Consultancy in Participatory Methodologies

The promises and pitfalls of community participation

Community participation can be empowering but also manipulative. The local context, international politics and the donor’s agenda all form part of the equation of who participates, who does what and for the benefit of whom. How can we, as social work practitioners, strike the right balance between creating opportunities for communities to take their place at the decision-making table — to ensure that programmes are built on local epistemology and respond to local needs — and, at the same time, ensuring that these participatory spaces are not used by Western agencies to merely tick ‘participatory boxes’, even as programmes continue to be largely conceived behind closed doors?

My interest in researching the theories and practices behind community participation in international social work stems from past participation in programmes that, with hindsight, could not have been more non-participatory. In the interest of doing good, I worked for humanitarian aid programmes that, ultimately, were socially unfit, culturally inappropriate, clinically ineffective, financially inefficient and politically insensitive. These experiences taught me a great deal about mechanisms that exclude and marginalise the knowledge and know-how of local communities and about the many learning deficits of aid agencies. Back then, what also became very clear to me is that the concept of community participation is far more political than would appear from the literature. Community participation ultimately requires aid agencies to relinquish part of their power, loosen their controls, widen their ontological stance and implement epistemological pluralism in day-to-day practices with local communities.

In the past I have performed a range of consultancy commissions in relation to different forms of community participation, either to guide research, inform an intervention or develop a social policy more relevant to local community needs. I act as a consultant to both small and large research projects run by academia, governments, supranational organisations, think tanks and NGOs. I particularly welcome consultancies aligned with decolonising methodologies, anti-oppressive practices, Freire’s (and post-) critical pedagogy and feminism that tackle the following issues:

  • Participatory needs assessment and formative evaluation in MHPSS
  • Participatory practices of MHPSS programmes and research
  • Participatory policy formation and implementation in MHPSS
  • Participatory research in MHPSS
  • Participatory findings dissemination and publication of MHPSS research

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As a freelance methodologist, I train social scientists and humanitarian practitioners in qualitative analysis, decolonising research and participatory methodologies. I coach research teams, teach doctoral-level courses in method schools and I consult for humanitarian aid agencies worldwide.

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