Introduction - Theory of Participatory Development - New Relevant Technologies: ICT Provides the Tools - Synthesis - Conclusion - References
- Defining the Terms
- The Base
- The First / Last    Paradigm



Climbing off the Donkey: The Theory of Participatory Development

            One pillar of traditional third world development policy is that development organisations, generally foreign staffed and based, are the most knowledgeable and capable development actors. This notion derives from the idea that development is a process of teaching impoverished groups the wisdom of the rich; the successful must guide the less fortunate along the path to success that has been previously blazed. For a considerable period of time this belief has remained unchallenged by most participants, with only one group of dissenters: the impoverished themselves.

            The people of developing nations have begun to display a frustration with the foreign nature of development leadership, shown in incidences such as “a focus-group discussion on members’ perception of poverty, [where] a group of men in Komaka, a village in the Upper-East Region of Ghana, stated that “the one who rides the donkey does not know the ground is hot.” In other words, the rich man cannot know or feel the poor man’s problems unless he gets off the donkey and walks on the ground or unless he asks the poor man” (Dogbe, 1998, 97). This indigenous discontent with the nature of development poses a challenge to current development theory, insomuch as this rejection implies a resistance to traditional approaches, and an explanation for an overall lack of success in previous projects.

            Developmental scholars have begun to answer this challenge, articulating a concept known as Participatory, or People Centred, Development. The belief is that the answer to the problem of successful third world development is “not [found in] the bureaucracy and its centrally mandated development projects and programs, but rather [in] the community itself: its needs, its capacities, and ultimately its own control over both its resources and its destiny”(Korten, CM, 1986). This section will detail this theory of Participatory Development through the amalgamation of the viewpoints of some of the leading scholars in the field.

Defining the Terms

            Before this amalgamation can take place, first certain frequently used terms must be specifically defined. First, the literature on Participatory Development often makes use of the term ‘paradigm’ [1] . In this context, a ‘paradigm’ will be defined as “a coherent and mutually supporting pattern of concepts, values, methods and actions, amenable to wide application”(Chambers, 1993, xvi). To expand on this definition, in this discussion ‘paradigm’ will refer to a complete theoretical outlook or viewpoint.

            A theoretical outlook is precisely the meaning of the next term: normal professionalism. For this paper, normal professionalism will be considered “the thinking, values, methods and behaviour dominant in a profession or discipline” (Chambers, 1993, 3). In effect, normal professionalism could be referred to as the dominant paradigm in a specific field of study.

The Base: The Theoretical Underpinnings of Participatory Development

            Now that the required terms have been defined [2] , the theory of Participatory Development can be fully articulated. This examination will begin by first describing Chamber’s people centred critique of normal professionalism. Next, a theory will be structured around the first / last paradigm that develops out of this critique. Afterward, another applicable viewpoint of Participatory Development will be added, specifically Toffler’s theory regarding applicable levels of technological sophistication in development and the transfer of technology. The combination of these approaches will provide a base model of Participatory Development.

            When proposing change in a developmental field of study, any new theory must somehow rest on the ashes of the previous theory. If it does not, then the motivation to shift to the new viewpoint is lacking. To provide this motivation, Robert Chambers, in his work on Participatory Development (Chambers, Challenging the Professions, 1993), strongly critiques the normal professionalism of development theory. Chambers contends that there are two main problems that are ever-present in the normal professionalism of development: specialization and scholarly isolationism. His argument is that these deficiencies have caused an unacceptable stifling of intellectual creativity, in which “Normal is narrow”(Chambers, Challenging the Professions, 1993, 5).

            Chambers argues that the main consequence of the intellectual narrowness that results from specialization and scholarly isolationism is a failure to allow the meaningful inclusion of indigenous experience and knowledge (Chambers, Challenging the Professions, 1993, 9). The proposed result of this lack of inclusion is that “Development has been seen as a process of growth stimulated by transfer of technology, a transfer in one direction, from rich and powerful to poor and weak, from first to last” (Chambers, 1993, 9). The implication of this is that the emphasis in development policy has been on the instruction and direction of third world people by western, or developed nations. Because of the limiting nature of these flaws, Chambers implies that a theoretical shift is required in developmental theory.

The First / Last Paradigm

            This shift takes the form of the first / last paradigm. This approach “reverses power relations – ‘putting the last first’ – in choice of clients, professional values, research methods, and roles”(Chambers, 1993, 9). Chambers has argued for a completely different system of thought, one that avoids typical developmental “biases which are variously urban, industrial, capital-intensive, centralized, high technology, and planned top down [that] often leave poor people out or make things worse for them”(Chambers, 1993, 9). This first / last paradigm is developed along four levels: normative, conceptual, empirical, and practical.

            The normative level of the first / last paradigm centres on the primacy of people in development. [3] Specifically, the argument is that “people come before things; and poorer people come before the less poor. It is right to put the last first, to give priority to those who are more deprived – the poor, physically weak, vulnerable, isolated and powerless, and help them change these conditions. It is also right to enable them to identify and demand what they want and need”(Chambers, 1993, 10). To summarize, the belief is that at the conceptual, or normative, level of development planning emphasis should be placed upon primarily helping the poorest members of society achieve goals that they themselves help define.

            The conceptual level of development consists of the manner the development process is viewed. The first / last paradigm believes that “development is not a process in a single direction, but a process of continuous adaptation, problem solving and opportunity…Development is not movement towards a fixed goal but continuous adaptation to maximize well-being in changing conditions”(Chambers, 1993, 10). This level of the first / last paradigm stresses the need for adaptable approaches that can continually search for solutions, and take advantage of unique opportunities that arise.

            The unique and dynamic conditions in developing nations are also appreciated in the third level of analysis, the empirical approach. This perspective stresses that “Conditions are diverse and complex” (Chambers, 1993, 10), and that “Rates of change are accelerating” (Chambers, 1993, 11). Because of the need to operate in this dynamic environment, it is not sufficient to simply have theoretical viewpoints. Rather, the empirical knowledge of indigenous people must be harnessed (Chambers, 1993, 11). This level of analysis stresses that “Poor people are knowledgeable” [4] (Chambers, 1993, 11), and can be depended on to provide local adaptability as well as leadership in development theory and policy. 

            Dependence upon local populations is the crux of the fourth level of analysis, the practical approach. “The central thrusts of the paradigm here are decentralization and empowerment”(Chambers, 1993, 11), these concepts “enable local people to exploit the diverse complexities of their own conditions, and to adapt to rapid change”(Chambers, 1993, 11). This practical concept embodies the direct application of the arguments of the preceding three levels of analysis, using them as an argument for pragmatism in the application of the increased local participation and power required in the development processes.

            While the first / last paradigm and the critique of normal professionalism give the basis of Participatory Developmental theory, due to the technological underpinnings of this work, it is necessary to include a side branch of this theory. Present in many of the strands of Participatory Development [5] , this additional component is the requirement to utilize and determine the suitable level of technology for development projects. Toffler admirably illustrates the problem at hand when he suggests that typical development theory has believed that “unrelieved backbreaking toil in the fields or rice paddies is fine – so long as it is done by someone else”(Toffler, 25). Toffler argues for a fine balance between northern supplanted technologies and indigenous expertise, intertwining the best of each approach for ideal results (Toffler, 26). The theoretical viewpoint that Toffler seems to suggest is that developers should not be shy of using technological advantages, but always be aware of the need for technology to be adapted to the specific needs and requirements of the developing world. In conclusion, this section has detailed the standard theory of Participatory Development, through an examination of Chamber’s critique of the normal professionalism of development, a detailing of his first / last paradigm, and also a brief overview of Toffler’s ideas regarding development technology.  Next Section

[1] For evidence of this see Chambers, 1993, p.2, Holland and Blackburn 1998, p.3, Khun, 1962, p. X

[2] It might be noted that the terms People Centred Development and Participatory Development have been deliberately not defined. This has been done to avoid an over simplification of the theory being developed. It is hoped that the reader will have a sufficient understanding of these terms by the conclusion of the theory section.   

[3] Chambers acknowledges that multiple authors have made a similar claim, and directs readers to (Korten and Klauss 1984, Cernea 1985) for further information.

[4] Chambers gives references to (IDS 1979, Brokensha et al 1980, Richards, 1985) to lend credence to this point. Full references are given in his work.

[5] See (Chambers, 1993, 61), (Holland and Blackburn, 170), and (Toffler, 21)

Introduction - Theory of Participatory Development - New Relevant Technologies: ICT Provides the Tools - Synthesis - Conclusion - References