Application and Misuse of Participation

Community participation theory is applied to a variety of situations, although not always appropriately. Michener (1998)[1] suggested that participation has become a panacea. Chamala (1995:6)[2] stated that ‘community participation has been the hallmark of many successful development projects around the world’. Michener (1998) however posited that the term is widely applied in academic and project documents without regard for implementation realities. Even within the project cycle there has been varying applications of participation. Estrella and Gaventa (1997) identified that there has been a growing emphasis on participation at the ‘front-end’ of development projects in appraisal and implementation and now there is recognition of the importance of participatory processes in monitoring and evaluation of development and other community-based initiatives.

Biggs and Smith (1998)[3] have identified that practitioners tend to have a preoccupation with specific participatory methods but pay little attention to how they are applied, by whom and in what circumstances. There are many methods for involving the community, no one method is necessarily better than another, each has potential advantages and disadvantages depending on the situation (Coakes 1999)[4] . Any participatory technique needs the ‘right occasion’ to be used responsibly and effectively – it is certainly not a situation of one size fits all (Kelly 1995)[5] . Kelly also considers different interpretations of, and strategies for participation are important in different situations (Kelly 2001)[6] . A detailed analysis of historical cases suggests that the development of both technologies and methodologies is highly dependent on local context (Biggs and Smith 1998). Tikare, Youssef et al (2001)[7] supported this view stating that participation is different in different contexts, projects and for different purposes.

As identified above, participation has increased in popularity to the point where it has become pervasive in development initiatives (at least in rhetoric). Chambers (1995) has identified three main ways in which ‘participation’ is used.

  • As a cosmetic label to make a project appear good. It could be a requirement or a ‘will be done’ or ‘has been done’.
  • As a co-opting practice to mobilize local labor and reduce costs.
  • As an empowering process which enables local people to do their own analysis, to take command, to gain in confidence and to make their own decisions.

The prevalence of Chambers’ first point has led some authors to pessimistic views of the role of participation. For example, Cleaver (1999:597)[8] stated that ‘participation has become an act of faith in development; something we believe in and rarely question’. Kelly (2001) identified that participation is often romanticized as a cure-all so that anything participatory is assumed to be ‘good’ and ‘empowering’. Cleaver (1999) agreed, stating that participation is intrinsically a ‘good thing’. He goes on to suggest that many practitioners focus on ‘getting the techniques right’ and that is the principal way of ensuring success and that considerations of power and politics on the whole should be avoided as divisive and obstructive (Cleaver 1999). Biggs (1995) suggested that a techniques-based approach to participation fails to adequately address issues of power, control of information and other resources, and provides an inadequate framework for developing a critical reflective understanding of the deeper determinants of technical and social change. This is supported by Kelly and Van Vlaenderen (1995:373)[9] who stated that ‘the use of the concept of participation in development sometimes obscures real power differentials between ‘change agents’ and those on the ‘receiving end’ of the development relationship, and sometimes serves as a pleasing disguise for manipulation’.

Midgley, Hall et al (1986:viii)[10] identifies that ‘community participation is not a simple matter of faith, but a complex issue involving different ideological beliefs, political forces, administrative arrangement, and varying perceptions of what is possible’. Pretty and Scoones (1995) have identified that there is a tendency for those who use the term participation to adopt a moral high ground, implying that any form of participation is good. Because of this inherent goodness of the notion of participation, it has become a substitute for the structural reforms needed for social change (Botchway 2001)[11] . Thus there is a tendency for the focus on participation to become narrow and ignore many of the contextual issues which remain out of the control, or influence, of the beneficiaries of the development project (Botchway 2001).

Chambers’ second point is widely supported in the literature and often included in typologies of participation (see section on typologies). Holcombe (1995:15)[12] succinctly outlines the situation stating that ‘development agencies verbalize their commitment to participation but less often do they state the steps necessary to structure operations that allow participation beyond that of voluntary labor in projects designed by outsiders’. Pretty and Scoones (1995) supported the view that this often occurs in development projects and Cernea (1993)[13] stated that real participation in rural development programs is more myth than reality. White (1981:3)[14] stated that the ‘involvement of the population in the physical work of implementing a project can hardly be considered as community participation unless there is a least some degree of sharing of decisions with the community’.

Eyben and Ladbury (1995)[15] have identified four main reasons why participation does not occur in practice: economic, political, professionalism and the nature of the product. Economic reasons for non-participation involve a simple cost benefit calculation. The benefits must be greater than the costs of participating. The authors’ political argument for non-participation is that participation of all or some of the beneficiaries may not be in the political interests of other actors in the project. ‘Participation is more frustrating than it is advantageous for those who are powerless’ (Eyben and Ladbury 1995) page 194. Professionalism is put forward as a reason for non-participation because the professional training and culture of some specialists mitigates against an emphasis on participation – ‘professional knows best’. The final argument is that the degree to which participation can be achieved will depend on the nature of the product, in particular, whether its delivery brings people together in a way that they can, or must, develop common interests. (Eyben and Ladbury 1995). Kolavalli and Kerr (2002)[16] argued that most successful examples of participation come from NGOs and that government projects generally employ more superficial participation because staff lack the skills and incentives. Despite pervasive requirements for participation at all levels in natural resource decision making, there is little detailed, strategic guidance available to help managers understand when and how to involve the public (Lawrence and Deagen 2001)[17] .

‘Despite significant claims to the contrary, there is little evidence of the long-term effectiveness of participation in materially improving the conditions of the most vulnerable people, or as a strategy for social change’ (Cleaver 1999) page 597. Cleaver (1999) suggested that there is some evidence of efficiency but little regarding empowerment and sustainability, and appropriateness is often reliant on evidence of the rightness of the approach and process rather than outcomes. Other issues include whether many rural people want to participate more comprehensively in development projects or whether they are satisfied by an outside organization functioning in ‘traditional’ ways (Hussein 1995)[18] . These arguments have led Hussein to posit that the effectiveness of participatory approaches may be different in practice than in theory (Hussein 1995). Many other authors consider that participation is important and can provide results, and this will be discussed in a later section.


  1. Michener VJ (1998) The participatory approach: Contradiction and co-option in Burkina Faso. World Development 26, 2105-2118. ^
  2. Chamala S (1995) Overview of participative action approaches in Australian land and water management. In ‘Participative approaches for Landcare’. (Ed. K Keith) pp. 5-42. (Australian Academic Press: Brisbane) ^
  3. Biggs S, Smith G (1998) Beyond methodologies: Coalition-building for participatory technology development. World Development 26, 239-248. ^
  4. Coakes S (1999) ‘Consulting communities: a policy maker’s guide to consulting with communities and interest groups.’ (Dept. of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry – Australia: Canberra) ^
  5. Kelly A (1995) A mud map for landcarers: the technique of participatory research. In ‘Participative Approaches for Landcare: Perspectives, Policies, Programs’. (Ed. K Keith). (Australian Academic Press: Brisbane) ^
  6. Kelly D (2001) ‘Community participation in rangeland management : a report for the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation.’ (RIRDC: Barton ACT) ^
  7. Tikare S, Youssef D, Donnelly-Roark P, Shah P (2001) ‘Organising participatory processes in the PRSP.’ ^
  8. Cleaver F (1999) Paradoxes of participation: questioning participatory approaches to development. Journal of International Development 11, 597-612. ^
  9. Kelly K, Van Vlaenderen H (1995) Evaluating participation processes in community development. Evaluation and Program Planning 18, 371-383. ^
  10. Midgley J, Hall A, Hardiman M, Narine D (Eds) (1986) ‘Community participation, social development and the state.’ (Methuen: London ; New York) ^
  11. Botchway K (2001) Paradox of Empowerment: Reflections on a Case Study from Northern Ghana. World Development 29, 135-153. ^
  12. Holcombe S (1995) ‘Managing to Empower: The Grameen Bank’s Experience of Poverty Alleviation.’ (Zed Books Ltd: New Jersey) ^
  13. Cernea MM (1993) The sociologist’s approach to sustainable development. Finance & Development 30, 11-15. ^
  14. White A (1981) ‘Community participation in water and sanitation : concepts, strategies and methods.’ (IRC: The Hague) ^
  15. Eyben R, Ladbury S (1995) Popular participation in aid-assisted projects: why more in theory than practice? In ‘Power and Participatory Development’. (Ed. S Wright). (Intermediate Technology Publications: London) ^
  16. Kolavalli S, Kerr J (2002) Scaling up participatory watershed development in India. Development & Change 33, 213-235. ^
  17. Lawrence RL, Deagen DA (2001) Choosing public participation methods for natural resources: A context specific guide. Society and Natural Resources 14, 857-872. ^
  18. Hussein K (1995) Participatory ideology and practical development: agency control in a fisheries project, Kariba Lake. In ‘Power and Participatory Development’. (Ed. S Wright). (Intermediate Technology Publications: London) ^

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