The Concept of Community Development is very broad. Generally, community development is the process of helping a community strengthen itself and develop towards its full potential. A community is defined by the people who live within it, their shared ideals, relationships, and common hardships. A number of different approaches to community development can be recognized, such as community economic development, community capacity building, participatory development approach, etc. When implementing programs and community development initiatives, participatory development is a major tool in making community development projects successful. In this short paper, we'd like to better explain the concept of participatory and show how it does in fact play an important role in community development.
A participatory approach encourages all members of the community regardless of their age or sex to participate in a process which allows them to express their needs and to decide their own future with a view to their empowerment and sustainability. This approach believes that local needs and vulnerabilities often have local roots. Through engaging the local members of a community in a development project, it would be easier to understand what the actual issues are on the ground, and what the real local priorities really are. A participatory approach basically motivates community members to take on the challenge of solving their own local issues through participation, rather than through centralization of leadership. An openness to work in a participatory way requires being willing to make tough choices and trade-offs and the ability to work with people, affirming their input as one goes along.
One good example of an organization that uses the participatory approach is the United States African Development Foundation (USADF). The organization aims at providing the local communities with the skills and knowledge that would allow them to help themselves instead of relying on help coming from the "top". USADF believes that the true development "experts" within a local community are the actual members of that community, because they know best what they need and what would work best for their own development. Because USADF pursues a bottom-up strategy, the local socio-economic growth is largely stimulated. As a result, development in communities using the participatory approach tends to be sustainable in the long term (ADF website, 2005). We would like to bring up another example of a program that used the participatory development approach. In Guinea, the African Development Foundation (ADF) used the approach to achieve a community-led, demand-driven development program. The foundation developed seven steps to ensure the success of the participatory approach: 1) Community survey to explain the overall goals of the program and conducting an initial assessment of local needs. 2) Community mobilization to discuss the role of locals in the decision making and planning of the project. 3) Needs analysis through focus group discussion to go over what the needs of each group are (women, men, children, elderly). 4) Community action development plan where all the different groups meet together to go over the pressing issues which helped the community prioritize what needs to be worked on. 5) Training and capacity building comes in play once the action plan is approved. In this step, local community leadership teams are trained to implement the project by giving them the knowledge and skills required for a community-led development project. 6) Implementation, monitoring and remediation is the step where the actual "building" takes place. During this process, the implementation of the project is under constant supervision to ensure the process is running smoothly and in timely fashion. Throughout this process, community meetings are held on a regular basis to ensure the accountability and transparency of the project. 7) Evaluation and follow up is the final step during which ADF works with the locals on evaluating the project to ensure its sustainability and its maintenance (ADF website, 2005). This program is an example of a successful community-led development project.
When talking about participatory approach, we cannot avoid but discuss the concepts of legitimacy, credibility and accountability. When the members of the community are involved in the decision making process, they develop a sense of ownership towards the project at hand (Rogers et. al, 2008). The sense of local ownership that develops from the participatory process generates legitimacy, which when combined with credibility create a strong social capital that allows any development project to be carried through. In short, legitimacy goes hand in hand with participatory approach because it aims to create a sense of ownership within the community toward the project. Credibility comes with the level of sustainability of the project. And because the participatory approach is one of the social dimensions of sustainable development, we can see how the participatory level of the any given project affects its credibility. When a project is designed and implemented with the locals, there is always a better chance that it will be sustained and cared for by these same people, thus it gains more credibility.
Studies on NGOs and community development work have shown over and over the importance of accountability in any development project mission. Accountability has been playing a central role in ensuring the maintenance of solid relations between the different stakeholders involved in a development project. There are two types of accountability. The first is the upward accountability which is "associated with relationships that face up the aid chain" (from NGO to donor). The second is the downward accountability which is to the contrary "associated with relationships that face down the aid chain" (from NGO to local beneficiaries). While it is important to build a strong upward accountability, the participatory approach is mainly directly associated with the downward accountability. The latter term is used to describe the level of accountability of NGOs and community development leaders to those who are benefitting from the aid offered (BOND, 2006). Making development organizations accountable to their beneficiaries encourages for an involvement of the community in order to strengthen both the organizations' and the community's commitment to the local development. As it has been said, "involvement begets commitment" (Cohen). The example of Guinea, discussed earlier, is a perfect illustration of an organization (ADF) that used downward accountability to reach out to the community members. Through transparency of actions, listening and responding to the community's needs, the locals feel involved and as result become empowered to take on the challenge of leading the project and sustaining it. This follows the belief that the quality of an NGO's work is determined by the quality of its relationship with its beneficiaries (listenfirst.org). Despite the great role that participatory development has played in the success of several programs, some critics would argue that it could be time and resource consuming. Furthermore, they would add that increasing the participation of the locals could cause deep conflicts within the community when not all groups are represented in the development process. Lastly, they claim that with a large number of participants in the planning process of a project, communication and information sharing could get ambiguous and troublesome (Rogers, 2008).
In response to the critics of participatory approach, development experts have been developing ways and creating tools that could be used to facilitate the process of participation in any development project. Once again, you will notice that the ADF project in Guinea used some of the following facilitation mechanisms. The first mechanism is information sharing where the information about the project is translated into a locally understood "language" and shared with the members of the local community. The second tool is consultation during which meetings with the various stakeholders of the project are held and a limited two way information flow is taking place. The consultants are the main leaders in this mechanism. The third is collaborative decision making during which locals can express more freely their concerns and are able to offer their input on what they feel is important to them. The last mechanism is facilitating empowerment where the power basically shifts to those in the lower chain of aid. In other words, the beneficiaries learn how to tackle the tasks at hand. This mechanism includes a transfer of power, knowledge and skills necessary for the success of the project from the organizations to the community members for instance, or from the donors to the local NGOs. This mechanism is basically tightly related to the concept of downward accountability (Rogers, 2008). There are several ways to make participatory approaches to development successful. Besides those already discussed in this paper, basic tools such as public meetings, community meetings, newspaper commentaries, stakeholder conferences, social networks, magazines, and radio shows all play a major role in keeping the lines of communication open (Bryant, 2005). Of course, in order for any of these tools and mechanisms to be successful to the implementation of a participatory approach, there needs to be a socio-economic and political will to attain local development.
References: African Development Foundation website (2005), Participatory Development retrieved October 6th, 2010 from http://www.adf.gov/participatorydevelopment.html African Development Foundation website (2005), Best Practices For participatory Development: Seven Steps to Achieving Effective, Community-Led, Demand Driven Development retrieved October 6th 2010 from http://www.adf.gov/approach0105sevensteps.htm BOND (2006) A BOND Approach to Quality in Non-Governmental Organizations: Putting Beneficiaries First. Bryant, C., & Kappaz, C. (2005). Reducing Poverty Building Peace, 112-114. Listen First website, Improving Accountability retrieved October 7th 2010 from http://www.listenfirst.org Rogers, P.R., Jalal, K.F., & Boyd, J.A. (2008). An Introduction to Sustainable Development, 228-230.