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The Anthropology of Development 101: The Challenge of Participatory Development


The Anthropology of Development 101 intends to review the contributions of anthropological knowledge to development theories and practices in ‘underdeveloped‘ and ‘developing‘ societies, as well as the critique of development as a social, economic, and political phenomenon. It critically examines the major theories, strategies, institutions, and the social consequences of global development while emphasizing what development means in relation to particular places and people. By placing development theories and practices into broader historical contexts, these articles look at development as a dynamic phenomenon that is continuously shaped and reshaped by new social, economic, and political circumstances.

This 101 series is divided into six articles including:

  1. The Anthropology of Development 101: The Challenge of Participatory Development

  2. The Anthropology of Development 101: Neoliberal Approach to Development: Microcredits vs Unconditional Cash Transfert

  3. The Anthropology of Development 101: The Gendered Politics of Development

  4. The Anthropology of Development 101: The Development of Difference: Rethinking Indigeneity, Ethnicity, and Social Movement

In the last decades, participation has become one of the most prevalent “buzz word” in development discourse. Emerging out of the shortcomings of top-down approaches, participation is supposed to bring solutions that are socially and technologically appropriate by including the local population “in the creation, content, and conduct of a program or policy designed to change their lives” and by using “local decision making and capacities to steer and define the nature of an intervention” (Jennings, 2000, p. 1). Participation, however, is a concept that is shaped by ambiguity. Despite many attempts to synthesize participation, huge contradictions are built into participation projects. This article reviews the main characteristics of participatory development before addressing the contradictions and problems inherent to participatory approaches in development projects.

Participatory Development is based on mutual learning and exchange between development practitioners and the local community

What Is a Participatory Approach to Development?

Mainstream development thinking postulates that “underdeveloped” countries need to advance toward “global” norms and standards that originate from Western enlightenment and modernity (Bonacker et al., 2016). Development projects are planned, implemented, and evaluated in a top-down manner by attributing agency to development experts, thereby turning participants into passive and ignorant subjects. Local communities’ problems are defined by distant experts in reference to Eurocentric models of development that ignore or dismiss local knowledge, capabilities, or needs (Grillo & Stirrat, 2020). In contrast, participatory development is rooted in the belief that marginalized peoples must be involved in decision-making over their own lives (Guijt & Shah, 1998). Developed in the 1980s, Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) marks a paradigm shift from a top-down to bottom-up approach and from pre-established development plans to collaborative learning processes that emphasize the role of local knowledge in the design of community-driven initiatives (Chambers,1994). Participatory development held the “promise of inclusion, of creating spaces for the less vocal and powerful to exercise their voices and begin to gain more choices” (Cornwall, 2003, p. 1325). In doing so, participation breaks the mentality of dependence, promotes self-awareness and confidence, and encourages people to develop their own solutions (Oakley, 1991). Such an approach requires outside researchers and practitioners to act as facilitators to support local communities in conducting their own analysis, planning, and action. Since the 1990s, there has been a growing appreciation for “the local” in development discourse (OECD, 1996). International Organizations (IOs) and NGOs almost unanimously embrace the concept of localization – the process of moving from internationally driven development projects to locally driven operations (Patole, 2018) – and adopt the rhetoric of “participation,” “local ownership,” and “inclusion” (Bonacker et al., 2016).

The key components of PRA

Since the 2000s, concepts such as hybridity and friction have served as lenses for analyzing the interactions between the “local,” “national,” and “international.” Hybridity is defined as practices, norms, and thinking that emerge from the interaction of different groups, worldviews, and activities (Ginty & Sanghera, 2012). Hybridity seeks to disrupt the assumption of difference that has been articulated in colonial times as well as in the current political, economic, and social narratives. It suggests moving away from unilinear processes of institutional transfer from the Global North toward recognizing local practices and institutions as having the potential to advance wider development goals (Dinnen & Kent, 2015). Development theorists and practitioners who adopt a hybridity lens question the boundaries between apparently fixed categories and instead focus on the exchange between external actors and local context, the role of local agency in mediating external interventions, and how these complex linkages create frictions (Ibid). Friction, here, intends to capture the dynamic through which different kinds of knowledge and culture interact with each other by emphasizing that “universal claims do not actually make everything everywhere the same [but are] embroiled in specific situations” (Tsing, 2011, p. 1-2).

Local knowledge plays an important role in the implementation of participatory development projects

Challenging Participation

Parfitt (2004) notes that development practitioners who conceive participation as a means tend to focus on process efficiency and project outcomes without addressing power relations between the target community and governmental agencies. Project design and management are carried out by traditional authorities, and community participation consists simply in being involved in the pre-determined goals of the projects. Power relations remain essentially the same as in top-down models of development. Conversely, those who primarily perceive participation as an end are more likely to focus on the transformation of power relations between donors and recipients by seeking to liberate the former from a clientelist relation with the latter often at the expense of tangible outcomes of development. Yet, in practice, Parfitt (2004) contends that the divide between participation as an end or means is ambiguous. Both conceptions overlap and intersect. Even though a participatory project is end-oriented, it must achieve measurable outcomes, often defined and assessed by aid donors and development practitioners. Similarly, in theory, community participation is seen as an essential prerequisite for enhancing a project’s sustainability and relevance.

A closer look at IOs and NGOs practices reveals that participation often remains a rhetorical tool. Despite an attempt to create mutual understanding and partnership between actors, participatory projects almost always occur in institutional and globalized contexts shaped by unequal and top-down power relations between development agencies and beneficiaries (Leach et al., 2005). In particular, IOs and NGOs perpetuate domination through the diffusion of economic and cultural norms (Shahjahan, 2016), and paternalistic attitudes toward beneficiaries (Botes & Van Rensburg, 2000). OECD initiatives, for example, disseminate Western ways of knowing and promulgate universal solutions that inevitably reproduce unequal structures of knowledge/power while justifying its intervention (Ibid). Moreover, the nature of most IOs and NGOs, as bureaucratic, performance-driven, and goal-oriented, may determine the exercise of participation. In some instances, community participation is seen as too time-consuming and not cost-effective, thus representing a fundamental impediment to NGOs’ imperative to deliver immediate outcomes (Botes & van Rensburg, 2000). Although participatory approaches aim to make people central to the development process, they may lead to the “tyranny of decision-making and control” by development practitioners (Cooke & Kothari, 2001, p. 7). Most development projects are initiated by outside experts who dominate decision-making and control development processes (Botes & Van Rensburg, 2000).

During participatory development planning, the local community provides solutions to problems they encounter

In his study of participatory development in Sri Lanka, Woost (1997) suggests that despite the widespread use of participatory rhetoric, there has been little change in the practice of development. Participation has been integrated into an official discourse that promotes the implementation of market-led development strategies intended to turn Sri Lanka into a Newly Industrialized Country (NIC). The participation of rural communities is directed toward pre-determined goals within boundaries that have been defined by outsiders (Barlett, 2008). In fact, participation processes often begin after projects have already been designed externally and simply serve to legitimate existing decisions (Botes & Van Rensburg, 2000).

When Participatory Development Reproduces Inequalities

An excessively narrow focus on the local tends to undermine broader structural issues. Poverty and inequality on a global scale are perpetuated by ongoing neoliberal reforms and globalization (Koch, 2018). Additionally, structural adjustment and “austerity” policies continue to widen inequalities between the Global North and the Global South (Bhan & Trisal, 2017). While participatory development promotes sustained societal change, it avoids addressing the economic and political forces that operate within the landscape of development interventions and contribute to rural communities’ continued impoverishment (Kapoor & Jordan, 2009).

Participatory approaches to development risk essentializing the local. By considering local communities as harmonious groups with shared interests, needs, and aspirations, participatory approaches fail to consider the multiplicity of interests and differences in gender, age, class/caste, or ethnicity (Gujit & Shah, 1998). Very often, “it is the most visible and vocal, wealthier, more articulated and educated groups that are allowed to be partners in development” (Botes & Van Rensburg, 2000, p. 45). Because local leaders are rarely democratically elected but rather self-appointed, the views and perspectives of the broader community may not be accurately reflected. In South Africa, for example, self-elected leaders control community-level decision-making and promote their own interests (Ibid). These community-led interventions reproduce elite capture and exclusion of the poor, thus reproducing sociopolitical asymmetries of inequality and injustice.

Because communities are seen as a homogenous group, women are often excluded in participatory development projects

Agarwal (1997)’s analysis of the Joint Forest Management (JFM) in India further demonstrates that a gender-bling application of PRA impedes women’s participation in management and equity in benefit sharing. This is mainly due to “logical constraints ranging from seclusion to norms about women’s capabilities and roles; the absence of a ‘critic mass’ of women, which impinges on women’s voice in public arenas; lack of experience in public speaking and a lack of recognized authority” (Ibid, p. 1315). Similarly, Mosse (1995) explains that the planning of the Kribhco Indo-British Rainfeed Project (KRIBO), in India, was marked by the unequal representation of the target community. Participation in the project was highly influenced by gender, age, kinship, and education. In particular, the practitioners failed to recognize the cultural context in which real obstacles prevented women's participation in the public space. Because participatory projects often ignore the structural factors which contribute to the disempowerment of particular groups in a community, they do not necessarily challenge the broader social structures of marginalization, such as the exclusion of women or the poor from the public sphere (Hickey & Mohan, 2005). The failure to address existing power relationships may turn participation into an exclusionary tool that maintains and exacerbates local power differentials (Cooke & Kothari, 2001). From these perspectives, participatory approaches are just another means of pursuing traditional top-down development agendas while giving the impression of implementing a more inclusive project of local population empowerment (Parfitt, 2004).

In response to these criticisms, new approaches focus on gender relations in PRA planning. The Redd Barna Uganda (RBU), for example, created spaces to discuss gender issues and address women’s subordination (Cornwall, 2003). Through a five-stage planning process, groups of women of different ages identify their own priorities and discuss the issues raised by others. While this approach has successfully included women’s voices, the creation of explicit gender and age groups undermined other markers of difference, such as economic inequalities (Ibid). This example shows that gender inequalities can be addressed and challenged in PRA. Yet, the imposition of categories and concepts from conventional gender approaches does not address the diversity of experiences.


Participatory development is often associated with more equitable distribution of power and data and a recognition of the importance of different kinds of knowledge. However, one must be aware of the assumptions upon which participatory development is built. Participatory approaches do not necessarily lead to actual participation in the sense of shared ownership and goals, equitable distribution of power, and benefit for diverse groups within a community. Therefore, there is a need to reassess the efficacy of development projects based on community participation. This involves not only rethinking contingent power relations and the exclusionary nature of participation but also reconsidering the broader dynamics of political, economic, and social change. To make a difference, participatory development should engage with questions of structural inequalities and engage with the diversity of individuals’ experiences.

Bibliographical References

Agarwal, B. (1997). ''Bargaining'' and Gender Relations: Within and Beyond the Household". Feminist Economics 3(1):1-51.

Bhan, M. & Trisal, N. (2017). "Fluid landscapes, sovereign nature: conservation and counterinsurgency in Indian-controlled Kashmir." Critique of Anthropology 22: 67– 91.

Botes, L., & van Rensburg, D. (2000). "Community participation in development: nine plagues and twelve commandments". Community Development Journal 35 (1): 41–58.

Chambers, R. (1994). “The origins and practice of participatory rural appraisal”. World Development 22 (7): 953-969.

Chambers, R. (2005) Ideas for Development, London: Earthscan.

Cornwall, A. (2003). "Whose voices? Whose choices? Reflections on gender and participatory development". World Development 31 (8): 1325-1342.

Cooke, B. and Kothari, U. (2001). Participation : The New Tyranny? London: Zed Books.

Dinnen, S., & Kent, L. (2015). Hybridity in Peacebuilding and Development: A Critical Interrogation. (SSGM in brief 2015/50). Canberra: ANU.

Ginty, M. R., & Sanghera, G. (2012). "Hybridity in peacebuilding and development: An introduction". Journal of Peacebuilding & Development 7 (2): 3-8.

Grillo, R. D. & Stirrat, R. L. Discourses of Development: Anthropological Perspectives. New York: Oxford University Press.

Guijt, I., Shah, M. (1998). The Myth of Community: Gender Issues in Participatory Development, London: Intermediate Technology Publications

Hickey, S. and Mohan, G. (2005). “Relocating Participating within a Radical Politics of Development”. Development and Change 36 (2): 237-262.

Jennings, R. (2000). "Participatory Development as New Paradigm: The Transition of Development Professionalism". Paper prepared for the Community Based Reintegration and Rehabilitation in Post-Conflict Settings Conference, Washington DC.

Kapoor, D. & Jordan, S. (2009). "Introduction: International perspectives on education, PAR, and social change". In D. Kapoor & S. Jordan (eds.), Education, participatory action research and social change: International perspectives. (1-14). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Koch, I. (2018). “Towards an anthropology of global inequalities and their local manifestations: social anthropology in 2017” Social Anthropology 26 (2): 253-268.

Leach, M., Scoones, I., Wynne, B. (2005). Science and Citizens: Globalisation and the Challenge of Engagement, London: Zed Books.

Mohan, G., & Stokke, K. (2000). “Participatory development and empowerment: the dangers of localism”. Third world quarterly21(2): 247-268.

Mosse, D. (1995). “Authority, Gender and Knowledge: Theoretical Reflections on Participatory Rural Appraisal”. Economic and Political Weekly 30 (11): 569–578.

Mosse, David (2001) ''People's knowledge', participation and patronage: operations and representations in rural development.' In: Cook, B. & Kothari, U. (eds.), Participation : the new tyranny? London: Zed Press, pp. 16-35.

Mosse, D. (2005). Cultivating Development: An Ethnography of Aid Policy and Practice. Pluto Press.

Oakley, P. (1991). “The Concept of Participation in Development”. Landscape and Urban Planning 20: 115-122.

Parfitt, T. (2004). “The Ambiguity of Participation: A Qualified Defence of Participatory Development”. Third World Quarterly 25 (3): 537-56.

Patole, M. (2018). "Localization of SDGs through disaggregation of KPIs". Economies 6 (1): 15.

Shahjahan, R. (2016). “International organizations (IOs), epistemic tools of influence, and the colonial geopolitics of knowledge production in higher education policy.” Journal of Education Policy 31 (6): 694-710.

Tsing, A. L. (2005). Friction: an ethnography of global connection. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Woost, M. (1997). “Alternative Vocabularies of Development? ‘Community’ and ‘Participation’ in Development Discourse in Sri Lanka.” In Discourses of Development: Anthropological Perspectives (eds.) R. D. Grillo and R. L. Stirrat. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 203-227.

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