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Participation as empowerment?

April 26, 2011

So is the title of my latest essay. Three years after finishing my Masters I somehow found myself writing an essay as part of an online course on Participatory Monitoring and Development, run by PRIA, India (to be recommended for anyone with an interest in the area). Or more specifically; ‘3000 words of reflection on participatory monitoring and evaluation.’

Sitting down ‘to reflect’ and put my experiences of participatory monitoring and evaluation in context I found surprisingly hard however, due to what seems to be lack of context to draw upon. Participation in both project development and monitoring and evaluation seems to fall near the two extremes of being completely ignored, or hailed as a ‘solution’ to a project’s woes. ‘Reflecting’ on participatory monitoring and evaluation I have found very few examples of a realistic analysis of what participatory monitoring and evaluation can, and could be expected to achieve (suggestions welcome).

Chambers, in discussing the rise of participation in development, notes that it is in many ways marked by a series of acronyms: rapid rural appraisal (RRA), participatory rural appraisal (PRA), participatory learning and action (PLA). Just as its emergence was marked by a series of acronyms, now its existence seems to be marked by a series of claims. Participation as ‘empowerment’, participation as ‘ownership’, participation as ‘reflection’, participation as……

The frequency with which it is claimed participation ‘empowers’ local communities however risks making a simplistic assumption that external forces can, through the use of participatory techniques, give power to a homogeneous community, ignoring local social dynamics or agency.  From a donor point of view this risks creating ‘participation fatigue’, in which words such as ‘participation’ and ‘empowerment’ are mentioned so often within proposals and reports, without detailed context or explanations, that they become devalued. From a grassroots perspective the perpetration of the idea that ‘participation’ is innately good, and that ‘empowerment’ is the natural result of using participatory methods risks encouraging thoughtless implementation of such methods, undermining original objectives.

My fear is that above all, these associations are preventing a serious discussion on the advantages and disadvantages of aspects of participatory monitoring and evaluation in different contexts. Working on the pilot PEER project, as previously described, the aim was to test the potential of applying participatory methods to an organisation’s monitoring and evaluation system, and the benefits of this. As a result of using these methods, valuable information was obtained on the short-term impact of the project, which may not have otherwise been available. Similarly, the participants reported learning a lot about their village during the training, and finding conducting the interviews interesting and enjoyable. Two girls in particular noted that it gave them more confidence.

These were undoubted benefits of the project, yet to label the process simply as ‘participative’ and resulting in ‘empowerment’ would not be accurate. Although various participatory methods were used, participation amongst group members varied, with the older male members making the girls create the requested drawings for them. The method was a useful way to obtain information on sensitive subjects that would have been difficult as an outsider to access, yet it is important to note that the information only represents the views of a sub-set of the community. Once the final interviews had been conducted there was furthermore no process to analyse the information as a group, present it to the wider community, or feedback my final analysis.

Finally, although all participants reported learning something from the process, and several of having increased confidence, to say that the process ‘empowered’ them would simply be an external imposition of values upon their personal experience. To suggest that someone has become ‘empowered’ suggests that they had no agency in the first place, and that it is only thanks to external intervention that they have gained this power; I wonder how often as part of a participatory exercise the facilitator asks what ‘empowerment’ actually means to the participants.

What really then does PM&E have the potential to do? As I start the process of designing a participatory monitoring and evaluation system for an organisation in Mali, I hope to be able to post a few reflections on this process, and start chipping away at what seems to be a facade of ‘empowerment’ preventing a fuller analysis of this subject.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Anne Johnstone permalink
    June 11, 2011 7:38 pm

    Thank you for the information regarding the course, it is just what I have been looking for. Good luck with the rest of the project! Anne J

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