting from discussions rather than the discussions themselves. Why should people spend precious time describing their experience and explaining their ideas if nothing actually changes as a result?

If, however, change does start to happen through a participatory process the effect can be very powerful. When this happens there is potential for long lasting relationships between the various groups involved that outlive the life of the project through building ‘social capital’. Successful interventions can thus increase the likelihood of future successful interventions as people make connections and become more confident about their ability to address them and know who might support the process.

A process of research where action taken is reviewed and reflected on, learning is extracted and new plans of action are made and implemented can build capacity simply by showing that the solutions to problems do not require external experts. All the information and expertise is already present and can be unearthed through dialogue between interested groups. Participatory approaches are sometimes viewed simplistically as fun, visual ways to generate interesting information. Unfortunately, many participatory processes stop at this point, with a large amount of unstructured information that may be taken away from those who generated it and conclusions drawn from it that are never checked back due to lack of time or resources.

The main purpose, and the power, of any participatory approach, returning again to Kolb’s cycle of learning, is reflection on the material generated to identify what has real meaning. Thus, the people who undertake this reflection and analysis stage have a great deal of influence over what results from a process. By taking away the information generated and analysing it remotely it is easy to misunderstand meanings whereas undertaking the process of reflection and analysis within the community and with the people that produced the original material not only massively increases the quality of the data, ideas and solutions that come out of the process but also enables those involved to gain confidence in their ability to represent their views to others. Guijt and Braden (1999) – discussing the importance of reflection in participatory processes – give the main benefits as:

  • Uncovering new information (through making connections with data already identified)
  • Limiting biases (cross checking that what is recorded is a faithful representation of peoples actual views)
  • Building up a clear picture of the situation that people are largely happy with and ironing out contradictory views or perceptions
  • Avoiding a superficial action plan and knee-jerk reactions, looking deeper into the causes of the problems
  • Facilitating action that has a broad ownership, taking account of many perspectives

Rowley (2006) takes this further, illustrating how the process of reflection and analysis can be viewed as a funnel with different tools being used to identify important issues, prioritise them, explore the key problems in greater detail and finally identify solutions to address these problems. At each stage the level of detail increases.

If you stop the process of analysis at the initial, brainstorming stage, it is inevitable that the outputs will be superficial. By delving deeper into the causes of the problems and understanding more about why these issues are important and the reasons behind it, it becomes possible to identify realistic and relevant solutions. At each stage judgements are made about which pieces of information are the most important to providing a clear picture of what is happening and thus identifying satisfactory solutions.

Facilitators of the process ensure that the process is recorded and findings presented accurately and that the objectives are revisited regularly to check that the process is still on track (although it may be appropriate to rewrite them if new information resulting from the process makes them irrelevant).


A UK-Based (but working worldwide) group of practitioners called the Participatory Practitioners for Change (PPfC) developed core principles that they believed defined good participatory practice, for their own activities.

They are as follows:

  1. People are experts in their lives, others learn from them.
  2. Participatory work tries to include everyone relevant to the activity. Participants try to find those who need to be involved and to include voices and ideas that may not normally be heard.
  3. In good participatory work people take ownership of the process (using their analysis, their logic and their words) that is developed together with others from many different backgrounds.
  4. Participatory work follows cycles of learning- each step helping to form the next step.
  5. Participatory work requires people to be self-reflective. Practitioners continuously examine and develop their practice.
  6. Participatory work is rigorous and ethical. Participants continuously check their work and design ways of testing the process and the findings.
  7. Participatory work should lead to action.
  8. Good participatory work should recognise the role of power in relationships and seeks to lead to empowerment of those disadvantaged by the present situation.

The PPfC has also developed some Guidelines for Commissioners that clearly explains what using a participatory process might add and what using a participatory approach might mean in term of resources (time, skills, cost).

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