Who cares what I think anyway?

18 May 2015
Author: Angela Kellett

How many times have you heard a child, a colleague or even yourself utter these words in absolute frustration? It could be a tantrum, a burst of anger or a venting of feeling powerless and not being heard.

Learning to listen

In the world of international aid, how can we ignore the feedback from people living in poverty to the extent that they feel like passive recipients of aid, whose opinion is often ignored? ‘The Listening Project’, that represents extensive, cumulative beneficiary voice, highlighted and summarised it thusly: "The message is that they are objects, not subjects, of assistance. Cumulatively, over time, international assistance—as it is now given—engenders passivity and undermines initiative. People in many places feel that aid feeds dependency and powerlessness" (page 22).

And what’s worse than not being listened to? Being listened to but not being taken seriously. Tokenistic participation can be the worst form of patronisation - wasting precious time and undervaluing individuals and communities' contribution to the change they want to see in their own lives, and thus enhancing participation fatigue. Although most NGOs would seek to ensure that their work is highly participatory, many would also recognise a gap between theory and practice, with competing demands on their time from onerous upward accountability and donor driven agendas.

Measuring participation

Wilcox’s ‘Level of Participation’ diagram offers one concise and simple tool for individuals and organisations to reflect on what they actually mean by participation. It questions theories of how change happens, including the relative engagement and control of stakeholders, consistent with their practice. An interesting exercise is for an organisation to rank where they perceive the level of participation in their programmes and compare to the opinion of their clients/stakeholders, using the 5-point scale below.

Level of participation

A built-in approach 

As contexts and social parameters emerge and change, programmes need to adapt to ongoing participation and feedback while not being constrained by a rigorous results agenda. Accountability in multiple directions does not need to be mutually exclusive, but time pressured organisations often reflect that they have put too much onus on ‘upward’ accountability regarding client led decision making, adaption, ownership and reporting. Furthermore, participation and feedback must not be extractive at key parts of a programme cycle - they should be inherent to an organisation’s way of working and build and support transformative processes within individuals, NGOs and communities for collaboration, participation and partnership with multiple stakeholders.

On a positive note, as participation is far from a new concept, there are numerous great examples of community led development and a plethora of tools and resources to guide organisations in considering how to enhance participation, understand who is participating and strengthening participatory monitoring and evaluation.

Bond has a resource library of some best practice participation resources ranging from Robert Chambers’ PRA tools and community scorecards to NGO handbooks and research reports. If you want to gain experience in using these participatory tools, come to Bond's new course, Participation: principles, tools and approaches on 15–16 June 2015.

About the author

Angela Kellett

Angela is an independent consultant specialising in all aspects of monitoring and evaluation including assessing impact and theory of change.