Workspaces:5. Participation


Healthlink WorldWide

This workspace is expected to create a virtual platform for those involved in the research How wide are the ripples, which explores how information generated through participatory processes is managed, and identify practical examples of systems and processes which facilitate its wider use.



Research Proposal

Most studies of participatory work focus either on the work itself or on how it connects to the specific development research or programme to which it is connected. But what role does participatory work have in influencing wider development knowledge and decision-making? What role could it, or should it have?

In most cases, participatory methodologies are used for a specific purpose: a researcher has an idea of what he or she wants to research; a development organisation has ideas about the sort of intervention they would be happy to support. However, by definition handing control of a discussion to a local community will alter the nature, focus and reference framework of the discussion. For example a participatory process set up by a group interested in supporting formal health services may in fact discover that concerns about water, nutrition, income or sexual relations feature more strongly in the local discourse – and are in fact more relevant to health outcomes – than formal health services. Hence quality participatory processes, even if they do result in outcomes close to the original purpose, almost invariably include a wider range of insight and opinion than their original ‘subject heading’ might suggest.

What happens to the outputs of participatory processes? It is IKM’s assertion that, in general, they are little used outside their original purpose. If they relate to some research, that research is published. If they relate to a project, they are used to help plan or evaluate the project and then filed away. They often will not be used for related work on the same theme or in neighbouring areas, even within the same development organisation which commissioned them, let alone more widely by the sector. The appearance is that of people investing considerable amounts of time and efforts into processes designed to give them a voice, the results of which are only very partially used. This seems to constitute a waste of very valuable resources. Whatever the fundamental merits or difficulties with participatory methodologies, the failure to make full and efficient use of information in which they have invested heavily is a genuine knowledge management issue, the study of which may make agencies think more seriously about their knowledge management processes.

Literature review and background issues

Based on the above analysis, or hypothesis, IKM have commissioned a reflective and participatory research process to investigate and illustrate some of the issues, and the attempts to overcome them. The research, facilitated by consultants Hannah Beardon and Kate Newman, is asking:

  • Is it true, in the experience of practitioners in international development organisations, that the information generated through participatory processes does not get fully or widely used?
  • If it does concur with experience, what are some of the obstacles and blocks which impede the wider use or acceptance of the information?
  • Most importantly, what are the channels, systems, procedures and support structures in your organisation which enable or facilitate the wider uptake of this type of information?

The process

As a first step, we prepared a background paper which summarises some of the key issues emerging from the literature review (available here: Media:How_wide_are_the_ripples_outline.doc‎). This was sent out to various contacts, and to the IKM, PELICAN and REMAPP lists, to gauge interest and identify potential case studies. The response was very good, with a lot of interest in the subject, which is deemed timely and relevant by a wide range of academics, NGO staff and consultants.

Reflection tools

We then developed some questions and tools which could be used by interested organisations and teams to facilitate reflections on the issues, and support the development of case studies focusing on constructive approaches to dealing with the issues. The tools, and some reflection on their use, are available here: Process.


The Case Studies:

From the replies received to the initial background and concept, we have been working with several organisations to develop case studies which can contribute to an overview of how the issues play out in international development organisations or partnerships, and how these organisations have dealt with them (in small or big ways!). So far, Healthlink Worldwide and ActionAid Knowledge Initiative, Plan International, Panos Oral Testimony Programme and Concern Worldwide have contributed their reflections to the process. Click on a link to read the summary.

The case studies are designed to illustrate not only some of the issues and problems faced in the management and use of this type of information, but some of the strategies, products and processes which facilitate or enable it. These may be at the international or institutional level, such as Plan's programme accountability and planning system, which creates strong links between community participatory processes and planning, evaluation and learning processes. In other cases it may be smaller, or even more informal or personal strategies which have enabled people to make the information they have access to taken more seriously and used more widely within a wider international organisation.

Initial findings - and emerging questions for further reflection

As the research develops, it seems that the emerging question is:

Can, or should, 'local voices' (in the laziest/ broadest sense!) systematically feed into the knowledge used within an international development organisation - for planning, policy making, evaluation, strategy development etc...  ? And how?

Elsebeth Elo and Simon Early from Plan International shared reflections from staff in the Philippines who are currently conducting a participatory situation analysis to feed into the development of a new country strategy. Locally, and nationally, there is awareness that the data generated through all the interviews and meetings and workshops held during this process could be a very valuable knowledge asset, and used in many ways beyond the original purpose. However, there is a real need for time and capacity (training and resources) in order to consolidate, analyse and store this information in a way to make it more widely useful. Or even to think through how it could be most useful, and for what. In Plan participation is central to the way things are done, but the international structure is such that there is little information flow from country to international levels beyond donor and sponsor reporting. So, the question remains -

What is, or could be, the value of information generated from community, local or national participatory processes to the wider, international organisation?

And if there is any, how should it be made available, accessible or influential - as data/ information? or as packaged, analysed and focused products - reports, stories and the like? Both ActionAid and Panos have shared ways in which they are attempting to package (for want of a better word - sorry!) marginalised and diverse perspectives on poverty and development issues - ActionAid's Knowledge Initiative is consciously attempting to feed this type of information into the organisation's own knowledge - the well of knowledge/ insights / assumptions (?) which informs its own decision and policy making. Panos are also tackling this issue. Siobhan Warrington, head of their oral testimony programme, explained how the organisation have long experience building capacity to develop oral testimonies and feeding these into the media at different levels, in order to strengthen the voice of marginalised people in debates and coverage of development issues. Recent work includes developing the testimonies of women living with HIV, and the oral testimony methodology has been integrated into the organisation's media toolkits. However, the focus of the oral testimonies is generally to diversify the media, strengthen the voices included in debates 'out there', and Siobhan and her colleagues are interested to explore how the same testimonies could systematically enrich the organisation's own knowledge and decision making processes. An issue to that we will be working more on with Panos and hopefully Plan Philippines will be:

Could the reflection tools and exercises developed for this research be used to support organisations to think through how (whether?) to make more use of, and take more seriously, local voices? If so, (how) do they need to be adapted, improved or expanded?

Another theme emerging is how wide the organisational implications of rights-based and bottom-up type approaches to development are. Plan mentioned this, as it has been making a transition to a more rights-based community development approach. This means that staff need to know how to listen to voices from the ground, analyse and react to these from a rights based perspective, which requires support and time. I also met Robyn Wilford of Concern Worldwide, who shared the experience of developing and piloting Listen First, a framework for downward accountability. The framework intends to enable communities to report on how well Concern are spending their money locally, the appropriateness, value for money, satisfaction etc. However, accountability and listening also requires changes in the way the organisation works - to respond to (and take seriously) the feedback given by the communities. This implies a certain relationship or dynamic between the organisation, partners and community groups, which is generally quite a transformation from the typical NGO-community relationship. In both the conversations with Plan, Healthlink and Concern, the issue of organisational/ institutional support for these processes was highlighted. This raises the questions:

How) can you encourage the kind of culture and systems which respect and take seriously 'local voices' without direct and complete buy-in or support from senior managers? (and how can you avoid discussion of these issues being an ineffective talking shop of like-minded people sharing similar problems!) What difference does a partnership model (such as Healthlink's) make to any proposed systems or products for this purpose?

A support community:

Another larger and more diverse group of people and organisations have expressed an interest in following and contributing insights to the research, although without contributing specific case studies. We expect to pull out issues emerging from the development of the case studies as we go along, and hope that this group might contribute actively to this process with comments and suggestions. We also hope to engage people with specific questions, conversations etc. as appropriate. If you wish to be an active part of the group (or thought you were and I forgot to put you on the list), please do contact us. So far the group includes:

  • PLA Notes
  • WWF UK
  • Community Development Resource Association (CDRA) South AFrica
  • Knowledge Transfer Africa
  • Earth Institute/ Millennium Villages
  • Concern Worldwide
  • ETC Foundation/ Prolinnova
  • Insights Participatory Video
  • Aids Alliance
  • South Africa Reflect Network
  • Living Lens participatory video
  • Pathways to Empowerment
  • Sightsavers International
  • Oxfam
  • IDS Sussex University - participation and power team
  • various individual consultants (Irene Guijt, Antonella Mancini, Ros David) and academics (Silvio Waisbord, Ricardo Ramirez)
  • PELICAN/ REMAPP networks

  The research report

Hannah and Kate have written a report of the initial research and analysis of the case studies, available here File:IKMEmergent Working Paper 7 - How wide are the ripples-final.pdf.

The workshop:

Based on the report, and the case studies, we held a two-day workshop in London in March 2010 to explore some of the emerging questions further, based on experiences of participants who were a mix of people working in INGOs and smaller organisations and as consultants. The workshop began with an exploration of enablers and blocks to bottom-up information flows within large international organisations and partnerships. We were then able to share and critically reflect on our experiences and practice, to understand better some of the practical and ethical issues involved in enabling information flows. The workshop report covers the issues raised, and also some of the case studies explored, and the critical questions emerging. These questions form the start of what could be a framework for interrogating our own practice in the light of the kinds of relationships and power relations we think development should support and create.