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Lessons from the South

Or The Hitchhikers Guide to Participation
By Charlotte Flower

In the previous lecture Rajesh Tandon spoke about disability and the social
exclusion that results from it. Rajesh talked about prejudices in society about
people with disabilities. When reading the notes from his lecture, where he uses
the word disability if you substitute the word poverty, it accurately describes an
aspect of poverty that often is not spoken about. In the UK (as elsewhere) there
are huge prejudices in society about people in poverty. Rajesh also spoke of the
system being structured against those with disabilities; people experiencing
poverty in the UK identify the same problem. He said disability is often treated
as a problem of individuals rather than a problem of context, and for me this
really resonates with what people experiencing poverty say.

I work for the Oxfam UK Poverty Programme, as a Participatory Methods

Advisor. What I aim to do in this presentation is tell you about what I have learnt
both working overseas and in the UK about developing participatory approaches
that I hope will help you in your work to develop greater participation of people
with learning disabilities.

What does Oxfam do in the UK?

Oxfam started working directly with UK poverty issues in the mid 1990s, through
the UK Poverty Programme. Pre-1997 and the Labour government, it was not
acceptable to talk about poverty in the UK; the media and government did not
talk about poverty and certainly were not interested in doing anything about it.
However, people within and outside Oxfam were challenging the organisation
about poverty on its own doorstep, and the UK Poverty Programme started.
Also, Oxfam is a global organisation and we tackle poverty across the world. If
we are really going to get to grips with poverty we need to understand it as a
global issue, not just an issue in the South1. To do that we have to have an idea
of what causes poverty in rich, northern countries.

Oxfams experience of tackling poverty has been based on the understanding of

poverty as powerlessness, and so a principle approach used is empowering
those in poverty to change the circumstances that cause that poverty.
Participatory development is common currency in international development, and
so much of our programme has been bringing that experience to the UK and
trying it out; was it relevant to the UK or not?

By this I mean the developing countries, many of which are found in the southern hemisphere. Consequently
the North refers to industrialised and powerful countries, predominantly but not exclusively in the northern
Our programme is not large and we recognise that there are many other
organisations working in the UK on poverty and related issues. We therefore
attempt to focus on what Oxfam can offer that other people are not doing in the
UK. The empowerment approach and the participatory methods that Oxfam and
others have used overseas is something that we can bring to the table in the UK.
Another international development approach that is hugely relevant to the UK is
gender analysis. In the UK we have had thirty years of equal opportunity
legislation and we still do not have equal rights or equal pay for women. We still
do not look at the differing impact of policies on men and women, how poverty
and exclusion impact differently on mens and womens lives, for example.

My background is in forestry, and volunteering with VSO in Nepal as a forest

researcher led me into more than ten years of working in participatory research
and community natural resource management in Nepal, Cameroon and Namibia.
Over that time I learnt participatory research and development approaches and
techniques, and most importantly began to understand the issue of sharing
power in decision-making. I came back two years ago and was fortunate to get
this job with Oxfam; fortunate because it is quite a privilege to be able to bring
back all that I had learnt from my work overseas and apply it in a very structured
fashion in the UK. And I have found it to be very similar here. I hear the same
arguments now about why we should not let these people take control, as were
presented to me fifteen years ago in the forestry office in Nepal. It is just the
same everywhere we work. To emphasise the global perspective I decided to
call my talk Hitchhikers Guide to Participation in tribute to Douglas Adam2; I
reread the Hitchhikers Guide recently and it seemed to contain some very useful

Dont Panic
My son has an original copy of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, which has a
cover with the friendly words Dont Panic. People do panic when you mention
sharing power; they panic and they say cant do that, oh no. Foresters in Nepal
will say theyll just cut all the trees down and that will be the end of it, local
councillors say theyll spend all the money on dogshit patrols. They do panic
because encouraging participation is difficult, it will undoubtedly take time (often
not available), and it may well raise conflicts. It should challenge all concerned
those with power to give a little, and those without to take a little. All scary stuff.
However, real participation should lead to better decision making, and
partnership working, so the rewards are huge. So, the phrase dont panic rings
bells for me.

Remember the beer and the peanuts

Seemingly, according to The Guide, when going through hyperspace your whole
body gets turned inside out, and you need beer to relax you, and the protein in

Douglas Adams had died just before this presentation was made.
the peanuts to recover. It is a gruelling process. You need to create a safe and
comfortable environment.

I will be using a number of stories about forestry to illustrate this presentation. I

use them not only because I think they are relevant in their own right, but
because they are also important parts of my own learning as a professional,
events that have challenged the dominant wisdom of the profession I was trained

Let me take you to Namibia; a very dry country, with bush rather than forests.
None the less, these shrubby trees are very important and there was concern
because too many trees were being cut for fire wood and for building. I worked in
the Forestry Dept, and their analysis was that farmers (who were usually blamed
for cutting down the trees) just did not care about the environment and werent
thinking about their future. Therefore the way to deal with this problem was to tell
farmers to stop cutting trees down and imprison them or fine them if they did, and
educate them by raising their awareness that trees are important, they must
protect them and plant lots of them. So we foresters raised a lot of trees in
nurseries because we wanted to speed up the operation; we often grew fast
growing, exotic species because indigenous trees were difficult to grow and were
slow growing anyway. As foresters, we were sure that we had the answers to
this problem. I am putting this a little simplistically, but this is not inaccurate!

However, through listening a little better to some farmers, we had to start

questioning both our analysis and our solutions. When we asked farmers do you
plant trees?, they would reply No. However, if you walked around most farms
there would be many trees. We would ask did you plant these trees? and the
farmers said, no, we didnt plant these trees, they just grew but we protected
them. We then realised that we had been asking all the wrong questions. They
dont plant trees; because to plant trees you need water, and you need to buy
seedlings, and besides, planting trees is the role of the Forestry Department. But
we hadnt realised that what farmers do in northern Namibia is rather than plant
trees, they protect and nurture useful trees that grow in their fields.

We also learned about the other management systems that they operate. When
we started talking to farmers we discovered that they were extremely concerned
about the environment because they depended so heavily on it. They were very
concerned about the future and they felt they were losing power and control. The
principle reason why they were losing power was because the government was
taking it from them. So they could no longer protect and manage trees that were
not on their land and they could not manage community resources. This
discovery completely turned around our understanding about what we should do.
We realised that we no longer needed to go out and tell people to plant trees and
to punish them if they cut them down. We had to work with them to change the

context in which they lived by changing the laws and regulations, and also the
way the Forestry Department worked with them to protect trees.

This was a major shift in professional thinking which was very, very difficult. We
see this everywhere. You see it with housing officers who think they know best,
with doctors who think they know best, with professionals who think I am the
professional, I have been trained in this I know better than you. The shift in
thinking that has to occur is about how to use your professional knowledge and
expertise to work with somebody who is caught within a certain context to change
that context, to make things better and have a positive impact. If you really want
to make the difference you need to change the way you worked with people. So,
for professionals, the selling point should be: participation is good because it
makes us more effective - not because professionals inherently want to shift
power, but because they realise that this shift makes them more effective. We
found this a very useful way of selling the principal of participation to a highly
structured government service.

Changing the way you work and interact with colleagues and service users is
difficult. Challenging hard held prejudices and assumptions can be exhausting
and a little like Douglas Adams description of going through hyperspace!
Participatory processes are challenging to all sorts of people, and thats what
gets forgotten in all the government rhetoric about changing the way you do
things. So, we need to find ways of creating space, and trust and security for
everybody to engage in these processes. Beer and peanuts might well help, but
there also need to be resources made available to support learning new ways of
working. This is often not recognised; for example, when the Salford Council put
in their bid for New Deal for the Communities funding, a bid that was
congratulated on the way it had involved the community, the one part of the bid
that was not funded was the request for 8m to develop the capacity within the
community to carry on the participatory processes. There is a massive hole in
the understanding of the decision makers about the need to invest in people and
to invest in building those mechanisms and processes that are going to ensure
these systems work and are accountable and robust.

For those that are not familiar with the Hitchhikers Guide, a babelfish is a small
fish that you put in your ear and it will interpret for you so that you can
understand any language. I think most communities across the UK would really
love a babelfish for engaging in conversation with professionals, politicians, civil
servants - who all seem to talk in a completely different language. We
constantly hear people say, what are they talking about? Why cant they speak
English like the rest of us?. The problem with professional language, (this does
work both ways - there is a lot of street language that really excludes other
people) is that we use language as a tool, as a power thing, to exclude other

If you dont use their jargon, youre not heard

It isnt for people experiencing poverty to understand,

but vice versa things need to be put in words that
everyone can understand

Professional language . Seems determined to create

a daunting wall of speech about as accessible as a

The quotes given above come from the report Listen Hear; the Right To Be
Heard, which is the report of the Commission on the Participation of Poverty in
Power3, which was produced last year. The Commission grew out of a process
called Voices For Change which was run by UK Coalition Against Poverty and
involved talking to people in poverty about what barriers there were to their
participating in society. The Commission was made up of six grass roots
members, people with direct experience with poverty and six public life
commissioners, people with indirect experience with poverty. We needed the
beer, the peanuts and the babelfish! The process of really trying to engage and
use a common agenda, a common language, a common understanding of what
this was all about was difficult for everybody. It was a really interesting attempt at
trying to do something in a slightly different way but it was heavy going. It threw
up lots of questions such as, if we cant do it, how do these partnership boards do
it? How do user committees do it? How do all these committees that have been
generated over the last decade or so how do they do it? how do you get people
to sit around a table and talk the same language and work to the same agenda?

The Intergalactic Highway planning

What Douglas Adams wrote twenty or thirty years ago is just as relevant now.,
Someone is putting in a big planning application for a project just down the road
from where I live and it took me about a week to find the plans in a cardboard box
at the bottom of the shelf in a library thats open two hours a week. This sums up
the accessiblility of public consultation in the UK. We do not really trust
consultation processes; they dont seem open, transparent or accountable in any
way. And that is true at all levels; at the level of policy development, at national
level and right down to neighborhood renewal consultations, and probably
personal consultations as well. We dont trust the process.

I am telling you that I have a headache, and you are telling me that
I have a foot ache and you want to force me to take medicine for
(participant from Chad, at a World Bank planning meeting.
Listen Hear, The right to be heard, 2000. Report of the Commission on Poverty, Participation and Power.
Published by The Policy Press, Joseph Rowntree Foundation and UK Coalition Against Poverty.
Reported in Listen Hear)

People are consulted and send submissions in. These never

appear in the final report. But they turn around and say we did
consult. So peoples input doesnt go into the final thing.
(from Listen Hear)

The whole consultation process seems to be about dressing up what the decision
makers want to do. It is the same in the UK, it is the same overseas, it is the
same the world over, and according to Douglas Adams (in fiction anyway), the
same the universe over.

Two headed aliens and androids

I was talking to a local councillor and told him that we were doing a gendered
needs assessment. He said Ugh? and he looked at me as if I had two heads,
Director of a community development organization, Wales

My favourite Douglas Adams character was Marvin, the paranoid android, who
complained that despite having a brain the size of the universe, no-one ever
listened to him. This raises the whole question of experts, of whose knowledge
counts, and this is a big issue in the way we change the context and the
dominant thinking. We need to trust people who have no qualifications, no skills,
but who are people who know, and have got experience and knowledge. At the
moment, as a society, we dont value them at all. We need to create processes
in which these attributes are valued, and these people can contribute. Marvin
always had the answer, but never gave it because nobody ever asked him.

In the Salford NDC work that I mentioned earlier, the three people that were
taken on to carry out the community consultation process were local people, not
professional community development officers. The principle criteria for the jobs
when advertised were living in the NDC areas and being committed to making a
difference. Training and support were provided once recruited, and they have
done an excellent job, because they are committed to the area. Its so often said
that we cannot employ local people because they dont have the qualifications.
Well, give them qualifications, train them, and invest in them.

Parallel universes
There was an article in the Guardian recently, about an estate in South Wales.
The local assembly member is quoted as saying, They are living in a parallel
society with their own economy and their own point of reference, but this bears
no relation to how the rest of us live.

Comments such as this are incredibly disheartening. They do not attempt to

understand the structural issues that lead people to make decision about how to
get from day to day. As Rajesh explained, one needs to understand the problem

of the context not the individual. Rather than judge the individuals, one should
question the system. In areas such as these, the jobs that are available are low
quality low paid, short-term, offer few long-term opportunities, no capacity
building, little opportunity to save (this is the type of job that many government
schemes to attract industry into deprived areas create). Men and women in the
area develop survival strategies that provides them with a short-term return
there are very few available to them that provide a long-term option. If I were
them I would do the same thing, as you probably would, because that is how the
whole system is geared. As Rajesh says, you cannot judge them; you must
judge the system.

Im going to take you back to Namibia now; much of my work was working in
communities, raising awareness about natural resource management.
Sometimes we tried to look at the history of the natural resources in the area,
where it is now, and where it could be in the future. A typical scenario would be
asking people to describe their community twenty years ago - a small community
with a path running through it, lots of shrubland, lots of cropland, lots of wild
animals, and a small number of people living in it. The asking to describe how it
is now - there is a dirt road, there is a well, there is a small shop, and there is a
small school. There is less in the way of natural resources, because there is
more pressure on the area as there are more people.

The next step would be to ask what they wanted to see twenty years on. Being a
group of natural resource managers from the Ministry of the Environment what
we wanted them to say was, Oh, we want it to be like it was 20 years ago. We
want it to be lovely, and bountiful. But of course what they wanted was a tar
road, concrete houses, a school, a clinic, shops, jobs. Their aspirations were
obviously completely different to ours. How could we possibly work with them,
because we had such different ideas about where we thought they should be
going? We so often fall into this trap, where we dont listen, and dont respect
other peoples aspirations, and agendas but without that respect we cannot move

One of the exercises that was used in Salford as part of the NDC consultation
process, was a Love it and Hate it line. People were asked to say what they
felt about the community and what they would like to see changed. Most people
put their dot on the Love it end, because it is their community and it is where they
live. They were very honest about the things they didnt like about it, but it was
very important for them to say, You guys in the city council think this area is a
dump and dont understand why any of us are living here, but actually it is our
home so treat it with respect. Often consultations focus on the problems and not
on the positive within a society, on what might work.

The way we engage with people is very loaded. We work to our agendas, and
often do not even consider let alone respect anyone elses. The example I gave in

Namibia of asking farmers the wrong questions typifies the problem with so many
surveys and consultations that are done. The questions are very rigid, they dont
allow people to really respond in their own context about what is important to
them. We were asking the farmer, Do you plant trees? which allowed her to say
Yes or No, but we werent giving her the space to say, I dont, but what I do do is

Back to earth and participation in the UK

What is happening in the UK at the moment? There is infact a really supportive
policy environment now. The government is talking about participation all the
time, especially at local community level. There are lots of initiatives in Scotland,
England and Wales addressing social exclusion, and at the core of them is the
statement that if they are to be successful they need to engage the people who
live in these communities.

The policy environment in international development work has also been

promoting participation for some time and experience shows that just saying
there should be participation does not automoatically mean that it will happen.
There have been years and years of barriers and walls being built between
people and decision makers. So although we do have this rhetoric, we dont
have a great deal of participation going on. There are many reasons for this
not least because few people actually know how to do it or are committed to real

In this presentation I have tried to avoid talking about tools because a lot of
presentations about participation focus on tools, and I think the processes are
more important. There is very little focus in the UK on the mechanisms that we
need to ensure that these processes are robust, accountable, and sustainable.
We have a lot of one-off fabulously participative activities and consultations, but
we dont have the development of institutions that will constantly support those

This is a very simplified sequence of developments within the Nepal community

forestry history. Nepal is often described as the place where community forestry
was born. Community forestry is forestry that is managed by, and serves a
community, so that the people who live near a forest get what they need from it,
and are involved in managing it. This idea of community management exists in
many plans for regeneration in UK cities, so I feel the following is a useful

Twenty or so years ago there was great concern in Nepal because there was
serious deforestation in many areas. There were not the resources in the state
forestry service to do very much about this and so the concept was established of
engaging local people to set up forestry committees, to manage the forest. Such
committees would involve the head man, some of the senior members of the

village, the nursery foreman, and the forest guard. There were no women, no
landless people, there were no other forest users on these committees. After
some time it was realised that these committees werent really having the impact
desired; they were very elite, mainly men, and in fact, the upshot was that most
people felt alienated from the trees that were planted.

It was suggested that as many of the people who use the forest were women,
then women should be involved in the committees. So the headman would bring
his wife and a few other women would join the committee, but this still wasnt
working. With further reflection it was realised that the people who really should
be involved in these committees were the users, the people who depend on
these forests. So, user groups and user committees were established, which
worked to some extent, but there were lots of difficult issues around
representation. And when there is not a lot of power about, anyone who is given
a little bit of power tends to cut themselves off a lot of elitism develops and a
lot of problems evolve. So the next stage was to get everyone together and form
User Assemblies. This could mean one thousand people trying to negotiate a
forestry management plan, but it worked. They had to develop new ways of
managing these meetings to ensure that the most marginalised people were able
to have their voices heard, but they developed the skills and expertise to facilitate
that. The User Assemblies would produce the management plan which would be
negotiated and agreed, and they would elect a committee to implement it, so the
committee served the assembly.

This completely turned the usual processes upside down. There was a massive
amount of investment in developing the skills of villagers in how to engage in
these processes and really make them work and it is still evolving. The point is
that these processes do need to develop over time and keep developing. This
was a 20 year process of trial and error, of trying to get it right, and always
questioning; is this really having the impact that we want it to have? We are not
going to get it right today or tomorrow, but we need to constantly ask ourselves
what impact are we having on those people we would really like to benefit; the
most marginalised people in the community. This story may be about forestry,
but it rings true with most of what I have seen in the UK in community
development and in urban regeneration.

What relevance does any of this have to people with learning difficulties? The
general processes and principles are obviously very relevant to all people who
are marginalised in different ways and excluded from mainstream society. They
have a right to engage and that right is not respected in our society. Many of the
participatory approaches, such as participatory appraisal (PA), have been
developed in counties where there is very low literacy and very hierarchical
relationships between different groups within the community. They have been
developed to respond to those circumstances and reach consensus with people
with hugely different interests while valuing everyone within a community. They

endeavour to facilitate inclusive dialogue and that is hard. There are lots of
barriers; to do with confidence, to do with language, to do with physical disability

So, these processes of developing inclusive dialogue to challenge the dominant

knowledge system have to give weight to other peoples experience of the world
and change the way dialogue occurs. Much of that is done through visual
techniques using art and video, ways which are not necessarily dependant on the
written word, on books, reports, meetings, committee structures. It is a much
more open dialogue that is focused on agreeing on an agenda and moving
towards that agenda by consensus and challenging power. That is why this is
relevant to people with learning difficulties. It offers a way to change the existing
dynamics and enable people to engage on a level that they can actually control
and influence.

An example of this comes from Walsall4. PA, participatory appraisal, is used a lot
in Walsall and it was used in a piece of work commissioned by the Health
Authority, Standard Mental Health Service User Consultation. They trained the
service users in PA techniques to do their own consultation. It was very
successful, partly because there is a culture of respecting the PA system in
Walsall, so the consultation was listened to, and allowed to influence decision
making. Very often that doesnt happen. In this particular case it did, and
therefore it was much more empowering because people could see the impact of
their work. But there were other reasons why it was empowering:

training had challenged his [the worker] previously unrecognised

preconceptions about service users, it has really challenged the way in
which he thinks about the people he is working with.

The impact on the self esteem and confidence of some of the service users
involved was profound. One man went back to work after participating in this
process because his confidence and self esteem had been so bolstered. It is not
often that the tools are given to the service users; usually it is a development
worker or a change facilitator who uses the tools and facilitates the process but
here they handed over the process in a very empowering way.

Five principles of participation

In summary what is really important for me are five principles of participation.

Opening up the whole process and insuring that it is accessible; setting the
agenda together, being very clear about the boundaries, managing

This example comes from the article The use of qualitative research methodology too; participatory appraisal
with mental health service users, as a method of consultation and community capacity building, by Jeanne
Nicholls and Katie Watson. In PLA Notes, issue 38, Participatory processes in the North. PLA Notes are
produced by IIED (
expectations (expectations can be huge on all accounts expectations of
community members who come along with 50M from the New Deal,
expectation of local authority workers who think using these processes is
just about ticking a box called participation) and, obviously, using a
language which is mutually understandable. That doesnt mean that
everyone should be able to speak policy speak, policy speak should be
everyday language, because it is about everyday issues.

Being flexible, being iterative, accepting that the outcome may not be what
you think it is going to be and being able to cope with that. Institutions
need to recognise that this requires changes in the way you do things;
changes in the way you work and relate - you can not run the participative
process if you are a hierarchical institution. We cannot practice what we
dont preach and the institutions which will be successful are those who
really take this on board, and develop ways of being participative,
accountable, transparent to their employees as well as to their clients and
service users.

Creating connections
On lots of different levels, casting your net wide so that you have a really
informed and extensive knowledge base to ensure that decisions are better
made because you have a more robust analysis on which to base them.
Making connections between stakeholders and developing the tools that
can be used to facilitate them ensures that those processes are real.
Connections need to be made at different levels; not just at the community,
not just policy or regional levels, but in between as well.

It has to be action orientated. There is no point in any of this if it doesnt
make any difference. That means setting up a process that is not phoney,
a process which leads to change. People wont take up opportunities to
participate if they cant see that they will lead to change. Whats the point?
This is not apathy; how often do you hear this phrase, They are so
apathetic. We invite them to meetings and they dont come. Not coming is
a positive decision as why engage in a process where you are sure you are
probably going to be ignored and at the end of it there is going to be no
difference. So its necessary to ensure that action can happen.

Participation is political, its about power. Power is the crux of it, and that
makes people panicky how can I hand this power over to someone else if
they dont have the right qualifications to deal with it. But this transfer of
power is happening all over the place. Tenant management organisations

are managing estates, community councils are managing local budgets,
young people are managing youth clubs and play areas.

The Way Forward

Oxfam is taking these ideas forward by learning and sharing good practice and
evaluating practice in terms of the impact it actually has on the lives of the people
experiencing poverty. All this work we have been doing with PA at a community
level - what impact has it actually had? We might think it was a great success but
what do the people on the ground think? What do the local authority people
think? Where are the weaknesses? Where are the strengths? What can we do to
make it better? We have a major commitment to asking these questions within
our own work but also supporting others to do it as well.

Learning from experience internationally, challenging ideas and beliefs about

marginalised people will take time. There is no magic, in an instant answer.
However, it can be achieved and sharing learning and experience, being
reflective and looking for positive change are the strategies for getting there.

And above all, dont panic, and remember the beer and peanuts!