Seeing the world through a different lens


Danny Burns2 photo miniDanny Burns

The Secretary-General of the United Nations was expected to publish his report to the General Assembly on the MDGs and the post-2015 development agenda on 12 August. How much of his insight will have been informed by listening to the voices of the poorest and most marginalised?  Participate partners have been critically reflecting  on the participatory methods they have employed in attempts to shift power in policy making.  One such approach, the Participate Ground Level Panels (GLPs) created a participative space for people living in poverty and marginalisation to deliberate what is needed from the post-2015 global policy process.

 In 2013, Participate partners hosted three deliberative meetings between those living poverty and those with political authority through Ground Level Panels (GLPs). The idea for a GLP aimed to provide a mirror to the deliberations of the United Nations (UN) High Level Panel (HLP) but from people who lived in extreme poverty or marginalisation.

The Ground Level Panels took place in Egypt, Brazil, Uganda and India. Each panel comprised a group of 10-14 people with diverse and intersecting identities including urban slum dwellers; disabled people; sexual minorities; people living in conflict and natural disaster-affected areas; people living in geographically isolated communities; nomadic and indigenous people; older people; internally displaced people; and young people. Each panel created relationships, shared experiences, connected the local level to the national and international development contexts and provided a critical review and reality check on the five transformative shifts as outlined by the UN High Level Panel.

The GLPs saw the world through a different lens to the HLP. The people in the Panels understood the dynamics of change facing people living in poverty and this gave them the ability to say if these policies were meaningful. While economic growth is an unchallenged assumption in the HLP for the Brazilian GLP it was seen as part of the ‘death plan’. For the Brazilians the critical issue is not ‘poverty’ per se, but ‘misery’ and ‘dignity’. While the HLP focused on service provision, the Indian Panel’s desired goals largely focus on social norms, behaviour 
and discrimination.

There were some common themes which emerged in all of the Panels. People want to feel that they have meaningful control over the influences that impact their lives. In all cases structures for equal participation were highlighted as foundational. In almost all of the Panels there was a recurring theme of ‘self management’. People don’t want aid. They want the means to generate and sustain their own livelihoods. So if we are serious about moving ‘beyond aid’ in the new development agenda then empowerment must become the priority.

One thing that struck me was the difference in composition of the HLP and the GLPs. The HLP was made up of people largely from an elite political class. There was the odd member of royalty and a few interesting academics thrown in, but by and large they were high ranking politicians. There was very little diversity in the group, and the interests were narrow. The GLPs on the other hand were highly diverse. Slum dwellers sitting side by side with pastoralists, transgender people, and people living in refugee camps … It is easy to stereotype people as ‘poor’and see them as a huge sprawling undifferentiated ‘category’, but they bring far more diversity than people who hold power.

What defines the success of a Ground Level Panel? Is it the response of the national government or within the UN process, or is it also influence on policy at the local levels? For Natalie Newell who led the GLP in Uganda on behalf of Restless Development, the experience demonstrated the importance of the local level. 
”It is important to be clear with all involved about what can realistically be achieved from the GLP process. This includes considering the strengths and weaknesses of this approach, and what it can add to the policy debate. From the perspectives of those that participated in the Uganda process, the changes at the community level and for them as people were an important success.”

Listen to Nava and Richard’s reflections on the Uganda Ground Level Panel.

Read more about the Ground Level Panels in Participate’s latest publication ‘Knowledge from the Margins: An anthology from a global network on participatory practice and policy influence.’

Danny Burns is a Co-Director of the Participate initiative and Team Leader for the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS. He can be found on Twitter at: @dannyburns2

Read other posts from Danny Burns

Participatory Action Learning on Gender Mainstreaming in Kenya – Reflections from the Field


By Patricia Njoroge

A little while ago, Robert Chambers blogged about a conference ‘Engaging with Crisis-affected People in Humanitarian Action’ that he attended. Robert reflected on the change from top-down measurement towards accountability to the people he has witnesses over. Patricia Njoroge, who met Robert at the conference got in touch afterwards to share about a Participatory Action Learning project which illustrates the difference a participatory approach can make to people affected by crisis.

In 2013 the World Food Programme (WFP) and IDS launched a Participatory Action Learning (PAL) project ‘Innovations from the Field: Gender Mainstreaming from the Ground Up’. The project is funded by USAID and is being piloted in five countries: Kenya, Malawi, Lesotho, Senegal and Guatemala. The project’s objectives are to learn and sharewhat already works to mainstream gender equality in WFP field programmes. And to apply the lessons to strengthen gender-sensitive practice within WFP.

In Kenya WFP staff identified four themes they wanted to research through the PAL process. In December 2013 the ‘Deepening Understanding of Gender Relations’ and the ‘Communicating with the Field’ PAL Teams undertook a field study at the coastal region, using participatory tools to engage with communities involved in WFP Kenya’s Cash for Assets (CFA) programme. As well as talking about a range of benefits associated with the programme, several programmatic issues were raised by the affected communities. The best we could do was to record these on small hand held video recorders – this had a great impact! On returning from the field these issues were shared with management and steps were initiated to resolve them.participatory action learning 1

Providing feedback to the communities
In March 2014, two members of the PAL teams returned to the study communities and provided feedback on actions taken. Community members very much appreciated that action had been taken on the issues they had raised and also that the fact that the Team was able to visit them again and provide them with feedback. Often researchers collect community members’ views but not all are able to return and give feedback on actions taken with the information provided. The team showed those interviewed a video developed with their recording/contributions. The joy of having a team listening to them, and taking their concern to management, action taken and then going back to give feedback was immense. They said they appreciated that the organisation was now listening to them. They were happy to see themselves on film, with one person commenting about one of the women shown in the videos ‘she is now known across Kenya!’

As part of the analysis of findings, the PAL teams reflected on the use of different participatory tools during the study.

Time Line (12 hour clock)
This tool helped to highlight how men and women spend their time in a day. Where there was a member in the Focus Group able to write, the team guided the discussion and the members would discuss freely and write on the manila papers provided. This was an ice breaker, often causing laughter as participants reflected on how men and women spent their time differently, as well as creating space for discussion on how WFP can engage more men in project activities to reduce the burden on women.

At the end of the session, the list of what men do and women do was distinctive with men having a shorter list while the women’s list was far longer. The men all acknowledged that women do a lot more than men in a normal day and are the first to wake up and last to go to sleep.

When I used this method I found it is very engaging, there’s a relaxed atmosphere and participants don’t focus on themselves but rather discuss and agree on a common general activity to write down. Also, as a start I tell them I want to learn from them (they have the power to teach me about their lives) – all in all a very rewarding and satisfying experience.

Gender Participation in Productive Activities
With the help of this tool participants mapped five main daily activities and through proportional piling they showed how many men and how many women participate in each activity. This was a very participatory exercise as it involved drawing signs of men and women on a manila paper to represent proportions of engagement in various productive activities. It elicited some interesting, and sometimes conflicting, results. For example, in one community a group of women concluded that for four out of the listed five activities (CFA, farming on own land, paid labour, charcoal burning for sale) women represented eight out of ten people doing the activity, while for the remaining activity – drinking boko,(the local brew) – men rated ten out of ten. This resulted in a hilarious moment as one woman tried to point out that there are a few men who look for paid work. Yet in a discussion with young and older men, while they agreed that men’s participation in CFA activities was low at a mere 1 out 10 men, they said they participated more than women in casual labour and equally in charcoal burning. However, they did acknowledge that women’s contribution to income generation on top of their participation in CFA activities meant that in general women were doing more than men.Community members participating in workshop

Problem Census in Communication Tool
The tool helped to clarify how affected communities usually communicate between each other, how they receive information about the CFA project and how information is relayed through different sources and means. The tool also helps identify the preferred/ideal information-flow, including what channels to use in order to ensure communities receive information about projects effectively. This information is not always easy to capture through just verbal focus group discussions, neither is it easy to make people understand what information you are trying to obtain from them. Hence, using this tool to engage people helps both the participants to understand the information they should try to give as well as it assists the facilitator in her/his task to guide the conversation and map out the issues in an easier way.

Benefits of using participatory tools in the project
To sum up, these participatory tools helped in engaging with community members, creating an open friendly learning atmosphere with them educating the team and clearly bringing out issues for discussion. The participatory tools bring the participants closer to the subject and elicit rich discussions on the subject matter. It also holds the participants’ attention and the moderator has less fear of losing their audience.

In the course of the discussion, interrelated problems are discussed and causality factors identified. This provides a good opportunity for those involved to identify measures which can redress the weak points. By using the tools the beneficiaries felt they were in control of the process, telling their story in their own words.

Patricia Njoroge is a Gender and Protection Advocate with the World Food Programme (WFP) in Kenya

Read Robert Chambers’ blog post:

The Quiet Revolution of Participatory Numbers…


Jane StevensJane_Stevens200

The very mention of statistics used to leave my mouth slightly dry and dredge up memories of unfathomable, confused hours in long-ago college lecture halls willing it all to be over. Mention participatory statistics however and the whole picture changes! Last week I heard more about this innovative approach to generating knowledge using numbers, at an IDS seminar given by Jeremy Holland, editor of the recently published book Who Counts: the power of participatory statistics.

It turns out that this quiet marriage of the qualitative and quantitative has been gently blossoming since the early 1990s, but is only now being considered by the mainstreams of research, monitoring and evaluation. Participatory research has long been established as a credible process that challenges ‘top-down’ approaches to knowledge generation.  By repositioning ownership and control it respects local knowledge and facilitates local ownership whilst also enabling collective reflection and action. The generation of participatory statistics has increasingly been woven into these processes to create what Jeremy describes as a win-win outcome for development. He emphasised how empowering it is for local people to engage in the generation of quantitative data which has traditionally been highly extractive and externally controlled. At the same time this way of working produces reliable, cost-effective statistics rooted in reality for aid and development agencies and donors.

In addition it underpins and validates qualitative insights. We heard an example whereby an over-enthusiastic researcher in a community, looking for an exaggerated outcome to reinforce their own preferences, was kept grounded by the accompanying participatory statistical data.  In this way participatory statistics can ‘rein us in’, and complement, qualify and add to the validity and credibility of qualitative research.

So, what participatory tools can we use to generate statistics?
Many existing methodologies lend themselves to this process: participatory mapping and modelling; proportional piling; card writing, marking, sorting, ordering and positioning; matrix ranking and scoring; pairwise ranking; linkage diagramming and pocket voting. All these, and more, can be combined to provide valuable ways of counting, calculating, measuring, estimating and comparing. Together they can provide rich sets of data, based on local knowledge, community-owned and accessible by all.

And unsurprisingly, where processes are genuine, there are other benefits. The actual process can be as important as the outcomes. In the seminar Jeremy told us how police and youth had come together in Kingston, Jamaica, to analyse the frequency and cyclical nature of violence in their ghetto communities. The process of working together on participatory statistics engendered a greater respect of each other and the shared understanding of positions and issues. Power issues are challenged too, as the question of who counts, who analyses, who interprets and whose narrative matters is addressed.

Work with and on participatory statistics certainly needs to be nuanced: methodologies need to be contextual, and adapt and evolve to suit circumstances. Importantly this way of working offers a world where those in power are more in touch with grass roots realities via locally generated statistics. And, from the context in which I work, one particular benefit stood out in the seminar discussions – participatory statistics can be used to measure qualitative change. This allows aid agencies and donors to embed reflective learning practice into accountability programmes whilst coming up with accurate and credible statistical data. Donor’s goalposts have shifted in recent years and they are increasingly demanding reporting against quantifiable achievements. Could participatory statistics provide a way to satisfy them, whilst not compromising on the complexity of processes and ideals that lead to the transformative social change we all wish to see?

Watch the video-recording of the seminar:

Jane Stevens works as communications officer in the Participation, Power and Social Chang Team at IDS. This blog draws on notes taken at the Seminar and the introduction of the book Who Counts.

Read a previous blog piece by Jane Stevens:

Launching Participatory Methods website: From spare room to the world


Jane StevensJane_Stevens200

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 blogsPPSC Resource Centre small 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 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.

Two Cheers for (Development) Anarchism


Katy OswaldKaty Oswald image

I went on holiday last week and it rained, a lot, so I had plenty of time to read. One of the books I read was ‘Two Cheers for Anarchism’, James Scott’s latest book, and it really got me thinking. First, it resonates strongly with the work the Power, Participation and Social Change team at IDS has been doing on Unruly Politics, and second, if we are to take Scott’s argument seriously, it has huge ramifications for the ‘development project’.

So what is Scott saying? He isn’t saying we should get rid of all governments and become anarchists, but he is saying that if we see like an anarchist, or adopt an ‘anarchist’s squint’ as he calls it, we will see the history of social change differently. We will see that change happens through messy political contestation and perpetual uncertainty, it is not organised, it doesn’t happen through institutions, and it often occurs through unruly acts that do not have clearly articulated demands attached to them. He acknowledges that such acts can lead to an increase in state repression, and therefore do not automatically lead to progressive social change, but his basic premise is that ‘extra-institutional protest is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for major progressive structural change’. And many of these protests will constitute illegal acts, violence and, by definition, be uncontrollable.

So what does that mean for those of us, like the researchers here at IDS, who try to not only understand social change, but somehow to influence it too? Does it mean we should all quit our jobs and go out and start a riot? Maybe, but even then we can’t be sure that it won’t mean we end up in prison and the government introduces more draconian laws against protest. But, as a researcher, it got me thinking about why Scott’s argument makes me, and many others, feel uncomfortable. Intellectually, I get it, I agree with it. But practically, and personally, I find it difficult. I find myself returning to Lenin’s question, ‘but what is to be done?’ I want to be able to know that I can act, and organise with others, and that this will make a difference, it will contribute to social change. And this made me think back to another book I read not long ago, ‘The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work’, by Alain de Botton. He talks about the idea of ‘meaningful work’, where someone can make an imaginative connection between what they have done and their impact on others. Of course, what counts as meaningful will depend upon the values of that person and the society they live in, but my values tell me that meaningful work for me is one where I can ‘make a difference’.

The challenge Scott poses us, is that this desire to know whether or not one has ‘made a difference’, is precisely what takes the all important politics out of social change. Our desire to ‘objectively’ measure whether or not a development project has been successful, for example, deprives us of the important political debate about what assumptions underlie the supposedly objective definition of ‘success’. Our desire for clear, uncontested narratives, that explain how social change happens, make us impose causation where perhaps it didn’t exist, and blind us to the disorderly, unplanned, and unpredictable acts that disrupt order and drive progressive social change.

Katy Oswald is a Research Officer at the Participation, Power and Social Change team at IDS. She can be found on Twitter: @ogmog

UN High Level Panel engages with the Participate initiative in Monrovia, Liberia


Catherine SetchellCatherine_Setchell200

This post previously appeared on 12 February 2013 on the Participate blog. Subscribe to their blog for regular updates on the Participate initiative.

This month the UN High Level Panel (HLP) on the Post-2015 Development agenda met in Monrovia. At the meeting the Participate initiative  , based at the Participation, Power and Social Change team at IDS, ran a 90-minute interactive workshop session with members of the HLP and their advisors, to share a synthesis of early research findings that would inform the post-2015 debates. Panel members explored key recommendations from those who are living in poverty and who are most marginalised.

Panel members engaged with the perspectives of those in poverty via:

  • An early findings synthesis report of participatory research programmes from over 57  countries;
  • A short film about an indigenous people’s housing project in Chiapas, Mexico
  • Small group discussions based on case studies from the research.

These case studies generated lively debate amongst panel members and their advisors as they tackled questions posed by Participate, around the implications of the key messages for international development and national economic transformation, and how they could translate these into principles and guidelines that could be built explicitly into the High Level Panel reports that will inform a post-2015 framework for development.

The case studies provided illustrative examples for the panel members to discuss the complex realities of people living in poverty and their experiences of development assistance. They looked at some of the reasons for why programmes have failed in the past, and what key lessons can be learnt from these mistakes, so that a new development framework reflects the real needs of those living in extreme poverty and marginalisation.


A local resident featured in the Chiapas film explains why a state housing project failed

Key messages resonated with some of the panel members’ and advisors’ own understanding of the complexity of poverty and the failings of some development interventions. Members of Participate’s Participatory Research Group (PRG) – James Kofi Annan, Challenging Heights, Mwangi Waituru, The Seed Institute, and Masiiwa Rusare, African Monitor – reinforced these messages with first-hand stories.

Discussions centred around the message that development programmes are too often top-down interventions, based on simple cause-effect assumptions that fail to respond to the everyday realities of those in poverty, and only serve to reinforce long-term dependencies and an increased sense of powerlessness. They recognised that extreme poverty is characterised by difficult trade-offs and impossible choices that make the benefits of mainstream development inaccessible for the very poor.  The panel reflected on the need to engage much more with power, social norms, customs, attitudes and behaviours, and that building relationships and greater participation of local communities, would contribute to more effective and sustainable development.

The High Level Panel debates of Thursday and Friday followed Participate’s workshop session.  Participate asked the HLP to take some of the main lessons and reflections from the session with them as they debated a post-2015 framework for international development and economic transformation. Participate will continue activities to bring the voices of those most marginalised to the policy debates.

Catherine Setchell is a Research Communications Manager for the Participate initiative, based at the Participation, Power and Social Change team at IDS

Read other recent blog posts from Participate:

Post-2015 civil society consultations: our shared perspectives


Danny Burns2 photo miniDanny Burns

This post previously appeared on 29 January 2013 on the Participate blog. Subscribe to their blog for regular updates on the Participate initiative.

Yesterday saw the opening of activities related to the High Level Panel (HLP) meeting in Monrovia.  Civil society organisations (CSOs) from across the world engaged in discussions about what to present to the High Level Panel at the official CSO Outreach meeting on Wednesday. We were interested to see whether the issues that were being generated through civil society representation, resonated with the early messages that are coming out of our participatory research. These are some of the things that struck us:

Development does not reach the poorest and most vulnerable

Many civil society contributions stressed the fact that the most marginalised aren’t being effectively engaged and their perspectives need to be taken into account – which of course is the core purpose of Participate. The disability groups in particular were concerned that available statistical data was not disaggregated to show disability. This is one of their key demands of the post-2015 framework, and was echoed by others, who pointed out the inequalities that are hidden in statistical averages.  One speaker from Bangladesh explained that whilst education enrolment has extended to the vast majority of children in Bangladesh, this has not been the case for disabled children, where only 10 per cent of disabled children have access to education.

This theme of inequalities was recurrent in the debate with civil society groups and speaks to one of the key findings from Participate’s first analysis of participatory research – that even development that has had demonstrable positive impacts on society as a whole, frequently fails to reach the most excluded and those living in greatest poverty. We will talk more about the research findings in our blog on Thursday, when the High Level Panel will have explored the implications.

Civil society groups come together ahead of the High Level Panel meeting in Monrovia

Constraints of consultation

One of the civil society representatives spoke about how they are engaged with the formal consultations on the post-2015 framework. She recounted how “rigid” the questionnaire was and that participants were unable to express the qualitative issues that they wanted to talk about. This resonates with underlying Participate principles that genuine enquiry needs to start with people telling their stories and articulating their issues in their own words, without being constrained by pre-constructed questions.

Rights-based approach

A large number of speakers stressed the importance of a rights-based approach to the post-MDG framework. This is clearly strongly supported across civil society and may be one of the major points of tension with established institutions and governments, who lean towards quantitative measures of growth and development. The Beyond2015 campaign also stresses the importance of a rights-based approach.

Commonality of causes

One of the paradoxes of both this meeting and the wider process is that the debate is structured around different constituencies, for example, children and youth, people living with disabilities, women, older people, etc. – with the NGOs that are advocating on their behalf, fighting for space to get their voices heard in the MDG process.  At the same time they recognise the commonality of their causes. Participants gave strong examples of the interconnection of constituencies and issues. One delegate talked about how one of the great burdens for older people is childcare, particularly in African contexts where for various reasons, grandparents are primary child carers, and so outcomes for children are closely connected to the wellbeing of older people.

Finally and inevitably there was a great deal of discussion about prioritisation of issues and goals over one another.

Danny Burns is a Co-Director of the Participate initiative and Team Leader for the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.

Read other recent blog posts from Participate: