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Participatory Development as a Tool for Empowerment and Advocacy

October 2017

Tobias Roberts

We have repeated over and over throughout this course that the process of designing, planning for, implementing and evaluating a development project is much more important than simply the goals, objectives, and expected products and outcomes from the project itself. By going out of your way to involve people and communities in the development projects that will are intended to positively affect their lives and livelihoods, not only will your project have a better chance of being “successful”, but you will also be working towards several unexpected positive outcomes.

This module will explore how participatory development is as much an end in itself as it is a tool to achieve some sort of vague development objective. Specifically, we will look here at how fostering or allowing for participatory development can help communities develop a political voice, defend their rights, and advocate for their own autonomy and sovereignty.

The Failure that was a Success

About a decade ago, I was working with a project in several rural communities about 3 hours outside of San Salvador, El Salvador. The project was focused on the economic empowerment of women through helping women to organize cooperatives and small, collective businesses. When coming up with the project plan, we hired an “expert” in economic development to help us understand how much women needed to earn on a monthly basis in order to attain a certain level of economic independence within the family structure. After that initial study, we set up all of our indicators of progress for that project around the supposed earnings we wanted the women to make.

After three years of setting up bakeries, restaurants, tilapia raising tanks, and a natural shampoo laboratory, we brought back in the same consultant who found that we had “missed the mark” by almost half. The women, according to the parameters of our project, had not achieved the economic empowerment we had imagined and were still (hypothetically) subjugated to the same injustices of the machista culture so prevalent in their communities. In short, our project was a failure.

Once the project officially ended, however, those of us who had spent so much time in the communities organized an outing with the 100 or so women that had participated in the project. We killed a couple of goats and went to a local river for a barbecue and picnic. During that informal celebration, the women asked for a moment to share with us their feelings after several years of hard work. One woman told us that the experience of the project was the first time in her life where a man (one of the promoters of the project) had treated her as an equal. Another woman boasted that for the first time in her life she had enough money of her own to buy herself a new pair of shoes that she liked. Other women told us that because of the project they had developed the confidence to travel into the city by themselves without the “oversight” of their husbands, fathers or sons.

 

Several years later, I went back to the communities where the project had taken place. One of the woman leaders in the project was a leading member of the local government while another woman had moved into the town to start up her own small restaurant. Several of the women who had worked in their project were involved in community organizations and other NGO-related projects. According to the parameters of our project, the three years had been a failure. According to the daily reality that these women lived, the project had been a resounding success.

The Problem with Project Goals

One of the main problems with development projects is that too often they are limited and constrained by time. Project funding is only secured for a three year period and donors want to see measurable results in that time period. The problem, of course, is that the reality of communities doesn´t correspond to the strictly set time tables of NGO´s. Communities move at their own pace and set their own priorities. Several of the women in our project in El Salvador eventually did obtain the magic number set forth by our hired consultant, though it might have taken them 13 years instead of 3 years. Other women left the cooperatives all together but used the experience and knowledge gained from the project for other purposes and intentions that they considered more important for their own lives.  However, none of this would have been possible had we not opened up spaces for women to actively determine the direction that the project was going to take.

Allowing communities to take the protagonist role in every step of a project allows for a greater flexibility in defining whether a project is successful or not. Though it´s always good to have some sort of indicators of progress and long term project goals (and donor agencies will inevitably require these), it´s much more important to allow a certain elasticity in the project so that community members who take an active, participative, and ownership role in the project can redefine what success might mean.

The Essence of Empowerment

Allowing for true participation means that as a community development worker, your ultimate loyalty should lie with the communities and not with any project written on paper. By involving people and communities in sincere participatory development and accepting their prerogative to decide the direct that a project will take, you are helping communities to find a path to empowerment and develop their own political voice. One of the lingering effects of colonialism, is that many poor and rural communities simply accept that “others” have a better idea for what is best for them.

Whether it be the mayor, the congressman, the business leader, or the NGO development expert, too many people simply allow others to decide what is best for them and their community. By prioritizing the importance of participation and allowing communities to assume ownership of the projects executed in their communities, you are contributing to a decolonization of the reality of impoverished communities. Participation leads to empowerment; empowerment leads to a greater community autonomy; and a greater community autonomy ultimately leads to the development of a political voice in determining their own futures.

Questions for Reflection

What strategies do you think could be used to challenge donor agencies to allow for a greater flexibility in indicators of progress and other project goals?

Why do you think that certain “unexpected outcomes” of projects are often more important than the pre-established goals and objectives?

Do you have any experiences related to how participatory development can lead to greater community empowerment?

 

About the Author

Tobias has worked with a variety of community development organizations throughout Central America during the past 11 years. He currently works as a freelance consultant and writer while also managing his family´s agroecology farm in El Salvador and participating in a community eco-tourism cooperative.

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