As world leaders meet in Moscow this week for the Civil 20 Summit – a process in which dialogue with, and consideration of, civil society is seen to be paramount to effective ways forward – participatory approaches are well and truly on the global agenda. But how they are acted out in practice is hugely variable. We hope that our new Participatory Methods website, launched today, will provide much needed support to practitioners, development workers, activists and concerned individuals using participatory approaches to identify and implement alternative approaches to social change.
Drawing on nearly twenty years of experience using participatory methods for development, the site, managed by the Participation, Power and Social Change Team (PPSC) at IDS, provides easy access to information about participatory methods along with activities, resources, events, stories and reflections. It has taken over a year to come to fruition, a process that has been exciting – and also had its challenges!
However the story of this site really starts not one but probably 20 years ago in a house in deepest Sussex in the UK. In his spare room Robert Chambers started keeping anything and everything he came across to do with participatory approaches to development. One room simply wasn’t enough and the books and documents started to take over the whole house. Eventually the need to maintain domestic harmony led to Robert’s collection of resources being re-housed here at the Institute of Development Studies, in the Participation Reading Room. Here they were catalogued and an information service was set up. When I first worked in this room 14 years ago we were mainly responding to handwritten letters from people around the world asking for photocopied information on participatory methods which we bundled up in big parcels and sent by airmail. We also had the luxury of lots of conversations with copious interesting visitors who came to peruse the documents.
Over the ensuing years the resources increased, the Reading Room expanded and morphed into the Resource Centre and technology leapt from letters to emails to blogs and tweets. Life has become much more electronic, but we still receive visitors and enjoy our conversations. Our efforts with resources over the years have been a small reflection of the ongoing global revolution in participatory approaches and methods. During this time they have evolved, deepened, spread, provoked excitement, been challenged and abused, and developed their own inter-related web of activity and innovation across the world. The work of our team, and many partners, was and is embedded in these activities. So, supported by the Swiss Agency for Cooperation and Development (SDC), we decided to create a website that would share both thinking and resources, and be useful to all those wishing to understand and use participatory methods.
The first hurdle was how on earth to organise the wealth of information bubbling out of the research, learning and ideas of our team and others? Many – at times fascinating – debates were had on the multiple ways we could approach this. Finally we went for a practical solution based on the tasks and activities that readers might want to undertake. So from the home page there are five doors into the site which range from planning, learning, researching and analysing through to communicating and facilitating. Other pages include a background on the founding principles of these methods, current news, and a glossary of the myriad of terms readers might encounter. And importantly, now far removed from its spare room origins, the resources section gives access to details of the 5,000 plus documents, books and other items in our Resource Centre.
We would dearly like this website to be useful and to reflect the ideas and thinking of a wide range of citizens involved in this way of working and living. The site is currently only in its infancy: we will be adding more content and resources, and we welcome feedback, comments and contributions. Please get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or via the comments boxes on the site itself. Should you find yourself in Sussex, the Resource Centre is open Monday to Friday and visitors are warmly welcomed (please just drop us a line to let us know you are coming).
I am indebted to all the people that have helped get us this far: GreenNet, the site designers, for their endless patience, hard work and great ideas; Peter Mason who has gently steered us through the data conversion swamp; and all my wonderful colleagues for content and encouragement. Not only do I now know what wireframes and breadcrumbs are, I feel we have a great collaborative space to learn, innovate and share the participatory work and ways of approaching life that we and others are involved with. Thank you.
Jane Stevens works as communications officer in the PPSC team at IDS.