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: