Participatory Development Practice

Book review: Kelly, Anthony and Westoby, Peter. 2018: Participatory Development Practice: Using Traditional and Contemporary Frameworks.

There is an emerging recognition that many of the ideas, practices and approaches within development studies and practice can replicate colonial attitudes, be paternalistic and disempowering, and may entrench marginalization. The emergence of a wide array of participatory methodologies has in part been in response to these challenges, however they too struggle and despite an ethos that aims to create new pathways have not been a panacea. In Participatory Development Practice, Anthony Kelly and Peter Westoby build both on their depth of experience as well as their grounding in the Gandhian tradition, to facilitate a rethink of a range of 'how' questions. A key concept throughout the book is relationships; with oneself, between individuals, within groups, in an organizational structure and culture, in coalitions of organizations and in engaging with the world. This book offers ideas, practices and approaches, that provide avenues for critical reflection and new forms of practice. For students, workers and practitioners who find themselves asking 'how could we do this better?', this is a work full of insight. 'Framework' in the title might suggest a checklist, instead what this framework offers are multiple levels of introspection, of doing and being better. Participatory Development Practice is a book for everyone working alongside others who want to gain deeper connections and to build stronger relationships. This is, the authors argue, the root of it all. People are lost in projectized development. What needs to change are the layers of relationships that build, guide and direct development action.

The chapters of the book are structured around levels of participatory development practice (individual / self, micro, mezzo, macro, and meta methods). The emphasis on the self as well as macro and meta are valuable additions to the participatory practice dialogue as often participation is framed in the micro and mezzo spheres. Each chapter outlines respective methods in a clear and thought-provoking fashion, which they present as being interconnected and facilitating purposeful and systematic practice. While informed by theorists throughout, the ideas of theory are presented in an accessible way with relatable examples. At its core, the book outlines pathways for how development can be oriented to be human-centered or people-centered, offering practical ideas, practices and provocations to do so.

While outlining a framework, and a wide range of principles and steps, Participatory Development Practice is grounded in a call to reflect on character traits, akin to calls made by Robert Chambers. In this regard, participatory development practice is about what we do, but more importantly is it about how we do it. Better tools are important, but Anthony Kelly and Peter Westoby also call us to be better people; working with humility, integrity, commitment, openness and honesty (what the authors call principles). In the concluding remarks, the authors specifically explore how we can cultivate gentleness, reflect on motivations and commitment and foster comradeship. These values and traits permeate the book. In Chapter 2, the "implicate method" the authors explore positioning oneself, and frameworks of doing so, with examples being drawn from Gandhi, McCauley, village workers in India and Fanon. Introspection continues in Chapter 3, as the authors explore questions of relationships and dialogue, building on Tagore, Buber and Freire. In this regard, Kelly and Westoby have offered something quite unique, these traits are not prefaces but are the process; the means being the end, the end being the means. The framework and various processes are not technical ones, but of cultivating relationships, traits, skills, ideas and principles.

In a recent review of Chambers' Can We Know Better (2019), I reflected on the dichotomy between mechanical, 'expert-driven' approaches (e.g. fiscal policy, standards for regulating environmental toxins) and participatory approaches (Cochrane, 2018). This is because learners often grapple with which approaches to apply when, and for which challenges. Kelly and Westoby make a useful distinction between service delivery (health, education, water, electricity, transportation, communications, public safety) and participatory development. The former, they argue, has failed those who most need it, often passing them by and leaving them behind. They state that "service delivery on its own fails the poor" (p. 15). Instead, they argue that there needs to be a new pathway; "a different type of program delivery whether the programme is about livelihood, health, education or any other matter of importance to the people" (p. 15). The answer is the participatory approach, "which involves people doing things for themselves" (p. 16). The self-help ethos and bottom-up framework is laudable, but also raises questions. Is it just? In so doing, are we tasking the most marginalized and vulnerable with the roles and responsibilities of government? And, conversely, are we reducing the accountability of government to be more inclusive and respectful the rights of all? In wondering about where these lines are drawn, Green's (2012) book on active citizens and effective states may provide some balance. However, there are also other questions of ethics that could be asked: Might a bottom-up approach neglect historical injustice and calls for distributive justice? The authors describe participatory work as equality-driven, but ought not the question also be one of equity, which would necessitate the involvement of different actors, specifically challenging questions of power and privilege that may lie beyond the community? The authors might suggest that fostering the kind of relations they speak of in the book may lend to that. The historical experience, including of those theorists the authors rely upon, suggests different configurations, scales and actors may be required for the desired change to come about. While the authors do not raise these questions, they are cognizant of the challenges. The book navigates between a critique of the failures of service delivery as well as its potential as a pathway to improve the human condition (p. 17).

This book will be a valuable addition for students, workers and practitioners because it presents complex ideas in clear ways with relatable examples. Far too often theory in inaccessible, or the direct linkages to practice are challenging to tease out. Kelly and Westoby have made these ideas accessible as well as actionable. Participatory Development Practice is suitable not only for undergraduate courses in development studies but also for the broad array of workers and practitioners seeking to make their communities better places.


Cochrane, L. 2019. Book Review: Chambers, Robert. 2017. Can We Know Better? Reflections for Development. Progress in Development Studies 19(1): 84-86.

Green, D. 2012. From Poverty to Power: How Active Citizens and Effective States Can Change the World. Practical Action Publishing: Warwickshire.

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Navigation by Judgement

In development studies and practice we can get excited by new ideas, and over-stretch them. Participation was a cure all, then it became tyranny, and now we have more informed 'split ladders' that help determine when, where, why and how participation can work well. The rise of results- and evidence-based decision making was at its peak (the randomistas ran the day), there emerged naysayers, and now we have 'navigation by judgment' – an assessment of thousands of evaluations to understand when, where, why and how top-down processes work (and alternatively when more flexible approaches are warranted).

Enter Dan Honig's "Navigation by Judgment: Why and When Top-Down Management of Foreign Aid Doesn't Work" (2018). He writes that the argument "is not, then, that Navigation by Judgement is always superior; nor is it that Navigation by Judgement allows IDOs [international development organizations] to improve their absolute level of performance as environments become less predictable or projects less verifiable. It is simply that Navigation by Judgment is sometimes a good idea, particularly as contexts become harder to navigate using top-down controls and measurement… Navigation by Judgement is a second-best strategy – a strategy to employ when it is less bad than the distortions and constraints of top-down control" (p. 9).

A mixed method approach found that there is "strong evidence that Navigation by Judgement is frequently, but not always, useful. We have evidence that at least some of what determined when Navigation by Judgment is useful relates to the nature of the environment and the tractability of the project to top-down controls, which in practice often means reporting against quantitative output targets… As predicted, econometric analysis drawing on the PPD – the world's largest database of development project outcomes – suggests there are greater returns to Navigation by Judgement in less predictable environments. This is not because Navigation by Judgment actually leads projects to be more successful as predictability falls. Greater propensity to Navigate by Judgment simply cushions the falls, with high Navigation by Judgment-prone IDO performance declining less as environmental predictability rises" (p. 133).

Ideas on where different approaches might be suitable? Consider sectors: "from 2000 to 2012, 64.9 percent of all rigorous evaluations focused on the health sector with an additional 23.1 percent of studies focused on the education sector. By contrast, on 3.3 percent of studies focused on attempts to improve public-sector management. This is quite probably because it is very difficult to identify a plausible counterfactual and/or externally verifiable outcome measures for many public-sector management projects. Some of the same factors make Navigation by Judgement more beneficial for a particular project also make impact evaluations more difficult, precluding an econometrically rigorous examination of a particular project's results. Navigation by Judgement is most helpful where rigorous evaluation is most difficult and where rigorous evaluation is the least likely to build a robust knowledge base" (p. 153).

Ways forward? "One way forward is for an IDO attempting to implement a project that is difficult to effectively manage using measurement of either outputs or outcomes is simple, if somewhat radical, for IDOs: Stop using measures for the purposes of evaluating interventions or managing agents. There is no need to eliminate measurement; measures simply need to be repurposed. Measures can still be good for organizational learning. Learning is often put forward as a primary goal of IDO evaluation. International development organizations could deepen this focus on learning, sometimes putting aside the use of measures as tools of management control" (p. 155).

However, it is not always as easy to do so. "Moving toward greater Navigation by Judgment where appropriate is not without challenges; changing organizational management strategy involves risk for those IDO managers and political authorizers who might push for its adoption. But these risks need to be weighed against the benefits of better performance. To do otherwise is to condemn some foreign aid efforts to meaningless numbers and a façade of success that does little for aid's intended beneficiaries. In many contexts, political authorizers and IDOs are likely to achieve better development results by simply letting go" (p. 168).

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