By Oliver Carrick

“No. We’re not talking about that now. Would anyone else like to participate?”

So spoke the President of a local NGO to the monthly meeting of project beneficiaries.

Participation has so many forms that the word alone can seem meaningless. But let’s distinguish between two key types of participation: Participation as a means of performing project work, and participation as an end goal of the project itself.

Many of us who have worked in local development have been privileged enough to see the effects of the empowering initiatives which have people’s participation as an end goal. In the best-case scenario locals and beneficiaries engage in a cycle of learning by doing which improves their confidence and their skills to participate again in ever more complex tasks. The end goal is building local capacities, knowledge and experience by participation in development projects and initiatives.

But all too often participation has become a box checking exercise: it is seen a necessary element to development work but not afforded the care and attention it deserves. When it is used as a means of managing development projects, people’s participation is used to provide consensus, contribute time and resources and validate pre-defined initiatives. In such scenarios the empowering benefits described above are lost or neglected in favour of getting the job done.

Fostering real participation requires skill and dedication. Here are some tips for anyone who wants to facilitate truly empowering participation:

1. Create an inclusive process
Don’t exclude people from participation. Operate an ‘everyone is welcome’ policy. Don’t close the door to people as the process progresses. Make sure you communicate effectively with your target audience.
 
2. Give importance to participatory processes
Remember that participants are being generous with their time. Place a high importance on this time, as well as on achieving meaningful results. When participatory processes work, they can produce astonishing results. Set the bar high and aim to achieve great things through people’s participation.   
 
3. Encourage participation throughout the entire project
Too often participation is used to either sanction a predetermined action or for acceptance of project results. Don’t fall into this trap. Make sure participants are able to influence and contribute to the project. Start participation from the outset of the project with beneficiary or local involvement in diagnostics and planning. Subsequently, create time and space for further participation during the remainder of the project. 
 
4. Take your time
Good participation does not happen overnight. One of the barriers to true participation is the time involved in the process itself. Don’t let this deter you, but make sure you are scheduling enough time for participatory activities. Don’t make the mistake of forgoing true participation just for the sake of making efficiency gains related to the project schedule.
 
5. Use PMD Pro!
A common problem when NGOs work with beneficiaries and local people is that participants are taught to navigate the very specific project management processes of a particular NGO. This can mean that, when the project finishes, the beneficiary knowledge created is not transferable to other initiatives. By making sure your efforts are in line with PMD Pro you will engage people in a repeatable process. The next time they participate they will be able to transfer their skills and knowledge.
 
The next time you wish to create a truly empowering participatory experience remember to follow these steps and you’ll find the process is extremely rewarding for all concerned.
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