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The Centrality of Community Participation for All Community Development Work

October 2017

Tobias Roberts

For seasoned community development workers, most of us understand the “rhythm” of work that becomes seemingly inevitable as organizations grow, work expands, and stress mounts. The small grassroots organization that sprung from the dreams, aspirations, and ideals of a community of committed and visionary individuals eventually grows into a small institution employing dozens of people and managing several projects in different communities all at once.

To stay on top of the accumulating stack of reports and budgets while also continually applying for other grant opportunities to keep your organization financially afloat, the commitment to involving the communities where you worked in every step of the development process; from conceptualizing the project proposal to project management and execution, to monitoring and evaluation, eventually falls by the wayside. The time needed to conscientiously and purposefully include communities in the development process and adapt or change your own priorities and concerns based on the outcome of a truly participative development process is often the first thing sacrificed in the rat race of today´s community development industry.

It is worth stating at the outset, however, that development projects that don´t make a central effort to include thorough and sincere community participation almost always end up being paternalistic, assistance-based, and can often lead to the degradation of community coherence and autonomy.

This introductory module, then, will look at the central importance of community participation in all development projects and efforts. It will briefly consider and review some of the literature regarding participatory development and offer some essential definitions and concepts including the stages and different forms of participatory development.

A Critique of a Definition of Participatory Development

One of the most commonly accepted definitions of participatory development is as follows: “Participatory development seeks to give the poor a part in initiatives and projects that are designed by outside organizations in the hopes that these projects will be more sustainable and successful by involving local stakeholders in the projects goals.”

While this characterization of participatory development is certainly a far improvement over top-down project management methods wherein mostly Eurocentric development agendas were imposed on communities around the world, there are still several dilemmas that arise from this definition.

Firstly, we think that the end goal of any development effort should never be the success or supposed sustainability of the project itself, but rather an increase in the sovereignty and wellbeing of the community. In some cases, the community may determine that the predefined, written goals of a project are no longer useful or valuable to the community, and if we are loyal and committed to truly participatory development, we need to allow for that possibility.

Secondly, instead of simply giving the poor “a part” in development initiatives, we sustain that genuine participatory development seeks to allow the poor to determine their own visions and establish their own development priorities and agendas. The discrepancies between what is and is not participatory development can be further envisaged in the differing perspectives within the widely defined theme of participatory development to which we will now turn.

Perspectives Within the Participatory Development Agenda

The Institutional Perspective

Development organizations and institutions that want to include the contributions and views of communities and stakeholders in a project might use an institutionalized form of participatory development. The institutional perspective seeks the inputs of communities only to help achieve a pre-defined project goal that was decided by someone (usually an expert from the development world) external from the community itself.

A concise example of this perspective of development occurred recently in a small community in northern Guatemala. A large, internationally recognized NGO had secured a large amount of economic resources to implement HIV prevention projects. Wanting to involve as many different grassroots organizations as possible in this project, they convened a meeting to gather baseline information regarding the potential grassroots actors for project implementation. 

At the meeting, several community organizations asked if the only available funding was for the narrowly defined project focus of HIV prevention. Despite the insistence by many community leaders that, while HIV prevention was certainly important, there were other, more urgent needs, the large NGO informed the community that funding was only available for projects expressly dedicated to prevention of HIV. Of the dozen or so organizations present at this meeting, several walked out while others later confided to me that they stayed to apply for funding even though they had no experience in these types of project nor any real interest in working in this area.

The institutional perspective of participatory development, also known as the project-based perspective, follows from the “pecking order” inherent to the global development industry wherein development goals are determined by external actors and in which the success of the project is the main, focal point. Community participation is welcomed and actively sought only but only within the sometimes narrowly defined range of the project itself.

The Social Movement Perspective

In opposition to this institutional perspective, and more in line with our conception of what true participatory development entails, is the social movement perspective. From this perspective, participation is the main priority and a goal in itself. Allowing for autonomous forms of community organization to direct and guide the definition of project goals and the actual implementation of the project, or aiding communities in the process of developing norms and organizations for self-governance, is the overarching purpose that overrides any specific project objectives.

Full community participation allows communities to participate in processes that actively abolish hierarchies of power (sometimes from within the development industry). The outside NGO is not relegated to oblivion, but rather acts as an ally to self-governing community organizations that are empowered to make independent decisions regarding their own development. On a practical level, this may very well require a certain level of flexibility in project management to allow communities to define the direction of certain project.

In the Wayuu communities or northwestern Venezuela, a progressive NGO which maintained a steadfast loyalty to participatory development in the communities where they worked, recently faced a challenge that often comes from embracing the social movement perspective of participatory development. This NGO has secured multi-fear financing for a project aimed at helping Wayuu, pastoral communities improve their goat herds through introducing improved goat breeds.

The community had initially agreed to the project, but once the project started, the effects of a severe drought were punishing the community. The community leaders approached the NGO and asked if it was possible to change the fundamental goals of the project to help secure water through building wells and purchasing a desalinization machine. Though the focus of the community was now completely different from what the project initially entailed, through a long (and somewhat frustrating) process of debating with the donor agency, the NGO could allow the community to delineate its own course for development based on the felt needs, values, and vision of the community.

The Challenge of Participatory Development

It´s important to recognize from the outset that participatory development, especially from the social movement perspective, is never and easy and often complicates the smooth functioning of specific projects. Nonetheless, allowing for communities to exercise their (sometimes messy) autonomous forms of organization, to determine their own development priorities, and to be protagonists in shaping their future will always lead to more sustainable and consequential development efforts. In the rest of this course we will explore how those of us in the NGO world can learn the concepts, skills, and tools necessary to truly embrace the social movement perspective of participatory development.



In your own words, what are some of the challenges related to embracing a truly participatory development strategy for development work?


Do you agree that project goals should be open to changes and modification depending on the participation of communities?


How could you push for a participatory development agenda and methodology in a community with little observable forms of autonomous organization?

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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