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This article is part of our free participatory development course for local nonprofits


The Toolbox - Tools for Participatory Development

October 2017

Tobias Roberts

As we have repeatedly stated throughout this course, the way in which we go about designing and implementing participatory development strategies and projects is just as important as the project itself. Many NGO´s and development professionals tend to put too much focus on defining and later achieving certain goals and objectives, never understanding that how these were achieved (or not achieved) is ultimately more important than the goals themselves.

Too often many of us try to bolden our professional standing as development “experts” by padding reports with supposed achievements that are intended to impress and pacify funding agencies. Results without community empowerment, however, are futile.

One of the most important strategies for project implementation is using popular education methods to stimulate sincere community participation in the development process. This module will continue to look at several other "tools" and popular education methodologies that can be used to foster community participation in development projects and processes. While the specific “tool” you use should always be tailored to the particular context in which you are working, these examples of participatory development strategies should help stimulate your own imagination to adapt the tools to the place where you are working.

Drawing Your Community

Much has been written in recent years about the domination and imperialistic tendencies of the written word. Western, Euro-centric societies have structured their academic and learning systems around the central importance of writing and reading, while much of the rest of the world, especially indigenous and peasant communities, continue to learn through oral and visual traditions.

When trying to help communities come up with a list of problems that they are facing, simply writing “child malnutrition”, “lack of potable water” or other common problems on a chalkboard might not mean anything to the community itself.

The simple exercise of having a community come together to “draw” the community problems they are facing will most likely offer much more insight into the problems that communities perceive. For example, while a community member might say that “child malnutrition” is a serious problem, when drawing the community, they might show that the plots of land that families work are too small to allow for adequate nutrition. The same drawing might go on to depict unjust land tenency issues where an absentee landowner has huge amounts of land that lay fallow while the rest of the community members work small plots in a semi-feudal arrangement.

This exercise of having communities draw their realities, then, might allow for more profound issues to surface. When leading this exercise, it is important to challenge community members to be as descriptive as possible in their artistic description of their community. Alternatively, this exercise could be broken into several different moments. You could begin by simply asking the community to draw their community as a mapping exercises (how many families, what resources exist, etc.). Next, you could ask communities to add to these drawings through   identifying things that might have been left out in the original drawings (where does the community get water from, where do the people have their farming lands, etc.).

In northern Guatemala, several small, rural communities together with a NGO used the tool of community drawing to come up with a whole development plan. They began by drawing what they though their community would look like in the near future if the community didn´t come together to confront the problems they faced. Next, they drew up what their communities would like if the community did collectively unite to face the challenges in front of them.

In every community, the first drawing was colored in shades of yellow depicting drought, loss of forest and farmland, starving animals, and families wrecked by forced migration. The second pictures were all colored in shades of deep green portraying lush fields irrigated by streams that sprung from the forested mountains, healthy animals, and happy families.

From these two contrasting drawings of what the future could be like, a development process was designed to help community members find ways to make their community a “green” place instead of a “yellow” place.

The Clock Exercise

Gender issues are something that every development project should take into consideration. Whether you are working on an agriculture project, health project or anything in between, helping to empower women and helping men to understand their participation in patriarchal structures that are unjust to women is essential to stimulating true community participation. Women make up at least 50% of every community and without their active participation your project will be left without the voice and contribution of an essential part of every community.

One simple exercise to help both men and women in a community analyze and discuss the power differences in gender relations is through the clock exercise. Take a clock with you to a community meeting, and divide the group into men and women. Set the clock at a certain time (say 5:00 AM) and ask what a man is typically doing at that time and what women are doing.

Keep track of what the community members identify, perhaps dividing into two columns for men´s and women´s activities during different hours of the day. While every community is different, many times it is obvious that women wake up earlier and work longer hours than men. It is also common that the majority of women´s tasks are in the house leaving them with little time to participate in community activities. Once you have gone through the hours of the day, it´s important to help the community to identify the lack of equal opportunities afforded to women to participate in community activities.

The Tree Diagram Exercise

Identifying problems is often only the first part of the equation. Once a community has settled on a problem that they want to confront, it is important to find ways to dive deeper into a thorough analysis of that problem.

The Tree Diagram Exercise is a simple way to help communities “dissect” a problem that they have identified. The facilitator draws a tree and the trunk of the tree is labeled as the problem. Through brainstorming and debate, the community then identifies the causes of that problem (listed as the roots of the tree) and the real or potential consequences of that problem (listed as the branches, leaves, or fruits).

This simple, debate-provoking exercise can help communities to understand in more depth the problem that they are facing and thus come up with innovative solutions. For example, if child malnutrition is a problem the community faces, a simple answer might be to find NGO´s offering free foodstuffs for the at-risk members of the community. Through the tree diagram exercise, however, the community might identify that one of the main causes of child malnutrition is the lack of irrigation infrastructure that would allow the communities to extend the growing season and thus produce more crops. Instead of simply asking for donations (which often leads to further dependence and a lack of community autonomy), communities might be able to identify innovative solutions that tackle the roots of the problem.


Why do you think it is important to come up with culturally-appropriate popular education tools to help stimulate community participation?


How could you adapt the community drawing exercise for a specific project you are working on?


What other popular methodologies or tools can you think of?

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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