Participatory Communication for
Chin Saik Yoon
This paper is extracted from a chapter in the book
Participatory Development Communication: A West African
The participatory communication approach
was conceived more than two decades ago. Since then its principles have enjoyed
increasing influence over the work of development communicators. Today, these
principles drive t he work of a significant number of communicators from
the NGOs, and, to a lesser extend, the programmes of government agencies.
The roots of participatory approaches in development communication can be
found in the early years of the 1970s when many people in the development
community began to question the top-down approach of development dominant
in the 1950s and 60s which target ed the economic growth of countries as
its main goal. During these two decades the success of the developed countries
was held-up as the model to aspire to. Development was thought to be triggered
by the wide-scale diffusion and adoption of modern technol ogies. Such
modernization was planned in the national capitals under the guidance and
direction of experts brought-in from developed countries. Often, the people
in the villages who are the "objects" of these plans would first learn that
"development" was on the way when strangers from the city turned-up, frequently
unannounced, to survey land or look at project sites.
Mass communication played an important role in promoting "modernization"
to the people. The radio was one of the main instruments used. National leaders,
bureaucrats, and experts broadcasted passionately from the cities about the
wonderful differences whi ch the adoption of new and foreign ideas would
bring to the lives of the people. They talked at length about methods of
farming the land, cures for diseases, importance of sending children to school,
advantages of having fewer children, desirability of h aving a stable government,
and so on. The mobile cinema-van also became a common sight in the villages
It was one of the more popular diversions in rural communities because these
vans commonly screened cartoons and comic films first so as to draw the cro
wds to watch the news-reels and agricultural extension productions which
followed later. It was a powerful tool. It demonstrated graphically the wonders
of modern science. It showed the beautiful homes and cars of rich Western
farmers, and projected the i mage, voice and charisma of aspiring political
leaders. The private sector soon followed suit and sent their own vans to
entertain with other cartoons and comedy shows, and most importantly for
the companies to screen their advertisements for their wares. Government
extension workers trained in the towns became the front-line communicators
repeating to farmers in their fields what they had just been taught in the
towns. Posters, leaflets and other publications made-up another important
instrument used as a part of this approach. It became known as Development
Support Communication; a term coined by FAO. The approach had a wide following
because much of the earlier development efforts in the South were aimed at
farmers. (Read Rogers:1983 )
The overall approach to modernizing the developing world eventually ran into
problems. Experts learnt that development was not restricted to just building
roads, piping water, and distributing electricity. Nor was it limited to
increasing farm yields per hectare nor switching farmers over to cash crops.
Many of the agricultural extension projects failed because farmers were reluctant
to abandon their time-tested ways for strange new methods. They were also
nervous about planting exotic crops which they co uld not eat but had to
sell for money with which to buy food from the market . When piped water
arrived, it was frequently used for washing rather than drinking and cooking
because the people disliked its flavour. The people were asked to stop believing
i n spirits and demons and place their trust in science which said things
called "germs", which the eyes can not see but is the main cause of most
sicknesses and pain. They had also to remember another thing called "nitrogen"
which again is invisible but wh ich affects the yield of crops. Didn't all
this sound like just another form of witchcraft.?
Over-riding the alien information communicated to the people was a bigger
problem. Because the development had been centrally planned without any
consultation with people, wrong solutions were often pumped down to startled
communities. High yielding rice varieties were pushed when the real problem
was the low price of the commodity. Farmers were given detailed instructions
on improving soil of land that they did not own and which they were at constant
risk of being evicted from. Mothers were lectured on t he bliss of two-child
families when fathers were bent on having at least six children to help work
the land and tend to the livestock.
Central planning also deprived people of ownership of local development plans.
Development became the responsibility of the government. Whereas in the past,
farmers would collectively maintain traditional water sharing systems, they
became side-lined by w orkers of irrigation authorities who built new channels
and dictated the release and termination of water supply. Eventually when
the irrigation channels broke down farmers, believing that the system did
not belong to them, just waited for these same work ers to turn-up to repair
them rather than fix the problem themselves. If they did not, the system
The expensive failures of the top-down, mechanistic approach were noticed
in the cities. Activists began to loudly criticize them as focused on the
symptoms, not root causes of poverty. They were appalled by the arrogant
top-down communication which fract ured fragile developing communities by
under-mining indigenous knowledge, beliefs and social systems. They were
also furious with development plans which catered more to the interests of
the city elites than the people in the villages.
In the meanwhile, other activists started to question the basis of the
modernization approach. They said that the solution to under-development
did not pivot around the adoption of Western technologies . Instead it rested
on the way the whole world was st ructured where the developed countries
(also the former imperial powers) progressed and benefited at the expense
of the poorer countries (also the former colonies). The developed countries
were more powerful than the developing countries and the later had to depend
on the former for its well-being.
At the macro-level, the dependency debate led to mass communicators making
serious efforts at rerouting information flows-away from the traditional
gate-keeping junctions located in London, Paris, Madrid and New York. Third
world news networks were establ ished and articles written by people from
developing countries for themselves.
Ascendency of Participatory Approaches
The reaction against modernization (and to some extent the realization of
global structural imbalances) gave birth to various participatory approaches.
They shared the common intent of actively involving people who were the
"subjects" of development in s haping the process. But in most cases this
is where similarity ends and a diversity of differences begin. People's
participation became defined in many different ways and this in turn led
to numerous unresolved disagreements.
Generally, four different ways of participation can be observed in most
development projects claiming to be participatory in nature (Uphoff:1985).
Participation in implementation: People are actively encouraged and mobilized
to take part in the actualization of projects. They are given certain
responsibilities and set certain tasks or required to contribute specified
Participation in evaluation: Upon completion of a project, people are invited
to critique the success or failure of it.
Participation in benefit: People take part in enjoying the fruits of a project,
this maybe water from a hand-pump, medical care by a "bare-foot doctor",
a truck to transport produce to market, or village meetings in the new community
Participation in decision-making: People initiate, discuss, conceptualize
and plan activities they will all do as a community. Some of this may be
related to more common development areas such as building schools or applying
for land tenure. Other s may be more political, such as removing corrupt
officials, supporting parliamentary candidates, or resisting pressures from
the elites. Yet others may be cultural or religious in nature--organizing
a traditional feast, prayers for an end to the drought, and a big party just
to have a good time.
Some development initiatives provide people with opportunities to all these
four ways of participation. Many do not, and restrict participation to one
or two ways.
Most will agree that participation in decision-making is the most important
form to promote. It gives people control of their lives and environment.
At the same time the people acquire problem solving skills and acquire full
ownership of projects--two imp ortant elements which will contribute towards
securing the sustained development of their community.
The other three forms of participation--participation in implementation,
evaluation and benefit--have been criticised as being false participation
by those who believe that participation in decision-making is fundamental
and indispensable to the approach. They feel that people are being manipulated
through these three forms of pseudo-participation to accept plans made by
other more powerful people.
Others who disagree argue that the three ways allow people to build-up capacity
to participate in decision-making. They also feel that prematurely mobilizing
people to make their own decisions and chart their own development can put
the people at risk of conflict with powerful interests and jeopardize their
safety. They sometimes go on to say that groups who mobilize people in this
way are actually manipulating them towards conflict.
A number of governments of Asian countries which have met with impressive
successes at economic development have articulated their reasons for not
being in a hurry to promote Western-style democracy and participation:
Asian societies favour collectivism, while Western societies cherish
In developing countries, national interests should take precedence over those
Diversity of views can confuse people
People must be educated and mature before they are able to make good decisions
from a diversity of views, therefore communities in developing regions require
education first before diversity.
Underlining these arguments is a high preference by these governments for
a consensus approach towards development. The participatory approach is not
favoured because it is considered to be a conflict based model.
Although proponents of participation appreciate more good than bad in the
approach, they recognize at the same time that there are limits to the approach.
An international conference of practitioners and researchers working in
participatory commun ication announced three caveats (White:1994) at the
end of their meeting:
1. Participatory communication processes are not a panacea for development.
Such processes are not suitable for solving all problems in all contexts
or time frames. The mother whose child is dying of diarrhoea does not want
to "participate". Short-term s olutions and intervention are also needed.
Participatory processes unearth "root-causes" of poverty and oppression and
usually involve long-term goals.
2. The apparently opposing concepts of "participation" and "manipulation"
can be viewed from many perspectives. The interventionist who attempts to
"sell" solutions to "target population" may be accused of being manipulative
and may also be bringing alon g a whole set of alien cultural premises. However
the participatory social communicator may also enter a village with a particular
picture of reality and set of values, hoping the people will come to perceive
their oppression the way he or she sees it. Th is may be equally manipulative.
3. The price people have to pay for taking part in participatory processes
is often overlooked. It is often assumed that the villager has nothing better
to do with his or her time. For every hour spent "participating" there is
an opportunity cost; that i s, the fact that the villager may be foregoing
more productive activity if the participatory process does not lead to benefits,
either in the long or short term. The social communicator should take this
into consideration when entering a village or slum.
Participatory Communication Takes Over
Just as during the modernization era, communicators responded to the shift
towards participation in development by echoing the new approaches in their
work. Participatory communication was born. It turned out to be a difficult
birth. The people who had ad vocated for participation had done so mainly
at the conceptual and ideological level, there were no suggestions on how
participatory communication could be actualized in real development settings.
To compound the challenge, much of the seminal thinking ha d focused on
interpersonal processesÄthe mass media were not assigned any role in
the new approach. Broadcasting technology of that period probably contributed
to this side-lining of the big media. Radio and television equipment were
marooned in studios l ocated in the cities which were far away from most
of the people living in the villages. Outside broadcasting facilities were
just being developed and still too expensive at that stage for developing
country practitioners to acquire.
Also, for the first time development communication was no longer in the exclusive
domain of the professionals. Participatory communication, in the ideal situation,
is practised spontaneously by the people without mediation. It was ideally
the by-product o f participatory processes and participatory communities.
For the practitioners, communication ceased to be the simple transfer of
information. The question of who initiated a communication, how decisions
were made leading-up to the communication became more important than what
was being communicated. Communica tors were no longer neutral movers of
information but were intervening actively to trigger changes aimed at encouraging
people's participation. In many ways the "techniques" of communication had
not changed. What had changed profoundly were the ideologie s and philosophies
behind the practice of the techniques.
The emphasis on interpersonal and traditional methods encouraged the development
and use of these communication methods which had been largely ignored until
then. Street theatre, folk-songs, speech, and group activities became important
and effective cha nnels for participatory communication. Large scale national
communication activities were set aside in favour of small. localized and
Practising Participatory Communication
The stress on interpersonal approaches at first suggested a small-scale,
community -based approach to participatory communication. Speech, traditional
and folk media, and group activities were considered the most appropriate
instruments for supporting the approach. This early thinking ignored the
mass media by not suggesting any roles for them. Practitioners in the mass
media responded by innovating their own approach towards participatory
communication. Community radio scored some of the early successes. The large,
centralized model of the city-based station was replaced by small operations
broadcasting on low-power transmitters owned by trade unions, churches and
other communities. The people produced and voiced the programmes which were
focused on loca l issues which were the most current and important to themselves.
Such innovations made way for participatory communication to be practised
at both the community or village level and at the broader regional or
A small selection of the methods which have been used by groups working at
the community and, regional and sub-regional levels are described in the
following sections of this chapter.
Working at the Community Level
Some of the most successful participatory communication programmes were tested
at the village community level. The small size of the community permitted
the intensive use of interpersonal channels and other folk and traditional
media. Described below are the steps followed by many NGOs in implementing
their programmes. These steps have drawn upon not only development communication
methodologies but also those from participatory development, non-formal
education, and participatory action research.
Entering the Community
The first step usually focuses on the identification of a community which
will be the partner in a participatory communication project. Many NGOs do
this through drawing on their knowledge of the region where they have been
working. To minimise risks of f ailure and to shorten the lead time for the
start-up of the project, many NGOs select communities with whom they have
worked or are working. There are two advantages in doing so, firstly there
is an existing working relationship (which may not be totally participatory)
and secondly the NGO has a feel for the needs and aspirations of the community
and can match these to the organizations' resources and capacities. If a
"new" community is identified, a slow process of getting to know each other
is initiated . NGO workers, preferably from the area where the community
lives and works, or possessing a good appreciation for the life and challenges
of the people, and able to speak their language, visit the community with
no aim except to introduce the NGO to the people and to meet members of the
community. A number of NGOs require their field staff to live with the
communities for a long enough period of time (which may stretch over several
months or even a year) so that they become accepted by the people and als
o acquire at the same time a good appreciation of life in the community.
During this period of residency, the potential role of the NGO is allowed
to evolve naturally and informally through the NGO workers' interactions
with members of the community. The success of this crucial first step rests
partly on the NGO workers and partly on the reputation of the NGO amongst
the community. NGO workers belonging to credible organizations with a good
track-record at the grass-roots will be greatly helped by the goo d-will
which such credibility brings. The basic task of the NGO staff at this time
is to listen to the people.
Preparing to Plan Action
The period of listening and getting to know each other leads either to a
decision to collaborate or not to collaborate. If it is the former, the next
step is often the planning of the collaboration. Communication plays an important
role at this stage. As many people as possible from the community need to
be encouraged and provided with the opportunity to participate in the planning
process. Meetings of the community are good starting points. The purpose
of the planning exercise can be explained and debate d, the people to be
involved introduced to each other, and the methods for planning agreed upon.
Formal community meetings maybe alien to the way-of-life of many villages.
People in these communities should not be rushed into the holding of such
meetings . As much time as possible should be given to informal consultations
and discussions; the suggestion to meet should ideally evolve from these
consultations. The leaders of the enterprise will probably emerge at this
stage. The person facilitating the proc ess should ensure that leaders are
eventually elected by a majority and interferences in the choice of the leaders
reduced to a minimum. A discussion of the desired attributes of the leaders
should ideally precede the elections. After the elections are co nducted,
there is a possibility that contenders who have lost may decide to leave
the group, taking with them their family, friends and supporters. How the
group responds to their departure is important in setting the tone for future
interactions between the group and the departing members.
Planning What to Do
A first step may be reflection upon the current conditions, problems, aspirations
and resources of the community. Media can plan an effective catalytic role
here. Traditional and folk media have been used effectively in facilitating
this process of reflec tion in many communities. In some villages, members
of the community, or local theatre group, prepare and present to the community
a play of a fictitious place which bears similarities to the conditions of
the village. The play, however does not have an e nding. At an appropriate
time members of the community are invited to act out the ending or to suggest
what the ending may be. This method is effective for a number of reasons.
It is entertaining. It is easy to participate in because the event is conducte
d in an indigenous art form. It is also non-threatening and minimally
confrontational because issues are being addressed through proxies offered
by imaginary characters in the play.
New technology, such as small format videos, have also been used successfully.
The most famous is the "Fogo process" (Williamson:1991) where video is used
as a "mirror" to reflect the issues and aspirations of people living in isolated
communities. The pe ople take an active part in planning and executing the
production of a video of themselves. They also take an active part in the
editing process, deciding what to cut and what to include. Besides helping
the communities reflect, the videos have also serve d as highly effective
communication between the people and outsiders, typically politicians and
bureaucrats. Outsiders receive accurate and candid messages from the people
through these videos, and because they often convey intense emotions, are
also effe ctive in moving outsiders to action. Replies are frequently sent
back to the people on a video, promises made for corrective action recorded
in this way are hard to break and help the people advance the issues they
"Photo novella" are equally effective. People are provided with a still camera
with which they are free to photograph anything they want to make-up a pictorial
novel about themselves. The pictures shot are displayed and arranged into
an order through the collaborative efforts of members of the community. The
picture stories help in reflection, communication with outsiders, and measuring
progress of cooperative efforts. An example of the latter was provided by
a group of villagers living on a mountain side threatened by serious land-slides
which were robbing the farmers of scarce arable land. The solution learnt
from neighbouring villages was the building of retaining walls with large
boulders-- back-breaking and long term project. Photographs of the progr
ess of "rock-walling" and the accumulating amounts of rich top-soil trapped
by the walls convinced the villagers that the walls must be built and motivated
them to complete their daunting task.
A some what surprising success in the Philippines is a method called
CIPS--Community Information and Planning System. Surprising because it is
a method based on scientific research which many people had first thought
alien and not useful to rural communit ies. In this method villagers who
have heard about CIPS invite the University where CIPS was developed, to
send a trainer to work with the community. It begins with the trainer conducting
a short, informal course on the research process. The course is tau ght in
the local dialect and presents the research process in a simple, easy to
implement way. The people begin their research immediately after the course.
They collect data and analyse them as a group. The results of the research
are displayed on large charts, in the form of easy to understand graphics
and presented to the community during a village meeting. After members of
the community have understood the findings of the research, they move on
to prioritize problems and plan action to address these p roblems. The action
are usually written-up in the form of a proposal to a local government agency.
This method has proven to be highly effective in promoting development activities
to policy-makers because of the scientific approach adopted and the data
b acking requests for action.
It is likely that if the community has advanced to the stage of action, a
group of some kind will have evolved within the community to run the
communication activities of the community. It will probably comprise opinion
leaders such as a religious leader, traditional birth attendant, teacher,
folk musicians, actors, and others with a flair and a love of communication
and interaction with people. The communicators should ideally be elected
by the community, their duties should also ideally be defined durin g the
elections. The village communicators may be offered training in communication
methods. Such training should emphasize the principles of participation and
the supportive role of communication in triggering participation. Traditional
and folk media us age should be emphasized. Other media such as wall newspapers,
video, and static displays may be also introduced. But the overall stress
will probably be on interpersonal methodsÄspeech, group discussions,
and presentational skills (to peers as well as to outsiders such as government
officials). They may be also introduced to management skills such as the
sequencing of communication in the best way so as to support action in the
community; the breaking-down of large problems into smaller component parts
t o be addressed in order of priority. To be congruent with the goals of
participatory communication, all training should focus on communication as
an instrument to empower the people rather than as a vehicle for moving
information. Communication for the fa cilitation of action may aim at a number
Creating a very clear understanding of the proposed action.
Gathering feedback to ascertain if the course of action is acceptable and
supported by (ideally) all; and if not to discover the preferred alternatives.
Communicating the finalized course of action.
Providing support and appropriate publicity as the action is being implemented.
Keeping members informed of progress and the gathering of their reactions.
Reporting the impact of the action.
Gathering and sharing members' reactions to the action taken.
Planning for the next round of action.
Iterating the process
Action should be taken in a series of steps, starting with the most urgent
or most manageable, and then moving on to others after it has been completed.
This way of iterating the process provides the community with the opportunity
to learn and become fami liar with the process. Iteration also facilitates
increasing degrees of participation amongst members of the community as they
learn to work with each other, and develop confidence and loyalty for each
Withdrawing from the Community
NGO workers who help set-up participatory communication projects should plan
their withdrawal from the communities as soon as the people indicate their
readiness to take complete charge. The plan for withdrawal may be usefully
stated sometime early in the interactions between the community and NGO so
that the people can prepare for itÄmore importantly it signals to the
community that the NGO is sincere about taking participation to its ultimate
level where the people acquire full control. There have been debates in recent
times about NGOs deliberately creating dependence amongst the communities
they work with so as to protect their continuing role (and sources of funding).
The withdrawal should, in most cases be gradually phased-in. It can begin
with han d-over of functions normally performed by the NGO worker. The worker
can next relocate from the community (if she or he has been living there)
and return for visits. The frequency of these visits can be gradually reduced
to monthly or bi-monthly calls. So me NGOs stop visiting completely and instead
invite members of the community to visit them any time they have a need to,
or they happen to be nearby on market-days or at other times. Withdrawal
should not mean a termination of interest by the NGO in the c ommunity. As
will be discussed in the later section on research, the NGO must keep track
of the progress of the community in order to learn from them. The tracking
should continue for as many years as possible because participatory communication
processes evolve continuously over long periods of time.
Working at a Regional Level
Communicators working with amplifying or mass media have evolved their own
methods of participatory communication. Unlike village based NGO projects
where the number of partners are limited, the very nature of mass media require
a large readership or grou ps of listeners or viewers for the media to retain
their cost effectiveness. They realise people's participation by either tracking
very closely people's response to their work, or by sharing control of the
media with the people.
Participatory mass media organizations usually have some form of strong audience
research mechanism. This may not always be in the form of a formal or scientific
research unit managed by trained social scientists. More often it takes the
form of letters f rom readers or listeners, quizzes, phone-ins, out-side
broadcasting units, roving reporters, etc.. The feedback, and feed forward,
comes through people interacting face-to-face with media workers and the
people sharing their views on the media. Feedforwar d is considered more
important than feedback amongst some media workers. Feedback is when people
react to stories or programmes conceived independently by the media workers.
Feedforward is when people tell the media workers what is important for media
cov erage, and which is the best angle and way of covering these issues.
Commercial stations which are caught-up in "rating-wars" and competition
for the advertising dollar probably do more elegant audience research than
participatory media managers. But there is a very fundamental ideological
difference between what they do a nd what participatory media workers do.
Commercial stations aim to capture "market segments" which they can then
sell to advertisers for a profit. Their loyalty in business is to the advertiser.
Participatory media's loyalty is to the people. Their reason for research
is to ensure that the people's interests are being reported upon, and that
they are provided with an effective forum to state their case.
People in Charge
The other form of participatory mass media places people in charge of programming
decisions. They decide what to broadcast, who to do it, where and when it
is done. The professionals stay in the background looking after engineering
details and assisting i n the creation of the programmes when called upon
to do so. New technology has simplified the technicalities of radio transmitters
to a point where the people can operate these independently. New technology
has also led to the manufacturing of portable au dio and video recorders,
and desktop publishing systems which in turn have simplified technical production
processes and brought down the cost of operating such media. The availability
of low-cost portable power-generators have also helped in the relocati on
of many such technologies to rural settings where people have easier access
to the media. The main obstacle to the popular use of such technologies are
the restrictive media laws in most developing countries which limit media
ownership to government or those trusted by government.
Most of these people-managed media broadcast or print material conceived
and produced by members of the community. What they lack in professional
finesse they more than make-up for in credibility and feeling. Community
radio stations often double-up as im portant personal communication tools,
sending personal messages to far away places not served by telephone or the
post office. They also help to extend the reach of traditional and folk media
by recording or broadcasting them "live". Such media also serv e an important
purpose of correcting the imbalance of power between the power-holders and
the people. When operated by fearless leaders, such media can quickly create
awareness about incidents of oppression and mobilize local and external
resistance to th e oppression. Community radio was one of the principal "weapons"
in the "people-power revolution" of the Philippines which toppled a corrupt
Such dramatic events aside, most of the successes of community broadcasting
are to be found in the non-formal education sector (Beltr n:1993). Literacy
programmes have been effectively conducted via community radio and television
stations. Other subjects covered by these stations include gender issues,
farming, health, income-generation, workers' safety and occupational health,
land tenure, and religious matters.
Challenges in Practise
The application of the participatory communication concept has proven to
be full of challenges in actual development settings. Practitioners have
been confronted with either unanticipated effects and problems of the process,
or criticism of promoting unde sirable types of participation. The long and
loud rhetoric around the subject has generally interfered with efforts by
the practitioners to bring to life this idealistic social process. Some of
the challenges which practitioners have had to grapple with a re discussed
Disagreements on what constituted true participation have troubled the
practitioners right from the beginning. The disagreements stemmed partly
from differences of ideology and partly from the community settings where
work was attempted. The ideological d ebate ranged from those who felt that
true participation must put people in charge of making all the decisions,
against those who felt that participation at other levels were also valid,
and that the process can evolve from these levels towards the ideal goal.
The other debates resulted from the wide range of cultural and environmental
settings to which practitioners had to respond and adapt. These adaptations
created participatory communication approaches which were different enough
to cause disagreement s among the communicators.
Another challenge is the conflict which participatory communication frequently
causes among the people. Such conflict results from the process's inadvertable
effect of adjusting power relationships between those lacking power and those
holding power. By p articipating, people are claiming power for themselves,
thereby threatening the influence of the power-holders. Conflict also frequently
occurs among the people. The community is sometimes split into fractions
by disagreements over goals and methods of do ing things, and the involvement
or exclusion of certain members of the community. Participatory communication
which sets out to address root causes of development tends to cause high
conflict. This history of conflict has caused many practitioners to appr
eciate the need for equipping themselves and the people with conflict managing
skills. The most important of these are skills for negotiation and mediation.
Successes in participatory communication have proven to be difficult to replicate
or up-scale. This is a major obstacle to NGOs interested in extending the
benefits of participatory communication to a majority of the communities
they serve. The challenge appears to stem from a number of factors. The first
is the people-embodied nature of participatory communication skills. Some
people appear to have special attributes which make them highly effective
facilitators of the process. They are the "charismatic leaders" who "make
things happen". These attributes presently remain elusive and escape
identification or replication through training. The attributes of the communities
have also been identified as crucial to success. Certain pre-conditions have
been tho ught necessary for the effective working of the process. Up-scaling
problems maybe also traced to the special commitments and support usually
given to experimental efforts by communities and organizations but seldom
available at the same degree in large-s cale projects.
Among all the pre-conditions for success, the type of governance affecting
the people may be the most important. People who live in highly controlled
states may desire participation very intensely, while at the same time be
very reluctant to subscribe to such approaches for fear of reprisal against
them and their families and friends. This represents not only a challenge
but also a risk for those setting out to promote participatory communication.
Lure of the Private Sector
Privately owned companies are starting to affect participatory processes
almost to the extend that local authorities have in the past. They do so
by offering money, employment opportunities and other incentives to selected
members of communities in order to seek desired cooperation from communities
which are not always beneficial to their long-term interests. For example
certain timber companies frequently offer jobs with high salaries to community
leaders in areas to be logged in order to secure the coop eration of these
communities through the co-option of their leaders. People who set-out to
fight these companies must first suffer all the painful results of conflict
with their own leaders. Threats from the private sector are difficult to
address because their methods are subtle and usually very attractive in the
Whereas most NGOs were generalists in the past, many now work on specialized
issues such as water, income-generation, agriculture, gender, etc.. These
organizations face difficult problems when working in the participatory mode
because people often identi fy issues and problems outside the NGOs' areas
of specialization for action. The solution here appears to be a networking
of NGOs so that specialist skills maybe shared in response to needs identified
by the people.
Coexisting with "Other" Communication
Few communities live in total isolation from the outside world. In terms
of communication they maybe reached by entertainment films in cinemas;
television, radio, newspapers and magazines from the cities; sales-people
from companies; and others who do not practise participatory forms of
communication. Facilitators need to introduce ways of coexisting with or
countering components of the larger communication system so that people may
sharpen their ability to interpret the communication reaching them. One w
ay is media education where people are sensitized to the workings of different
forms of media and some of the intentions which drive their operation. The
other approach is to counter competing messages with alternative information:
for example promotional campaigns for harmful chemical pesticides mounted
by companies maybe countered with participatory programmes on integrated
pest management which require minimal use of chemicals.
Participation takes time. It is a process which cannot be rushed to meet
deadlines or fit annual budgets. Two or three year funding cycles which typically
govern the implementation of sponsored development projects are usually too
short for real participa tory communication processes to take root in
communities. Such projects may actually shut-down processes just as they
are about ready to evolve into vibrant participatory communication. Long-term
commitment is required not just of the funding agency but a lso of the people.
Participation takes-up precious time and energies (which are often the only
resources) of members of the community involved. Programmes should ideally
be designed to deliver sufficient short-term benefits to motivate the people
in maint aining their commitment towards attaining long-term goals.
NGOs and their funding agencies must adopt flexible management approaches
in the implementation of participatory programmes. They must structure their
work plans and budgets in such a way that changes which evolve out of
participatory processes maybe quic kly accommodated with a minimum of difficulty.
The objectives, anticipated outputs, and work plan described in documentation
for participatory projects will probably change as people begin to take an
active part in shaping project activities. Such adminis trative changes should
be welcomed as indication of success rather than symptoms of poor project
design. Funding agencies and NGOs which are run in a participatory manner
are the ones which are able to operate effectively with this form of project
NGOs embarking on programmes in this area may find it helpful to draw-up
in advance an ethical check-list to guide decision-making especially, with
delicate and difficult problems. This checklist will likely change with
situations, circumstances and growi ng experience. Proposed below are some
NGOs should never manipulate the people with whom they work, even if it appears
to be in the best interest of the community. Instead people should be provided
with all the facts and alternatives so that they can make a decision which
is acceptable to the majority of those involved. Manipulation sometimes happens
in reverse where the people may try to manipulate the NGO. For example people
may identify a priority problem within the area of expertise of the NGO just
to obtain the organization's commitment t o the community even though the
identified problem maybe very low in the people's hierarchy of needs.
Putting People at Risk
Participatory programmes often threaten the interests of power-holders who
may then retaliate against the people taking part in such programmes.
Facilitators should be mindful of such risks and explain them to the people
who should then make their own dec isions on the amount of risk they are
willing to bear as a group.
Leaving Communities "Fractured"
Participatory programmes can profoundly alter relationships and the traditional
systems of a community. NGOs must commit themselves to working with the people
in completing these changes with results which are beneficial to them. NGOs
must not abandon the communities in the mid-course of change when the challenges
are at their most severe. Doing so will probably leave the communities fractured
and in a worst-off condition compared to when they began.
One of the main ways of introducing people and NGO staff to participatory
communication is through training. This can happen informally as a part of
events organized by the community or through structured courses focused on
the subject. Past training hav e concentrated on communicators as master
trainers who are expected to train selected members of the community in methods
of participatory communication. This has often meant training the people
in the communication methods of "outsiders" so that they can interact more
effectively with the "outside world". While this will continue to be important,
there is increasing awareness that it may be just as important, or even more
important for the communicators to be trained in the indigenous communication
metho ds of the people so that they can participate effectively in the
communications systems of the community. A view has emerged that truly
participatory communication is the "natural" communication of the people.
It is everyday communication which nourishes the identity of the people as
a community. Such communication skills are learnt over a lifetime and are
probably difficult to acquire if one were an "outsider". This section will
not attempt to suggest training in aspects of "natural" communication. It
w ill instead identify some of the skills which are "teachable" to NGO workers
preparing to begin work in participatory communication programmes. Such skills
maybe broadly grouped into two types. The first relates to participatory
communication within sma ll communities; where interpersonal and group methods
are most effective and feasible. The second category refers to programmes
conducted through the mass media which involves all at once larger numbers
of people. In both categories, the training methods used should be congruent
with the principles of participation. Top-down, teacher-to-student methods
should be avoided where ever possible. Participatory methods should be favoured.
Here the division between trainees and trainers are fuzzy and everyone lea
rns from each other.
Community Focused Work
Some of the most important skills are listed below. A detailed description
of what each of the skills may comprise will not be provided here mainly
because such specificities must relate to the culture and ways of life of
particular communities where the NGO staff will be working. This section
will identify "generic" training areas which may then be "fleshed-out" by
NGOs in consultation with members of the community with whom they work:
Language (of the people with whom the NGO will work)
Negotiation (for conflict management)
Mediation (for conflict resolution)
Appreciation of traditional and folk media (the need to conserve traditional
media forms need to be emphasised here, some traditional forms maybe corrupted
by adaptations to serve development purposes)
Methods of "entering" a community
Facilitating participatory planning
Facilitating cost and benefit-sharing
Withdrawing from the community
Keeping-in-touch after withdrawal
"Larger" Focused Work
Training may be provided here to the media "professionals" who are responsible
for operating various mass media; and to the people who will take part in
the management and production of content to be disseminated by the mass media.
Training for the media "professionals" should cover the following skills:
Negotiation (for conflict management)
Mediation (for conflict resolution)
Training for the people should cover:
Management of community media
Programme planning (for radio and television)
The scope covered by participatory communication has broadened considerably
in recent years. Many practitioners have tried to draw upon experiences from
a number of other disciplines in addition to development communication. In
the process they have contr ibuted towards the start of a long overdue
convergence of experiences in the education, communication and development
sectors. This chapter is an attempt to survey a small number of issues in
the vast pool of experiences offered by these three sectors. It has set out
to raise questions rather than provide answers to the myriad of complexities
which fuel participatory processes. After two decades and more of
experimentation, many development communication practitioners and researchers
believe that they hav e found in participatory communication the most appropriate
concept to guide their work in the developing world. However it is a concept
that has proven to be immensely challenging in application. We maybe still
a long way from translating in full these c oncepts to practice. This is
a challenge which practitioners working in close collaboration with researchers
should take-up. Some of the critical considerations which this collaboration
should aim to study and understand are suggested below:
Preconditions: are some communities better placed to apply participatory
communication than others because of favourable conditions which they enjoy?
If this is true, what are these preconditions?
Leadership: participatory communication come to life when facilitated by
the right people. They are the "new leaders" who possess special attributes
which nurture participation. What are these qualities? Can they be learnt?
Conflict: is a frequent "by-product" of participation. What are their causes?
And how does one manage and resolve them?
Impact: on traditional communication systems when participatory processes
Appropriate application: when, and for what purposes are specific participatory
communication methods best suited?
People's cost: participation is thought to be "expensive" to the people involved,
what are the contributions and resources which they invest in a participatory
communication programme in order to make it "work"?
External funding: classical projects are thought to be too inflexible in
design and management to nurture dynamic participatory processes; what is
the most appropriate mode of funding? And what should donors concentrate
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