Definition of Participation

Participation is a very broad concept (Lane 1995)[1] that means different things to different people (Hussein 1995[2] ; Kelly 2001[3] ). The term is often used by people with different ideological positions, who give it very different meanings (Nelson and Wright 1995)[4] . Pelling (1998)[5] identified that participation is an ideologically contested concept which produces a range of competing meanings and applications. The result is a variety of views on how participation is defined, whom it is expected to involve, what it is expected to achieve, and how it is to be brought about (Agarwal 2001)[6] .

The vagueness and lack of conceptualisation of the concepts of participation and empowerment cause confusion over expectations and over the evaluation of outcomes of the participatory development process (Lyons, Smuts et al. 2001)[7] . A wide suite of definitions of participation have been identified from the literature and will be identified and discussed below.

One commonality to all definitions is the role of community in decision-making. As such participation is often referred to as community participation. Community can be defined as a range of factors including geographic location, norms, and interests. Many definitions of participation hint at the participation continuum (see typologies section) and the various levels of community involvement. Some definitions focus on other aspects such as the involvement of all stakeholders, at all stages of development; on outcomes; on empowerment; and on the important role of disadvantaged groups particularly women and the poor. Ndekha, Hansen et al (2003)[8] and Chamala (1995)[9] provided good holistic starting points for defining participation:

‘a social process whereby specific groups with shared needs living in a defined geographic area actively pursue identification of their needs, take decisions and establish mechanisms to meet these needs’ cited in (Ndekha, Hansen et al. 2003) page 326[9] .

‘in true participation, even at the highest level, power and control are shared by the participants … similarly, scientists, managers, politicians, financial institutions and farmers collectively are also involved in controlling (rather guiding) these projects’ (Chamala 1995) page 7[9] .

White’s (1981)[10] , Eyben and Ladbury’s (1995)[11] , and Devas and Grant’s (2003)[12] definitions emphasize the basic requirement of involvement in decision-making:

‘involvement of the local population actively in the decision-making concerning development projects or in their implementation’ (White 1981) page 3.

‘a process whereby those with a legitimate interest in a project influence decisions which affect them’ (Eyben and Ladbury 1995) page 192.

‘citizen participation is about the ways in which citizens exercise influence and have control over the decisions that affect them’ (Devas and Grant 2003) page 309.

Tikare, Youssef et al (2001)[13] expand the scope of decision-making in their definition: ‘Participation is the process through which stakeholders influence and share control over priority setting, policy-making, resource allocations and access to public goods and services’ (Tikare, Youssef et al. 2001) page 3.

Lane (1995)[13] provided a similar definition adding the importance of involvement at different stages of action:

‘meaningful participation of individuals and groups at all stages of the development process including that of initiating action’ (Lane 1995) page 183.

‘the only way to ensure that individuals have the power to attack the root causes of underdevelopment is to enable them to influence all decisions, at all levels, that affect their lives’ (Lane 1995) page 191.

Paul (1987)[14] included details of the motivation behind participatory methodologies while Price and Mylius (1991)[15] detailed not only the importance of participation in all stages of the intervention but also the level of participation in their definition:

‘In the context of development, community participation refers to an active process whereby beneficiaries influence the direction and execution of development projects rather than merely receive a share of project profits’ (Paul 1987 cited in (Bamberger 1988) page 5).

‘Participation means the involvement of intended beneficiaries in the planning, design, implementation and subsequent maintenance of the development intervention. It means that people are mobilized, manage resources and make decisions that affect their lives’ (Price and Mylius 1991) page 6.

Agarwal (2001)[15] included insight into the diverse ranges of participation in his definition:
‘At its narrowest, participation is defined in terms of nominal membership and at it broadest in terms of a dynamic interactive process in which all stakeholders, even the most disadvantaged, have a voice and influence in decision-making’ (Agarwal 2001).

The World Bank (1995) identified the importance of participation of disadvantaged groups in their definition.

‘the [genuine] participation of the poor and others who are disadvantaged in terms of wealth, education, ethnicity or gender’ cited in (Warner 1997) page 414[16] .

Ndekha, Hansen et al (2003)[16] supported this, identifying that the overall objective of community participation is twofold in that it is a mechanism to empower and facilitate an improvement in the lives of the world’s poor people. Kelly (2001:15)[16] did not clearly identify the importance of community decision-making but does identify the crucial role of power in decision-making:

‘participation is a range of processes through which local communities are involved and play a role in issues which affect them. The extent to which power is shared in decision-making varies according to type of participation’.

Numerous other definitions of participation can be found in the literature for example (Bamberger 1988[17] ; van Asselt Marjolein and Rijkens-Klomp 2002[18] ; Warner 1997[18] ). The key finding for Fals-Borda (1991) is that participation is a real and endogenous experience of and for the common people, that reduces the differences between experts and community and between mental and manual labor. O’Neill and Colebatch (1989) identified that participation is real when participants are able to determine their outcomes (cited in (Sarkissian, Walsh et al. 1997) page 17)[19] .

The most common misinterpretation occurs when people fail to understand the difference between participation and consultation (Coakes 1999)[20] . Sarkissian, Walsh et al (1997: 17)[20] made the distinction: ‘community participation indicates an active role for the community, leading to significant control over decision’ while consultation is taken to mean ‘sharing of information but not necessarily power’. Often the terms participation and consultation are used interchangeably, particularly in Australia (Sarkissian, Walsh et al. 1997)[20] . Coakes (1999:1)[20] provided an example when she used the term consultation inappropriately stating that ‘consultation is about involving the public in decision making in a structured and rigorous way’.

It is clear that there is confusion surrounding the definition of participation and that what is needed is a more baggage-free, or more easily understood term or terminology. Terminology that would replace participation is ‘collective action’ or ‘collective governance’, as these terms emphasize the power relationships and the need for equity which defines genuine participation in the development literature (Kelly 2001)[20] . ‘Good governance’ is another possibility although it is considered to be too broad a term to be of immediate operational relevance in its totality. ‘Participatory governance’ adopts a narrower perspective that is more useful in development situations (Schneider 1999)[21] .


  1. Lane J (1995) Non-governmental organisations and participatory development: the concept in theory versus the concept in practice. In ‘Power and Participatory Development’. (Ed. S Wright). (Intermediate Technology Publications: London) ^
  2. 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) ^
  3. Kelly D (2001) ‘Community participation in rangeland management : a report for the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation.’ (RIRDC: Barton ACT) ^
  4. Nelson N, Wright S (1995) Participation and power. In ‘Power and participatory development’. (Ed. S Wright). (Intermediate Technology Publications: London) ^
  5. Pelling M (1998) Participation, social capital and vulnerability to urban flooding in Guyana. Journal of International Development 10, 469-486. ^
  6. Agarwal B (2001) Participatory Exclusions, Community Forestry, and Gender: An Analysis for South Asia and a Conceptual Framework. World Development 29, 1623-1648. ^
  7. Lyons M, Smuts C, Stephens A (2001) Participation, empowerment and sustainability: (how) do the links work? Urban Studies 38, 1233-1251. ^
  8. Ndekha A, Hansen EH, Molgaard P, Woelk G, Furu P (2003) Community participation as an interactive learning process: experiences from a schistosomiasis control project in Zimbabwe. Acta Tropica 85, 325-338. ^
  9. 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) ^
  10. White A (1981) ‘Community participation in water and sanitation : concepts, strategies and methods.’ (IRC: The Hague) ^
  11. 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) ^
  12. Devas N, Grant U (2003) Local government decision-making – citizen participation and local accountability: some evidence from Kenya and Uganda. Public Administration and Development 23, 307-316. ^
  13. Tikare S, Youssef D, Donnelly-Roark P, Shah P (2001) ‘Organising participatory processes in the PRSP.’ ^
  14. Paul S (1987) ‘Community Participation in Development Projects.’ World Bank, Discussion Paper No. 6, Washington, D.C. ^
  15. Price S, Mylius B (1991) ‘Social Analysis and Community Participation.’ ^
  16. Warner M (1997) ‘Consensus’ participation: an example for protected areas planning. Public Administration and Development 17, 413-432. ^
  17. Bamberger M (1988) ‘The role of community participation in development planning and project management : report of a Workshop on Community Participation, held in Washington, D.C., September 22-25, 1986.’ (World Bank,: Washington, D.C.) ^
  18. van Asselt Marjolein BA, Rijkens-Klomp N (2002) A look in the mirror: reflection on participation in Integrated Assessment from a methodological perspective. Global Environmental Change 12, 167-184. ^
  19. Sarkissian W, Walsh K, Cook A (1997) ‘Community participation in practice : a practical guide.’ (Institute for Science and Technology Policy, Murdoch University: Murdoch, W.A.) ^
  20. 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) ^
  21. Schneider H (1999) Participatory governance for poverty reduction. Journal of International Development 11, 521-534. ^

Leave a Reply

Support this website

This website is provided free of charge. If you wish to support the ongoing operation of this resource please make a small contribution securely via PayPal.

Recent Tweets

Recent Comments