Village Earth

A Brief History of Participatory Community Development Approaches and Practices


Since the 1970s, non-governmental organizations have played an increasing role in addressing the problem of poverty around the globe. The reason for their rise, relative to government actors, was their adaptability and proximity to the grassroots which is supposed to give them a greater understanding of local realities and community dynamics. However, in recent years, NGO’s have come under increasing criticism among prominent development scholars, most noteable (Banks, Nicola, David, & Michael, 2015) for the gradual erosion of the very qualities that made them so impactful in the first place. The reason cited most commonly for their downfall include the increased influence of donors and their increased demand for bureaucratization and professionalization which has aligned NGO’s closer to the priorities of donors (increasingly government donors) than the needs of poor communities.

Prominent development authors like Arturo Escobar, Jeffry Sachs, and Majid Rahnema argue that the “problem” of global poverty was not a concern for western countries until after WWII. After this time, the thinking started to shift to an understanding that the prosperity and stability of the rich countries was linked to the overall prosperity and stability of the world. This along with a general fear of Soviet/communist expansion and poor countries was fertile ground for communist thinking to take root.

For the U.S. and its allies, the problem in the south seemed pretty simple, especially after its success with a rather rapid reconstruction of Europe, where less than 5-years later many of the European economies were back up-and-running at their pre-war levels. From this experience, it seemed clear that poor countries must be poor because they hadn’t yet developed the technological and social infrastructure for industrial development like the United States and Europe. Thus, the solution, would be to give these countries a little push to help “leapfrog” them from primitive to industrialized capitalist economies through primarily state-lead interventions.

In the 1970s, non governmental organizations started to play an increasing role in the fight against poverty around the globe (Banks et al., 2015). The increased prominence of NGOs in the development sector was ushered in by a growing dissatisfaction with state-led attempts to remedy poverty which often focused on the development of infrastructure and privatization of land and public services, broadly understood as “modernization,” which only increased the disparity between the rich and poor (Timmons Roberts, Hite, & Chorev, 2014). These trends served to legitimize the arguments scholars and activists in developing countries were making about the negative impact of “development” by the rich countries. In response, the donor community became increasing interested in approaches that focused on the poorest of the poor (R. Chambers & Pettit, 2013).

The transition to a more people-centered development took two sometimes overlapping paths. The first championed by latin American scholars/activists such as Ghandi, Paulo Freire as well as the liberation theology and landless people’s movement, was the more radical rejection of modernization emphasizing popular education, broad-based political mobilization, and delinking from oppressive neocolonial relationships through increased self-reliance. The second trend championed more by scholars such as Robert Chambers and David Korten and international nongovernmental development organizations (INGDOs) was an emphasis on participatory development. While still an implicit critique of modernization top-down approach, participatory development emphasizes bottom-up participation in “projects” at the community-level rather than in broader political processes (Hickey & Mohan, 2004; Ika & Damian, 2014).

Participatory development, at its core, places faith in the ability and willingness of individuals and communities to work together for the common good (Ostrom, 2015) and is based on the belief that community participation is not only a right but also enhances the quality and appropriateness of development outcomes. It also contributes to local long-term self-reliance and self-determination by enhancing local decision-making and the creation of local institutions (Robert Chambers, 2012).

Since its inception, there have been numerous critiques and associated offshoots to participatory development. The largest body of critiques are focused on the question of “how much participation?” and can really be thought of as a spectrum where at one end you have consultation (telling people what’s going to happen) to autonomous development (where people are completely in control of all aspects of planning and action). Debates range from cost/benefit analysis’ to existential arguments about what it means to be human. The effectiveness/efficiency discussion in community development was popularized among NGO’s principally by Robert Chambers and David Korten. Chambers in his classic book “Whose Reality Counts?: Putting the First Las”t (Robert Chambers, 2003) where he brought into the spotlight the poor results of outside experts doing planning FOR communities and where he championed a new approach of participatory rural appraisal (PRA). David Korten (Korten, 1980) cited in (Ika & Damian, 2014) introduced his fit requirement model (below) developed from an analysis of successful development projects. The model illustrates the relationship between program design, beneficiary needs, and the capabilities of the assisting organizations. Korten argues “Each project was successful because it had worked out a program model responsive to the beneficiary needs at a particular time and place and each had built a strong organization capable of making the program work. Put another way, they had achieved a high degree of fit between program design, beneficiary needs, and the capabilities of the assisting organizations.”

Modern ethical debates arguing for participation can be traced primarily to Paulo Freire who, drawing from existentialist thinkers, argued that the essence of humanity is our ability to create meaning and make rational decisions. Thus, any denial of that ability or imposition of one person’s choice on that of another person is essentially robbing that person of their humanity. He wrote “[e]very prescription represents the imposition of one individual’s choice upon another, transforming the consciousness of the person prescribed to into one that conforms with the prescriber’s consciousness. Thus, the behavior of the oppressed is a prescribed behavior, following as it does the guidelines of the oppressor. Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” (Freire, 2000) presents a radical program for humanization by engaging oppressed communities in cycle of critical analysis, action and reflection.

The social work community has also contributed to this debate stemming back to (Batten & Batten, 1967; Tropman, 1968) makes both argument based on efficiency as well as human development writing that “people are more likely to act on what they have freely decided to do than on what others have tried to persuade them to do; through participation in the process of thinking, deciding, and planning, they will acquire more confidence and competence as persons.”

While community participation is still the mantra among INGDOs there is a large and prominent debate centering on their ability to truly support bottom-up planning and action. Many argue that INGDOs have become overly focused on being accountable upward to their donors than downwardly accountable to beneficiaries and effectively losing touch with communities.(Elbers and Arts, 2011,Ebrahim, 2003, (Power, Grant, Matthew, & Susan, 2002), Epstein and Gang, 2006, Fowler, 2000a, Fowler, 2000b, Gill, 1997, Mohan, 2002 and Tvedt, 2006). In a related debate, scholars like ((Banks et al., 2015) have argued that NGO’s have lost their connection to the grassroots because of demands by donors for professionalization.

Another critique of participatory development is its overemphasis on technical solutions vs. helping people work through the tougher social and organizational dilemmas “such as community involvement, decision making procedures, the establishment of efficient social compacts, organizational development capacity building and empowerment” (Power et al., 2002).

Participatory projects have been criticized for potentially putting people in compromising situations and causing “psychological and physical duress” on vulnerable populations by positioning in competition with elites(Mansuri, 2004). Mosse (1994) argues “participation” in community development often mirrors how participation is experienced in the culture of the facilitators, principally relations of power and gender and the inclusion of certain types of knowledge.

Despite wide agreement on the importance of bottom-up planning, very few INGDOs actually do it because of their bias towards a single sector (Romero 2003), a particular technological solution (Seitanidi 2008), faddism (Mansuri & Rao 2004), failure to spend adequate time and resources needed to mobilize and engage the community and focus on implementing the priorities of funders vs. that of communities (Powers and Powers 2004).

Upcoming Courses in the Village Earth/CSU Online Certificate Program in Community-Based Development

Spring II Session

GSLL 1517 – Community-Based Organizing

Taking a practical “hands-on” perspective, this course will explore the theories, tools, styles and challenges of community-based organizing. It will discuss practical strategies for developing community leadership and working with marginalized communities, exploring the ideas and examples from Evo Morales, Paulo Freire, Saul Alinsky, Sub-Comandante Marcos, the Bridge Immigrant Rights experiment and Martin Heidegger.

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Spring II Session

GSLL 1512 – Micro-Finance Projects : Sustainable Community Development and the Role of Women

The role of micro-enterprises in developing communities is crucial. This course examines the process of identifying projects to fit the needs of people and equipping individuals with the basic skills to run these projects. Of particular emphasis is the role of women in the process. Projects oriented towards women are important means of increasing their self esteem – which can have far reaching economic and social impact on the entire community.

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