What next for participatory research for policy influence?

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Thea ShahrokhJoanna Wheeler

Participate partners have been critically reflecting on the participatory approaches they have employed in attempts to shift power in policymaking – including the engagement with the post-2015 process.  In this final blog of the series, Thea Shahrokh and Joanna Wheeler share their recommendations for future participatory research for policy influence.

Knowledge from the Margins: An anthology from a global network on participatory practice and policy influence draws together reflections, both collective and personal, on the experiences of using participatory research to try and influence policymaking processes, including those at the global level. Compiling it was our opportunity to draw together reflections, both collective and personal, on the experiences of using participatory research to try and influence policymaking processes, including those at the global level.

Through the process of editing the anthology we have been inspired and challenged by people living in extreme marginalisation and poverty to take these lessons forward; we have become clearer about our own assumptions of how change happens and what we can contribute; and we have also been able to shed light on the gaps that persist in trying to connect people in order to shift power in policymaking.

Based on our experience in Participate we offer the following recommendations for future practitioners, advocates and supporters of participatory research for policy influence.

1. Continue to champion participatory research as
a means to help people in the margins gather their own evidence, present their own viewpoints and work together to build relationships with policymakers and service providers to identify more appropriate solutions to problems and to help them realise their rights.

2. Promote a ‘see-feel-change’ approach over the prevailing ‘analyse-think-change’ paradigm as an effective means to create the empathy needed for change. Whilst enhancing the empathy of policymakers has been tested under Participate, there may be value in helping people in the margins to better understand and empathise with the position and constraints facing policymakers as well.

3. Recognise that urgency, passion and commitment emanate from the ‘see-feel-change’ approach and that these are the greatest catalysts for change. Seize serendipitous opportunities to maintain urgency. Numbers, reports, and statistics alone rarely spawn urgency.

4. Recognise and support methodological experimentation, creativity and new uses for technology in research approaches of this kind. What is possible can be expanded and changed, but only if innovation and risk-taking is encouraged.

5. Give more weight to understanding the constraints and impediments which prevent policymakers from engaging with the reality of poverty. Recognise the risks, both personal and political, and creatively find ways to help them to engage directly and to challenge received wisdom (including creating safe spaces to doubt).

6. Exercise care to ensure that people living in
 the margins champion their own causes, raise their own voices and use ways they find most appropriate and effective to influence change, and are not exploited for other’s ends. Keep constant vigilance that external actors remain as facilitators not managers of processes of change.

7. Continue to support initiatives like Participate which bring together participatory research experiences and enable collective and collaborative reflection around supporting conditions for change.

We hope that the Participate initiative and this anthology will give others ideas of how the voices of those
who are marginalised can be amplified. We hope it will provoke action to bring policymakers and people living in poverty together face-to-face. There is much to be done by many: Participate should not be a one- off, but should reinforce and inspire a broadening range of initiatives post-2015 to put those who are last first. This anthology is the start.

Knowledge from the marginsKnowledge from the Margins: An anthology from a global network on participatory practice and policy influence

Welcome to the Data Revolution Advisory Group – but will it be a revolution driven by people?

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Neva Frecheville

Article by Neva Frecheville, originally posted on CAFOD policy team blog, Serpents and Doves

A warm welcome to Ban Ki-Moon’s new independent expert advisory group on the data revolution. While the data revolution conversation has been bubbling away over the last year, it’s been difficult to see how it will be brought into the official post-2015 process. With the announcement of the expert group, that missing piece of the puzzle has become clearer. The group will be tasked to input to the UN SG’s much anticipated Synthesis Report, providing input into the fourth chapter on the accountability framework (the other three covering the background, goals and targets proposed by the OWG, and financing).

Benita, 4 years old, from Ruyenzi, Rwanda uses a phone

So far, so good. But looking at the press release, a couple of questions occurred to me. As I’ve previously pointed out, the data revolution is in danger of missing out on the key constituency who are meant to benefit most from the collective endeavour to create a global development agenda: the very people who on a daily-basis experience poverty, injustice, discrimination and exclusion. Yet reading through the list I failed to spot anyone who would obviously champion this perspective. When the Secretary General High Level Panel was formed in 2012, Graҫa Machel, among others, supported the perspectives of people living in poverty, and many Panellists reached out to engage with different groups.

This contributed to the strength of the Panel’s report, which understood that the post-2015 development agenda needs to place people at the centre and to hear their stories. (In comparison to the Intergovernmental Committee of Experts on Sustainable Development Financing, which was heavily criticised for failing to open its doors to stakeholder participation.) While I understand that the Data Revolution Advisory Group is planning to consult with civil society, how will it hear the perspectives of people on the margins within such a tight timeframe?

The expert group should remember that data is not just technical and that the data revolution should be more than statistics, new technologies, and number crunching. The data revolution must also be about power. Information without a purpose is meaningless but who and how that purpose is defined is inherently political. Qualitative data, gathered from people’s experiences, stories and histories, play an important part in understanding what sustainable development is and how it is delivered. The Participate initiative, which gathered knowledge from the margins for the post-2015 process, is a good place to understand this contribution.

The Data Revolution group is called to assess opportunities to strengthen accountability across the national, regional and global levels. The newly convened group would do well to remember that accountability should be towards people, and within the post-2015 process, it is our duty to hear the perspectives, experiences and realities of those who are most often ignored or unheard, who are most often powerless.

I was also surprised that there seem to be no representatives from countries who genuinely struggle with a lack of capacity in National Statistical Offices. Although the Panel has 24 members, I couldn’t find an expert from an LDC among them. I think this is a shame – if we’re serious about addressing the obstacles to implementing a new development agenda, we should hear from the countries that have the least resource to support it.

For what revolution was ever successful without people?

Three recommendations to the Panel to wish them well:

  1. Be open to learning from different perspectives that complement traditional data collection methodologies. Participate resources are a good place to start.
  2. Include an expert who will champion grass-roots realities and understands data collection from people’s perspectives. An organisation like Spatial Collective in Kenya is one option.
  3. Give enough time for civil society consultations for marginalised people to participate, not just large, well-resources NGOs.

Digital storytelling for transformation

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Participate has developed a number of innovations with the goal of collapsing the distance between the grassroots experience and global policymakers tasked with creating the post-2015 framework. Participate PRG members Gill Black and Pegalia Tusiime describe how sharing deeply personal experiences through Digital Story Telling (DST) can bring the real challenges of living in marginalisation and poverty to the attention of decision-makers.

Digital storytelling (DST) is a creative, participatory audio-visual process that brings people’s stories to life through the use of digital technology. A digital story is a short (two-three minute) film sequence made up of static images that is consciously prepared and told as a first person narrative, from the heart.

Digital Storytelling South Africa

Digital storytelling is a powerful self-reflective process that asks participants to share memories and emotions with honesty

DST has become an increasingly popular approach for development practitioners to work closely with community members. It is a way of gaining deeper understanding of the multiple and complex ways in which people’s lives are affected by social issues. The process is carried out with the intention of building new knowledge, skills, connections and self-confidence for the storytellers.

The process invites participants to explore their personal experience through a creative and expressive lens, and many have experienced DST as empowering. The collective process of sharing honest emotions, being reflective and working creatively builds a bond between participants that enables both personal strength, and also the identification of collective challenges to be overcome.

The application of DST is far-reaching; the resulting stories can be used, for example, to evaluate learning, generate research material, and spark discussion and debate at local, national or global levels. Collective viewing of digital stories can be an effective approach for inducing reflection and action of community actors, organisations and institutions. They can also facilitate the understanding of policymakers.

The Kawempe action research on slum health issues and health research engagement by HEPS Uganda, encouraged community members to engage with each other, local authorities and policymakers to increase the visibility of health needs in their communities using DST. Community researchers created four digital stories around the health work and their own perspectives in the slums.

Gilbert, who lives in the slum, shared his story during the drama presentation in Katanga community. He expressed how he is confronted with multiple issues and daily challenges that impact on his health and wellbeing. Gilbert’s story places emphasis on the positive impact of the digital story telling initiative on the development of his community, in particular how it is changing the environment around him. The storytelling process has also helped transform Gilbert’s negative perceptions of Katanga, and there is an opportunity for a shift in the perspectives that the wider society have towards people living in slums as well.

Being poor in the poorest slum in Uganda means being invisible in plain sight of power, wealth and millions of fellow citizens. Digital stories have been a powerful and empowering way to tackle this invisibility by the slum dwellers themselves. By conveying people’s experiences, a more socially accountable form of urban slum development has been encouraged which involves citizens in an evaluative role, and supports citizen action for social change.

Knowledge from the marginsThis blog is an edited version of Gill and Pegalia’s contributions to Participate’s latest publication ‘Knowledge from the Margins: An anthology from a global network on participatory practice and policy influence’ .

Gill Black is the director of the Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation (SLF) and works in community-based TB and
HIV research.

Pelagia Tusiime is Community Empowerment Program Manager at the Coalition for Health Promotion and Social Development (HEPS), Uganda.

Ground Level Panels: Seeing the world through a different lens

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Danny Burns

The Secretary-General of the United Nations is expected to publish his report to the General Assembly on the MDGs and the post-2015 development agenda on 12 August. How much of his insight will have been informed by listening to the voices of the poorest and most marginalised?  Ahead of his report, Participate partners have been critically reflecting  on the participatory methods they have employed in attempts to shift power in policy making.  One such approach, the Participate Ground Level Panels (GLPs) created a participative space for people living in poverty and marginalisation to deliberate what is needed from the post-2015 global policy process. 

 In 2013, Participate partners hosted three deliberative meetings between those living poverty and those with political authority through Ground Level Panels (GLPs). The idea for a GLP aimed to provide a mirror to the deliberations of the United Nations (UN) High Level Panel (HLP) but from people who lived in extreme poverty or marginalisation.

GLP Egypt

Ground Level Panels were developed to bridge the gap between people living in poverty and national and global actors

The Ground Level Panels took place in Egypt, Brazil, Uganda and India. Each panel comprised a group of 10-14 people with diverse and intersecting identities including urban slum dwellers; disabled people; sexual minorities; people living in conflict and natural disaster-affected areas; people living in geographically isolated communities; nomadic and indigenous people; older people; internally displaced people; and young people. Each panel created relationships, shared experiences, connected the local level to the national and international development contexts and provided a critical review and reality check on the five transformative shifts as outlined by the UN High Level Panel.

The GLPs saw the world through a different lens to the HLP. The people in the Panels understood the dynamics of change facing people living in poverty and this gave them the ability to say if these policies were meaningful. While economic growth is an unchallenged assumption in the HLP for the Brazilian GLP it was seen as part of the ‘death plan’. For the Brazilians the critical issue is not ‘poverty’ per se, but ‘misery’ and ‘dignity’. While the HLP focused on service provision, the Indian Panel’s desired goals largely focus on social norms, behaviour
and discrimination.

There were some common themes which emerged in all of the Panels. People want to feel that they have meaningful control over the influences that impact their lives. In all cases structures for equal participation were highlighted as foundational. In almost all of the Panel’s there was a recurring theme of ‘self management’. People don’t want aid. They want the means to generate and sustain their own livelihoods. So if we are serious about moving ‘beyond aid’ in the new development agenda then empowerment must become the priority.

One thing that struck me was the difference in composition of the HLP and the GLPs. The HLP was made up of people largely from an elite political class. There was the odd member of royalty and a few interesting academics thrown in, but by and large they were high ranking politicians. There was very little diversity in the group, and the interests were narrow. The GLPs on the other hand were highly diverse. Slum dwellers sitting side by side with pastoralists, transgender people, and people living in refugee camps … It is easy to stereotype people as ‘poor’and see them as a huge sprawling undifferentiated ‘category’, but they bring far more diversity than people who hold power.

Uganda_GLP a

Ground Level Panel participants in Uganda discussed what they mean by ‘sustainable development’

What defines the success of a Ground Level Panel? Is it the response of the national government or within the UN process, or is it also influence on policy at the local levels? For  Natalie Newell who led the GLP in Uganda on behalf of Restless Development, the experience demonstrated the importance of the local level. 
”It is important to be clear with all involved about what can realistically be achieved from the GLP process. This includes considering the strengths and weaknesses of this approach, and what it can add to the policy debate. From the perspectives of those that participated in the Uganda process, the changes at the community level and for them as people were an important success.”

Listen to Nava and Richard’s reflections on the Uganda Ground Level Panels:

Knowledge from the marginsRead more about the Ground Level Panels in Participate’s latest publication ‘Knowledge from the Margins: An anthology from a global network on participatory practice and policy influence.’ 

This article was originally posted on the Participation, Power and Social Change blog


Documentary film-making connecting policymakers to people living in poverty

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Led by Real Time, Participate produced a 20-minute documentary film ‘Work with Us’  to influence UN decision-making processes. The film drew stories together in order to powerfully communicate the participatory processes involved, and the importance of their contribution. Film-makers Jackie Shaw and Clive Robertson reflect on the role of documentary film making as a way to engage marginalised groups in informal and formal policy processes.

Our documentary production role involved film-making collaborations with ten Participatory Research Group (PRG) partners and communities in seven countries, to bring together some of participant’s research stories in a visually compelling way to broadcast standard.

The film’s purpose was to use actual experiences to make a case for why dialogue with marginalised groups is needed, how participatory processes can generate missing contextual insight, and how this contributes to the policy agenda in building more equitable working relationships. The stories communicated in the film emerged from the PRG partners’ participatory research processes, and exemplify the importance of their knowledge for development decision-making.

Collaborative film making

Collaboration is central to the participatory practice envisioned within Participate

From the beginning we intended that the documentary would be co-constructed with the groups we visited, and focused on the stories that people wanted to show and tell. It would place them at the centre of communications by filming them where they lived, speaking directly to the audience in their own language.

The stories included in the documentary grew in different ways depending on the context. What happened during film-making responded to the needs of the particular partners, the specific activities they were involved in, and the stage reached in the research processes when the documentary 
visit took place. For example, with PRG partners
the Seed Institute and Spatial Collective in Kenya
 and with Praxis in India, documentary narratives
 were storyboarded as part of participatory video processes. Cross-over 
with film-making visits provided the opportunity to record them on the broadcast equipment to include in documentary. In comparison, Ecoweb’s non-visual participatory research in the Philippines had already been completed – so we ran shorter participatory video processes with participants to build trust and working relationships and raise production awareness before filming.

Our intention to maximise ground level story authorship during documentary production, was reliant on the PRG partnerships, and the relationships they brokered with people living in poverty. The challenges of adapting the film-making process to context also arose in part from differences in the participatory approaches used, the stage of the research, the way the PRG partners perceived Real Time’s potential contribution, and how we responded. Learning from experience during pilot documentary collaborations with Praxis <link> in India and UAM-X in Mexico <link> enabled us to develop practice guidance that informed contextual adaptation in later visits.

Reflecting on the implicit dynamic created by our position as outside film-makers, we concluded that we were more likely to engender trust and informed consent, if there was at least a short interactive process between Real Time film-makers and participants living in poverty. This was to establish collaborative relationships before production, even on film-making only visits. This was also important to us in fulfilling our commitment to reflect people’s realities, because it gave space for film-makers and those who appeared to get to know each other, and allowed people’s most pressing issues, feelings and perspectives on what was needed to emerge.

We defined Real Time’s documentary making activity as collaborative to distinguish it from participatory production. We used the term ‘collaborative’ in recognition of the relationships with PRG partners that enabled us to build film-making partnerships with people living in poverty, and also to acknowledge the co-construction of the resulting materials with the communities concerned. However, documentary production activities also reflected a much more typical film-making dynamic: we took 
on a responsibility to produce and direct the process in order to deliver a broadcast standard product communicating the meta-narrative to decision makers within the timeframe. As such, we encountered a tension: how to maintain group narrative ownership of the stories filmed, whilst maximising the opportunity to influence international policy through communicating the films wider message.


Knowledge from the margins This blog is an edited version of Jackie and Clive’s contribution to Participate’s latest publication ‘Knowledge from the Margins: An anthology from a global network on participatory practice and policy influence’. The anthology is a collection of honest accounts and critical reflections on participatory approaches to influencing policy – including the engagement with the post-2015 process.