Participation: Reality or the Promised Land? A View from South Sudan

In response to an earlier post on, “Sorry but it’s not YOUR project,” a reader offered the following guest post. Andebo Pax Pascal shares his experience as an aid worker in Africa’s newest country.


My friend Tom is working for “Aid Agency X”, which has prided itself in working ‘with’ and not ‘for’ the people, a sign that it is ready to involve the community in its development projects. However, recent decisions about one of its projects became a true test for its policy of participation.

Agency X requested only a few community leaders, as representatives of the community, to sign a contract for the work to start. The few signatories did, however, offer suggestions to make some adjustments on the building to cater for a possible increase in the numbers of patients in the future. These suggestions were rejected.

In constructing the community health unit, Agency X refused to use the local inputs that the community could provide. The justification? It would be difficult in accounting to the donors.

During the handover ceremony of the health unit, Agency X’s managing director expounded on the various projects and activities the organization has implemented. He went on to emphasize the need for the community to learn to be self-reliant. The community was asked to sustain all the activities the organization had been conducting in the area since the agency would be closing its activities in the space of a year.

Unfortunately, this seems to be a typical case of a ‘poor’ community’s experience in doing development with the support of aid and development agencies. Upon hearing this story, I reflected on the concept of participation in community development as one of the pillars of implementing development projects. These are a few of my thoughts.

“Community Members Listen to Red Cross Volunteers,” Sumba Lorie, South Sudan, 4 July 2011. Photo courtesy of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (Flickr account).

Peoples’ participation in development initiatives agreeably carries with it positive connotations and concern for the real beneficiaries of development—the ‘poor.’ The concept of participation varies widely in application and definition, but the inference to ‘having a share in’ or ‘taking part in’ means participation is a practice, as well as an end in itself. It influences decisions that affect people’s lives and is an avenue of empowering the people. Participation implies two broad issues very important in development projects: (1) ownership and (2) who benefits from the project.

Participation is a development anthem whose lyrics are not patriotically respected by the professionals of development. Even though the concept has been popularized, we continue to see development practitioners telling people what has happened or is going to happen; asking questions without sharing findings; consulting people without necessarily taking their views on board; providing material incentives; and/or mobilizing people only for implementation purposes. Most projects still manipulate beneficiaries to accept outsiders’ wishes. Information is shared through one-way communication and consultations are made without serious commitment to local views.

Development practitioners must consider if a project is a development tool for the professional implementers, or for the beneficiaries. Projects should be identified, designed or formulated, and implemented in a participatory approach. This addresses the question of the sustainability of project gains. Beneficiaries should be engaged in the project right from the start in a spirit of partnership so that projects can deal with the ‘felt needs’ of the community.

Development practitioners should also consider whether they are ‘bringing development’ to a place where it has been nonexistent or whether they are supporting a desirable situation in which local efforts are already being made. Development projects can be initiated by professionals and community members acting together in partnership. However, the local people are not part of the problem, that is, poor and needy. Instead development practitioners must acknowledge that local people have a vision to change an existing undesirable situation for the better, but only lack some of the means to achieve that vision. Development practitioners can contribute to attaining that vision but in order to transform the policy of participation into real practice, a change in ideas, attitudes and practices of development practitioners is required. Meaningful participation will also require change in the methods, procedures and institutional structures of development aid agencies.

More interactive levels of participation: people doing joint analysis leading to plans; formation and utilization of local institutions and strengthening them to make and control local decisions; and generating ideas on how to maintain structures and practices, can all do a lot of good in development projects. Participation should involve self-mobilization in the community: community-initiated and shared decisions; agency-initiated activities with full community involvement at every stage; and consultation and transparent information-sharing. Local people should retain control over how resources are generated and used, and how results and successes can be sustained.

Local people may or may not have the capacity for strategic planning. However, judging from the accumulated knowledge they have and their resilience in living in their environment, people know a lot. Development professionals must tap into that knowledge to succeed in development efforts.

Will this not erode the power of the ‘expert’ professionals? This question seems to be the main obstacle in practicing genuine participation.

Are we there yet? Full participation in development practice still remains the Promised Land. And in my opinion, we have many more steps to get there.


For further reflection, the following ideas from Feuerstein (1986) can help you assess the practice of participation in your organization:

1.       When you only listen to the local opinions and then take the information away to analyze yourself – you are ‘studying the specimen’.

2.       When you are sharing only part of the analyzed information with some of the stakeholders – you are ‘refusing to share results openly’.

3.       When you hire an external facilitator to guide a participatory process –you are ‘locking up the expertise’.

4.       When the project team sits down with the target group (to discuss plans, activities and the intended results) – they are talking about ‘partnership in development’.


Andebo Pax Pascal is from Arua, northwestern Uganda and is currently working with the Jesuit Refugee Service in Nimule, South Sudan, where they are implementing education programmes. He can be reached at:


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  1. I was once asked to define “capacity-building”. Andebo’s post reminds me now of how I answered: “Capacity building is the progressive exercise of real authority.” It most certainly is not a handing off at the 11th hour of the outsider’s accomplishments to be maintained by the community.

  2. Keith on LinkedIn writes,

    “Let me first say that participation is an important part of development. But, the relevant level and nature of participation (informing to consensual decision-making, see Victor Vroom et al) depends on the nature of the decision to be made and the degree of importance of buy-in to successful outcome. Participation has a cost and as always, the benefits must outweigh the costs.

    “In my 30+ years of development experience there are a couple of practical observations I’d make. First, people in a community always have valuable insights and knowledge that must be captured and incorporated in the design and implementation of development projects. However, effective participation does require a degree of symmetry of information, something almost impossible to obtain in many circumstances. Efforts to obtain that symmetry of information are often just impossible because of the bounded life experience of many of the targets of so-called development.

    “A second issue is the myth of community as some sort of homogenous entity with a common view on what is required. The reality is quite different with wildly different views and often power and status of community members. The only thing they have in common is geography – i.e. they live in the same locality. Whose views should prevail as a result of participation?

    “I think the book Cooke, B. and Kothari, U. (eds). 2001. Participation: The New Tyranny? has a lot to say on the subject that is sensible.

    “In summary, no one development mantra provides all the answers. The trick is to apply them selectively when the context is appropriate.”

  3. The stakes are high for community involvement in community development projects/programs. The balance between managing project budgets to adequately complete projects and carrying on board community perspectives that are as diverse as the number of community groups in the locality remains a challenge for programme/project directors. Meaningful community participation is not merely exposing community members or even community leaders to project concepts. It carries with it cost implications in terms of budgets and time. It does not appear that donor-funded projects which have to be accounted for in log frame formats can really escape from a shareholders mindset in which the level of participation is directly related to the number of shares contributed by a shareholder. Communities don’t contribute shares. Perhaps, a new framework of community participation in development projects needs to be articulated which provide adequate platforms for a robust involvement of communities that translate into capacity development for project sustenance without overstretching the budget. This is not a small challenge. If we must continue to consider community members as stakeholders in community development programs, we must start looking for ways of involving them beyond this current level of participation where they are “allowed” to where we become partners with them in identifying their representatives in projects, representatives who then understand that there are standard procedures to work with for the benefit of the project and the community. Training such representatives to understand process represents true community empowerment. When their ideas and perspectives become part of the thinking and planning and implementation process, we can say community participation has taken place. Great ideas but at whose cost?

  4. Pascal

    Thanks Golda, for the striking ideas of how the community can be involved in the process of development. Projects certainly get conceived in form of concrete ideas like activities in a log frame and budgets which are fixed. If costs can be spread over a whole range of other resources like the human persons that development is supposed to focus on, then the budgets and time resources, though fixed, could be put aside a little to include people-the development beneficiaries-to participate and learn how to take ownership and sustain the projects. Their ideas would be good for the longer sustenance of development project achievements. Is that not what development practitioners would like to see-that the achievements remain to serve the people. Surely the development professionals would not what to see highly successful projects that help to put food, for example, on beneficiaries tables failing as soon as they pack their bags and leave from project sites. That is where we would still need to redefine our concept of participation and emphasize its future benefits in a project situation

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