A 'Meditation' on Meaningful Participation

Ricardo Ramírez

Consultant and Adjunct Professor, University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada



The integration of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in sectors such as health and education is quickly becoming a global phenomenon. We are surrounded by new terminology such as e-health and telemedicine; there is also a hype about their revolutionary potential. There is a danger that the impact of these innovations will be documented on the basis mainly of their instrumental and economic potential, with less attention to the human transformations that they can catalyze. This meditation focuses on the human dimension, and on the extent to which the interested parties are able to participate in the transformations that ICTs bring, with particular attention to health and wellbeing. Health and education are strategic drivers for ICTs, especially in communities that are away from urban centres, because everyone can relate to their central role in improving livelihoods. Hence, while stakeholder involvement would appear to be straightforward, meaningful participation is often an elusive goal. The ever growing use of the term “community engagement” merits some careful reflection. There is growing evidence that for ICTs to help transform communities, their design and introduction must be based on local needs. Moreover, it must be introduced in such a manner that a sense of local ownership is maximized. This meditation suggest that this is easier said than done.

Community engagement has recently become a buzzword in several applied fields of rural community and economic development. The central idea behind this term is a consultation with community stakeholders who will be part of a project or program. The purpose of this consultation may vary, but it tends to signal a commitment to design projects that fit the needs of the beneficiaries. In Canada, Government funding programs began stipulating a community engagement component in their grant competitions in the late 1990s1. Industrialized countries have come to recognize the importance of citizen participation in policy making (OECD, 2002); a challenge however is the actual implementation of such approaches. The integration by formal granting organizations of planning processes that emerged from the grassroots is reminiscent of the fervor that surrounded participation in the 1980s and 1990s. What started as an approach by organizations working close to the community, often as a response to a predominant top-down pattern of decision-making, gradually gained recognition as a necessary step in the planning of projects. What is not clear, however, is whether it was adopted with an appreciation of its fundamental ideology, or whether it was borrowed at a superficial level simply to improve project impact or to satisfy a donor requirement.

This paper provides a reflection on community engagement through an analysis of the meaning of its underlying notion of participation, with a view to help practitioners and project developers locate its real meaning and contribution.

The ‘participation’ phenomenon

In international development, the focus on ‘participation’ began in the 1970s. By the 1980s the environment had shifted and ‘community participation’ become a hallmark of projects aiming at assisting the poor. The rationale changed, moreover, from an initial focus on empowerment and capacity development, to one of increasing efficiency and effectiveness in project interventions (Cornwall, 2002). In more recent decades, participation has been associated with decentralization efforts often matched with more attention being given to beneficiaries as ‘clients’ who are receiving services. In the late 80s and early 90s the literature on participation mushroomed and become associated with action research and social change movements (Selener, 1997). The emphasis on making the voices of the poor heard was advanced by practitioners of participatory research and more committed action (Chambers, 1997). Participation became a ‘must have’ approach.

The major achievement of the ‘participation’ phenomenon has been the creation of spaces and places for interaction. These spaces are either offered by the powerful, by implementing organizations, or generated from the bottom-up (McGee, 2002). Moreover, in addition to the two types of spaces, there is a temporal dimension: some spaces are on-off consultations, while others constitute regularized processes (Cornwall, 2002). Policy spaces are those instances in which 'intervention or events throw up new opportunities, reconfiguring relationships between actors within these spaces, or bringing in new actors, and opening the possibility of a shift in direction' (Grindle & Thomas, 1991)

While the spaces for interaction may be part of collaborative approaches, we should also keep in mind that there are important spaces and places during conflicts. The importance of grass-roots mobilization protesting top-down decisions merits attention. When governments design programs and attempt to impose them on the public using ‘expert knowledge’, an organized civil society can refuse to accept the decisions. The spaces that may have been intended for information can become spaces for negotiation, especially if the public is able to articulate its message and tell its stories in non-technical jargon. Experiences such as these challenge the conventional approach to governance that has been predominant in many administrations. While one could think that this refers to developing country contexts, or remote parts of industrialized countries, others argue that is it a global challenge affecting all societies (Shore & Wright, 1997).

An overused term?

Since the late 90s there has been a recognition that there are a number of challenges and paradoxes with participatory approaches and that we need to be more careful, rigorous and transparent with the use of the terms and concepts (Kanji & Greenwood, 2001). "Like every other word, ‘community' has a history of effective use -and simplistic misuse." (Lotz, 1998).

Participation, like community, ‘Community’ (and ‘participation’) are other sure-fire winning words...living blameless lives of their own in language, policy and analysis of whatever hue.... It is the one type of term, along with, for example, ‘cooperation’ and ‘participation’ which has never been used in a negative sense. ..One crucial characteristic of these sorts of keywords is that they do not require an opposite word to give or enhance their meaning. They acquire much of their winning warmth from their popular meanings in everyday usage. A further characteristic is that, as a rule, they are not ever put to serious empirical test – or if they are, and they fail, they continue to circulate in good currency nevertheless. The projects they herald may be evaluated, and whether they are winner or not is another matter (Apthorpe, 1997: 53-54).

Critics of participation argue that it has become a tyranny on several fronts. Participatory approaches are seen as imposing decision-making and control, group dynamics and methods onto communities and groups. They argue… “that participatory development’s tyrannical potential is systemic, and not merely a matter of how the practitioner operates or the specificities of the techniques or tools employed.” (Cooke & Kothari, 1998) They argue that ‘participation’ remains as a system of representation within a project--the notion being in this sense “external”. They suggest that participatory planning is mostly about the acquisition and manipulation of new planning knowledge, rather than the incorporation of people’s knowledge.

The argument presented is that the understanding of the motivations of individuals to participate, or not, is vague, and simplistic assumptions are made about the rationality inherent in participating, and the irresponsibility of not doing so. Furthermore, some argue that participatory approaches fail to recognize how the different, changing and multiple identities of individuals impact upon their choices about whether and how to participate, and overlook the potential links between inclusion in participatory processes and subordination (Cooke & Kothari, 1998).

Critiques of participation are now found in many sectors: watershed management (Rhoades, 1998; Rhoades, 1997); information systems (Heeks, 1999); participatory technology development (Biggs, 1995); participatory communication (Gumucio-Dagron, 2001); Forest management (Hildyard, et al., 1998b; Hildyard, et al., 1998a; Vira, et al., 1998; van Dam, 2000); and gender and power (Mosse, 1993).  These critiques are a healthy sign of an approach that is ripe for a reflective evaluation.

The challenge today may be to move beyond the simplistic labels of the initial wave of enthusiasm and to qualify the scope of application and potential role in each context that we examine. In a response to the tyranny critique, Hickey and Mohan (2004) suggest that for participatory approaches to be transformative, they must be explicit about their ideological and theoretical motivations, that the locus of intervention must go beyond the local and involve multi-scale strategies, and that a more radicalized citizenship must follow along with the fulfillment of associated rights.

Qualifying the meaning of engagement and participation

Engagement, like participation, has gained acceptance at the institutional level. Large bureaucracies are embracing the term and seeking ways of articulating it into program requirements. The contrast between what organizations call an approach and the actual expectation of their impact needs some attention. For example, there may be “…an espousal of the importance of informal institutions while actual concentration is on the formal” (Cooke & Kothari, 1998). While these challenges are real, there is merit in the notion that as bureaucracies seek to adopt the terms, there are internal spaces for change within those organizations that may have long-term consequences. As approaches become mainstream, organizational response mechanisms do evolve. An example that has been reported is how Nike’s organizational learning stages evolved from a defensive stand to an active advocacy one, as the sweat-shop attacks ‘matured’ from an activist agenda to a consolidated, mainstream issue (Zadek, 2004).

So as we move beyond the activist hype, what tools do we have to qualify the true meaning and potential of participatory approaches?


“…definitions of participation range form assisting people to exercise their democratic rights to a means of obtaining views from different stakeholders” (Kanji & Greenwood, 2001)

Participation: enabling people to realize their rights to participate in, and access information relating to, the decision-making processes which affect their lives. Democratic institutions and access to information about governments’ policies and performance are necessary to enable people to participate in the decisions that affect their lives. The also need to be able to form organization, such as unions, women’s groups or citizens’ monitoring groups, to represent their collective interests.” (DFID, 2002: 24 as quoted in Kanji & Greenwood, 2001)

In the above context, stakeholder engagement then constitutes one of several participatory methods.


Stakeholder engagement can take place at different stages of a project:

  • Defining the agenda;

  • Development of a proposal;

  • Preparatory phase;

  • Implementation;

  • Analysis of results; and/or

  • Dissemination and Action (Kanji & Greenwood, 2001).

Ladders of participation

At each one of the project stages, there can be a different level of engagement. The most commonly referred-to ladder of participation was published several decades ago in a planning journal. It suggested that participation ranged from manipulation all the way to citizen control (Arnstein, 1968). Since then other ladders have been published (Figure 1).

Arnstein (1968

Pretty (1994)

Kanji & Greenwood (2001)

Citizen Control


Collective action

Delegated power

Interactive participation



Functional participation



Participation for material incentives


Participation by consultation



Participation in information giving


Passive participation



Figure 1: Three ladders of participation

All ladders show a common pattern from self-mobilizing to totalitarian control. In a more recent variation more attention is given to the shifting roles and relationships between outsiders and local people who can gradually take ownership over a space or process and shift upwards along the ladder towards more self-control (Chambers, 2005). For those interested in quantifying the extent to which their approach is ‘participatory’, a score card is provided by the Hungary-based Regional Environmental Centre (http://www.rec.org/REC/Publications/PPTraining/module2.html).

Ownership over the problem and its solution

The ladders of participation, and especially Chambers’ latest variation, focus attention on the importance of local people and their organizations taking ownership over a process. The notion of people ‘owning’ a problem drives home the importance of identifying stakeholders who are affected by an issue and can influence how it is addressed. It also emphasizes that those who ‘own’ a problem should be involved in resolving it. The original reference to this notion comes from the business management literature where there has been a recognition of the importance of consultation among stakeholders affected by an issue (Checkland & Scholes, 1990).

A common trend in international development is for third parties to take on the issue and become intermediaries between those who own the problem and the government services that could help improve it. The mediating organizations have an important role to play, especially if they seek to enable the grassroots to take on a more active role in each stage of project development. This challenge is as common to community development in developing countries as it is in industrialized settings (Lotz, 1998). A question to which it is often difficult to respond refers to when it is possible for the intermediary organization to move on, and avoid becoming a new power broker in the system.  In other words, are intermediary organizations a stakeholder that should have a temporary role that is reduced when local capacities emerge?

Stakeholder analysis

The identification and recognition of the stakeholders that can be engaged in different stages of project development is important. The explicit identification of stakeholders is in itself a delicate and political step: who decides on the criteria for their selection and who has the power to convene them - are all of these part of organizational power relations? In simple terms, some argue that any person or organization that has power, legitimacy and a sense of urgency will be recognized as a stakeholder (Mitchell, et al., 1997). This theory suggests that those with two of those attributes stand a good chance of being at the negotiating table, whereas those with only one may be dismissed as less important. What is important is to make explicit who was identified, under what criteria, who was invited but did not attend and why?; these are among the dimension of participation that can no longer be ignored.

Conditions for collaboration

While one can easily assume that stakeholders will want to collaborate in an engagement event, it is important to review the choices people make. The conditions for collaboration and negotiation are not a given. Power differences, histories of abuse, other situations and existing differences of option or access to resources will all influence how people respond to an invitation to collaborate (Chevalier, 2001; Ramírez, 1999). Increasingly, attention is given to the preparatory steps that are needed for the less powerful to be able to contribute to and become social actors in a negotiation (Long, 1992; Mayers, 2001).

Facilitation and convening

Who convenes and how they facilitate are two dimensions that should not be taken for granted. A convenor with legitimacy in the eyes of different stakeholders can bring together partners that other, external agencies cannot, simply because of the trust they have earned (Ramirez, 1999). The convenor need not also be the facilitator; external facilitators can also be more effective as they can ask naïve questions that a local convenor would be embarrassed to ask (Groot and Maarleveld, 2000). Facilitation is a skill that can create an atmosphere of trust and where weaker stakeholders may begin to gain a voice and come to the table with more confidence. There are resource guides on facilitation that explain the process, see for example: http://www.rec.org/REC/Publications/PPTraining/module2.html


The attention given to the stages of projects, the ladders of participation, the ownership dimension, stakeholder identification, the conditions that enable collaboration, and convening and facilitation constitute elements of a framework to better describe a wide range of activities that fall under the term ‘stakeholder engagement’. This is about moving beyond simple definitions and becoming more transparent when we use these terms. This transparency is part of a growing reflection that practitioners and researchers of participatory action research are embarking upon. This effort aims to overcome the paradoxes of these approaches, which in the past were left unchallenged.

As the field of e-health and telemedicine expands, and as debates emerge on their relative worth, a balanced attention to the three dimensions mentioned in the introduction (instrumental, economic and human value) will become increasingly relevant. The human dimension is about a participation that seeks “to climb the ladder” towards more fundamental stakeholder engagement. This engagement is needed throughout the project cycle, from needs assessment and formulation, all the way to implementation and evaluation. This calls for funding and project development approaches that recognize the time and cost required to facilitate sincere consultations.

This meditation is an attempt to bring closer together what Argyris refers to as our ‘theory-in-use’ (what we actually do) with our ‘espoused theory’ (what we say we do). When we bring these two closer together, our action becomes more coherent according to Argyris.  As we do this we should not be concerned with trying out new things. If you don’t dare to make mistakes you don’t learn. Learning and testing participatory approaches is a lot like improvising jazz (Thompson, 2005). Of course this is the case as long as the different stakeholders are clear about why they are there, who is missing from the band, plus a willingness to learn from mistakes and adjust the tunes.

In the Canadian context Lotz concludes with some words about community development that are relevant to these issue:

"…community development offers spaces and places for exploring new ways of tackling problems… Through trial and error, new opportunities for revitalizing society emerge, providing maps for others to follow as they move into unchartered terrain in human development" (Lotz, 1998).


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1Industry Canada’s Smart Community Demonstration program guide of 2000 required applicants include a section on community engagement.

The Journal of Community Informatics. ISSN: 1712-4441