Development practitioners recognise the importance of participatory methods to implement projects. In practice, however, the application of these methods tells a different story.
Participatory approaches include the active involvement and empowerment of stakeholders. Development practitioners use participatory approaches for tasks such as needs assessment, monitoring and evaluation, workshop facilitation etc. The reason why the participatory approach is important is because it respects local knowledge and experience. This translates to interventions that reflect local realities, often leading to better supported and longer lasting social change. Indeed, development practitioners recognise the importance of participatory methods to implement projects. In practice, however, the application of these methods tells a different story.
The Limitation and Barriers of Grassroots Activities
I will briefly discuss three cases that highlight the limitations of the participatory approach and barriers encountered when implementing its methods. First, governments regulate grassroots activities for International Non-governmental Organisations (INGOs). For example, during my work in Sudan as an INGO staffer, the contents of an interview with the local residents had to be reviewed by the Sudanese Government. The government drastically altered the contents of the interview and withdrew suggestions we made. Thus, government censorship made it difficult to hear the voices of the people. Despite the trend of community participation, especially for marginalised regions, like the Millennium Villages Project, at the policy level it is hard to achieve the inclusion of marginalised people due to crackdowns by the government on the ground.
Secondly, in some cases, development practitioners require translators because they cannot speak a local language. In my experience working in Zambia, whose population speaks over 72 languages, I could not communicate with the local people directly. In this case, hiring temporary translators may have produced a knowledge bias and it was hard to facilitate participatory workshops unless the translators have knowledge of the participatory methods.
Lastly, the monsoon or rainy seasons is a convenient excuse for development practitioners. They tend to avoid this season to visit project sites because the (often unpaved) roads are muddy and a field visit is laborious and hard to schedule. Robert Chambers (2008) points out in Revolutions in Development Inquiry that there are seven biases and that the seasonal bias is one of the most overlooked. Indeed, most INGO activities have deadlines to complete their projects and report to their donors, which leads to an operational efficiency rather than an attentive implementation of their projects. Thus, INGOs overlook 'missing periods' which are crucial to their implementation strategies. For instance, the monsoon and the end of the financial year, which is inconvenient for them, are missing from the collected data and the analysis.
How can we do better?
How can we overcome these difficulties on the ground, and can we eradicate these barriers and biases? I present two possible measures. First, local NGOs can be potent partners, facilitating and reinforcing the connection between the locals and development practitioners. The staff of local NGOs often have the same background as the locals, so they are better equipped to gauge local contexts and more often than not they form solid relationships with the local people. As mentioned before, development practitioners hire temporary translators if they cannot understand local languages. However, if development practitioners collaborate with local NGOs, they need not hire separate translators and thus are more likely to prevent misconceptions because the staffs of local NGOs generally have the knowledge and the experience of field work with local people. In addition, Save the Children reveals that working with local NGOs in the Global South is an effective way to increase their ownership and foster sustainable development.
Second, development practitioners themselves should be aware that it is impossible to completely eradicate biases. Although this might seem paradoxical, it is a reasonable precaution to prevent the furtherance of the misconception that they can. For example, if development practitioners cannot monitor a project site during the monsoon season due to muddy roads, they should consider what happens in ‘missing periods’, otherwise they may misreport the situation. Ignorance of local situations is the most powerful threat, since it may lead to the implementation of development projects lacking consideration and understanding of the thoughts and needs of the locals.
In conclusion, even though it is challenging to completely eliminate all pre-existing biases, we should endeavour to minimise them and find a better way to create good relationships between locals and development practitioners. Creating collaborations with local NGOs as catalysts in order to practice participatory approaches effectively is a step in the right direction.