Time for a new partnership between policy makers and marginalised groups

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Thea Shahrokh

People who are most marginalised and living in greatest poverty around the world want to develop their own futures and shape the policies and programmes that affect them. According to participatory research in 29 countries conducted by the Participate PRG, people are calling, loud and clear, for the right to play a meaningful role in the decisions that affect their lives. It is time for policy-makers to heed that call, and to put it at the heart of development policy.

Participation can help to tackle the corruption, inefficiencies and discriminations that so often confront those living in poverty. When participation is truly inclusive it challenges the power imbalances that block the accountability of duty bearers; ultimately, this can lead to the transformative shifts that pave the way for sustainable change.  Participants involved in research on local governance with The Theatre for Development Centre, Nigeria, explained how they see two ways in which the participation of the most marginalised is important for accountability: ‘Democracy has two voices: one determines what should be done, and the other holds elected officials to account’.

By encouraging the participation of marginalised people in governance processes, policy actors can work to address inequalities and abuses of power alongside those who experience these challenges on a daily basis. This means that  the way in which people participate really matters, as Participate research partners ATD Fourth World emphasise, ‘participation should be encouraged though community solidarity and collaboration, never by imposing humiliating conditions on people or penalising non-compliance’.

For people living in poverty and marginalisation the outcomes of genuine citizen participation include both the greater realisation of their own rights and wider positive changes, such as building networks that reduce their isolation. Research participants have told us that relevant policies and interventions could help them to organise themselves to get involved in participatory processes. Such collective action is an important part of how power can be leveraged by the poorest and most marginalised to change their own circumstances.

Those who took part in this research through Praxis in Chennai see themselves as ‘citymakers’. They are the people who build roads, metros, flyovers, shopping malls and parks. These ‘citymakers’ have, however, been living on the margins of urban poverty, enduring stereotyping, criminalisation, exclusion and lack of public services and government support. Nevertheless, they have been working together for change, creating platforms from which they can articulate and defend their rights. According to Stephen Raj, a community leader in the Kannagi Nagar relocation site outside Chennai:

‘We formed a residents’ welfare association and got people to post 50,000 post cards… addressed to the director of the slum clearance board petitioning him about our needs… within 10 days the director organised a People’s Grievance Redressal Forum. As a result…we started getting water, better access to public transport, ..midday meals at school… However, we need to keep asking and demanding our rights and only then does the government respond.”

The inclusion of groups who usually have no say in decisions is crucial for building effective and inclusive policies. Research participants in the Ghana ‘Reality Check’ research saw ‘opportunities to participate in life and make a contribution to genuine local decision making’ as critical for their development. Young people working with Restless Development in Uganda ‘felt that their involvement would increase local ownership and programme quality by ensuring that activities are appropriate to the local context … and [would] build networks between youth and other community members.’

Examples in the Participate research show how just how more effective policies and services can be when they are developed through collaborative approaches that value local and indigenous knowledge. For example, collaboration between indigenous community midwives and professional health workers through the Social Services at the Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana, Mexico, has enabled local knowledge to improve maternal health outcomes. What is needed, on an ongoing basis, is the acknowledgement by those in power that this collaboration is important.

Participatory action research by HEPS-Uganda worked through photography and digital storytelling approaches to help people living in poverty identify their aspirations for development on the issue of slum health inequity, and opened up space for dialogue with policy makers, health researchers and the media on ways to achieve lasting change.

The stories and experiences of people living in poverty and marginalisation shared through the Participate research confirm that a participatory approach to governance is an effective empowerment strategy and a crucial way to achieve equity and inclusion in society for all.

People who are marginalised through poverty and discrimination have the right to participate in researching, planning, deciding, delivering and monitoring development initiatives. This is a right that they are, increasingly, demanding in local, national and regional policy spaces.

When we look at participatory governance in the context of the post-2015 development agenda, we see that if such demands are ignored, the gap between what people living in extreme poverty and marginalisation need and what a universal framework can deliver is even wider than it may seem. Without the genuine inclusion of these groups and their perspectives in decision-making processes at every level, no universal framework can succeed.

This blog was originally published on Development Progress, a blog facilitated by the Overseas Development Institute.


Participate response to the Open Working Group ‘Focus Area Document’

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On 14 March 2014, Participate responded to the Open Working Group (OWG) Focus Area Document, urging members to listen to the voices of those living in greatest poverty and to ensure that the words ‘leave no-one behind’ become enshrined in the post-2015 agenda.

In 2013, Participate and its partners carried out research in which people were simply asked to tell their stories and talk about what was important to them. Given the open-ended nature of the research, with such a diverse range of people, their perspectives on development were remarkably consistent. The research  produced detailed insights into a vast array of development issues facing the poorest and most marginalized. The following critique of the ‘Focus Area Document’ is based on that research.

Focus area 1 – Poverty Eradication:  We strongly support the focus on poverty eradication, and the recognition that poverty is multi-dimensional. However we think that this commitment is contradicted by other focus areas within the OWG framework such as  ‘economic growth’, which our evidence shows does not benefit the poorest. The consistent conclusion across all 18 studies was that those living in greatest poverty have not benefited significantly from the MDG’s, that trickle down doesn’t reach the very poorest, and that a much more holistic approach to development which focuses on the multiple overlapping hardships which can spiral people further and further into poverty needs to be constructed.

Focus areas 3 and 4 – Health and Education: We know that people living in poverty value health and education highly. But because people are poor and marginalized, they cannot benefit from these services that might help them and their families find ways out of poverty. Access is limited by a lack of basic livelihoods and by discriminatory institutions, discriminatory local social norms and power relations which divert resources away from those in need.

Focus areas 5 and 12 Gender equality and women’s empowerment and equality: We believe that targets generically focused on institutional discrimination and changes in discriminatory social norms, attitudes and behaviours need to be built explicitly into the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) framework. Gender and inequality was shown to be persistent and endemic across all the studies. Traditional forms of exclusion against, for example people with disabilities, indigenous people and sexual minorities continue while new forms of discrimination, for example, against the elderly are emerging.

Focus areas 8, 9 and 10: While we recognize the importance of infrastructure development such as house building programmes and clean water and sanitation facilities, our research shows that economic growth, industrialisation and infrastructure development are producing greater inequalities. In other words, the price of better infrastructure for people with low incomes and the growing middles class is that the very poor become even more marginalized.  One clear example is the way in which slum clearance pushes people to the edge of cities where they no longer have secure livelihoods.

Focus area 11 – Employment and Decent work for all: While we agree that broadening the base of formal jobs is important, most of the poorest live by subsistence and through the informal economy. Development needs to support the informal economy and also support transitions from the informal into the formal economy. We think that this goal should focus on ‘livelihoods’ and decent work for all.

Focus Area 15 – Climate Change: We were struck by the Ghana Community Radio Network research which showed communities ravaged by climate change, mass migration into the cities leading to villages populated only by women and children (increasingly only grandparents and children). For many poor communities climate change is now seen as a priority.

Focus area 18 – Means of implementation: The discussion on the means of implementation needs to be substantially broadened. People living in poverty and marginalization need a development approach which is responsive to their needs and to their articulation of their rights. This requires a participatory approach to decision making at local and national level. Systems need to be built which ensure participation in the conception, design, implementation and evaluation stages of any development initiatives. This cannot be seen as something that comes after the development framework is set. It has to be embedded within it and seen as an integral part of it.

Focus area 19 – Peaceful and non-violent societies, capable institutions: One of the things that is most striking about the Participate work is the priority that was given to issues of governance. People were concerned with how institutions operate and the extent to which resources are diverted away from the poor as a result of poor governance, corruption or local power. People called for access to justice and for meaningful participation about the decisions in their lives.

Participate’s proposed foundational targets:

Drawing on core messages that arise repeatedly from our research, Participate believes that there are further focus areas that need to be addressed for sustainable positive change in the lives of the poorest and most marginalised. Key targets that enable change need to be included, and can fit within a range of goal areas. Without them, we cannot reach our aspiration to ‘leave no-one behind.’

(1) Efforts to enhance citizenship and participation allowing young people, women and other excluded people’s to articulate their own needs at all stages of decision making processes from articulation of the issues, to design, to implementation, to monitoring and evaluation

(2) Interventions to directly tackle discriminatory social norms and power relationships which exclude. These are seen to be the main causes of poverty and marginalisation. Services and opportunities exist, but the poorest and most marginalised don’t get access to them for these reasons.

(3) Support people in making secure the livelihoods that are realistically available to them. This means supporting the informal economies that keep the poorest and most marginalised alive.


Working with creativity to empower women and children

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Vivienne Benson

Every year on 8 March, thousands of events are held around the world to inspire, celebrate and empower women to mark International Women’s Day (IWD). This year on 6-7 March, it is directly preceded by the President of the General Assembly to the United Nations (PGA) High Level discussion on The Contributions of Women, the Young and Civil Society to the Post-2015 Development Agenda.

At the centre of the PGA discussion are the challenges that continue to impede groups from participating fully in society and from having the scope to ensure the accountability of decision-makers through their actions and voices.

Empowering marginalised women, men and young people to speak for themselves on issues of equity and rights should be a primary objective of the UN and other global decision makers. Key to that objective is developing the skills and capacity of women, men, young people and civil society to use different tools for creative expression in order to support people to speak through the medium that is most relevant to them.

Telling their own stories
Participate’s partners have worked with participatory methods to facilitate processes where people living in poverty and marginalisation can tell their own stories about how and why change happens in their lives. The Middle East Non-Violence and Democracy (MEND) works to promote active non-violence and open media in East Jerusalem and throughout the West Bank. They have worked with marginalised women from these areas to share their reality through film.

Palestinian women share their stories with the world through participatory film-making: Credit: MEND 2013

MEND worked with a group of women in the village of Al Jib. The group learnt how to make their own films, from behind and in front of the camera. Reflecting on this process the women involved explained that they were ‘happy because we have a voice and we can send our message out’. In making their film, they are able to talk about what is most important to them: ‘there isn’t a single word in the world or in the dictionary that can express my anger and sadness [about the Wall that encircles village] and the tragedy because it really has no limits’. The clarity and poignancy of this message is expressed in their short film – Unhappy Birthday.


The participatory video process enabled the women to build relationships and learn from other women in their community. It has supported them to build the confidence and belief that they can and have the right to express their aspirations for change, ‘what I gained from the project the most was that I have more self-confidence, I am more strong and more sociable now’.

The Participate Initiative has 18 partners within 29 countries, all of whom have worked with the poorest and most marginalised communities to communicate the issues that are important in their lives, on their own terms. The Seed Institute, Kenya, Nairobi worked with children in Mwiki to conduct their own research on the experience of children living with disabilities. In their findings they explained that these children were forgotten and ignored. Using participatory video, they voice their concerns and identify practical solutions to improve the lives of children living with disabilities, and their families.

International Women’s Day and the PGA discussions should stand as a reminder that women and children should be heard in their own voice. The use of video and other creative mediums are effective ways to empower communities to find their own voice and speak their unfiltered message locally and globally.

Vivienne Benson works as Research Administrator at IDS and is the Events Coordinator for the Participate Initiative.
This blog was originally published on  the Power, Participation and Social Change blog from the Institute of Development Studies.


Participate’s landmark exhibition ‘Work With Us’ makes it to the United Nations

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Vivienne Benson

The Work With Us exhibition is back up (3-7 March) and this time we’re inside the UN headquarters in New York. The exhibition, hosted by Participate in partnership with the Permanent Mission of Ireland to the United Nations and supported by Irish Aid, coincides with a busy time for UN policy-makers meeting this week to discuss their next steps towards a post-2015 development framework. While the Open Working Group (OWG) for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is expected to begin the serious business of identifying specific goals and targets, the President of United Nations General Assembly (PGA) will be debating the Contributions of Women, the Young and Civil Society to the Post‐2015 Development Agenda.

The Work With Us exhibition is a timely reminder of the importance of placing the voices of those most affected by poverty and exclusion at the heart of global decision-making processes. Through documentary, participatory video and photography, it tells the stories from people living on the margins, and de monstrates the obstacles, complexities, and impossible choices of the most vulnerable and marginalised groups in developing countries. The exhibition strives to bring these stories to policymakers in a creative and thoughtful way, while keeping the message as honest and undiluted as possible.

Work With Us Exhibition in UN

Work With Us displays the vision for change of those that experience living in poverty and marginalisation – the very people that should be influencing policy. Now that the exhibition, is inside the UN, we’re hoping their voices are that bit closer to being heard.

What’s missing from the data revolution? People.

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Neva Frecheville

I find the post-2015 data debate both fascinating and disappointing, failing as it does in one key area.

It’s ignoring power.

The UN High Level Panel report on the post-2015 development agenda confirmed that the data revolution is high on the political agenda by including it as one of their five transformational shifts.  Since then, the conversation has snowballed, with some heavy weights adding their support.

But I’d argue that at present, the data revolution is too technocratic to change the world. While they’re right that the lack of adequate data is a serious obstacle to good evidence based policy (and practice), the right statistics alone will not change the world.  Without looking at the power dynamics behind this ‘revolution’, very little is transformational.  Serious questions need to be asked about whose data is captured, by whom, and who has the ability to access, define and interpret it.  Whereas the wider open data debate has cottoned on to the importance of citizen empowerment and participation and frames the debate as participation, accountability and transparency, it’s too little referenced in the post-2015 arena.

Who are the people who are meant to benefit the most from the post-2015 development agenda? We all have a responsibility to ensure that those most disenfranchised from decision-making are at the centre of the post-2015 debate.  This means those living in the greatest poverty and experiencing the greatest exclusion – especially if we want to achieve the other rallying cry to ‘leave no one behind.’

One of the biggest criticisms of the MDGs is that they were created in the dark corridors and behind the closed doors of global politics at the end of the millennium. Ostensibly, the world is different now – the global conversation, outreach that has seen 1.3 million people share their priorities, and negotiations broadcast online are testament to an increasingly connected world . But this is a conversation that has to include those at the margins in a way that understands the unequal labyrinths of power in which they operate.

Unless we have a better understanding of the data revolution in the context of power dynamics it will not succeed in delivering real, positive change on the ground. During Participate’s participatory research in 29 countries, people living in poverty articulated their aspirations as freedom from discrimination and oppression, the ability to participate in the decisions which affect their lives, social inclusion and a sense of hope. In a world of rising inequalities, people describe poverty and marginalisation as the denial of the rights that confer equality and dignity. But tick box exercises, or even formal legislative recognition of those rights, do not automatically translate into concrete outcomes. For the poorest, the reality experienced through the behaviour of government officials and institutional representatives is one of discrimination and intolerance.

The testimony of one participant from Chennai in India bears witness to the lack of ownership that marginalised people experience when articulating their reality: “Our rights of privacy, freedom are not respected… In fact, the society knows that we are not heard. Often the view is that what we say should not be taken at face value… Even our truths get interrogated.” Without ensuring that people have control of what data is collected, how it is represented and used, and the decisions it is used to inform, this dynamic is not going to change.

So what are the solutions? Participate findings have shown that a participatory approach to governance, that engages with local knowledge, strengthens people’s voices, and enables people to have influence and hold decision-makers to account, has the potential to be transformational. But the meaningful participation of people living in poverty in the creation, implementation, monitoring and evaluation won’t take place if the data which determines policies and priorities is extracted and does nothing to strengthen their hand.

The data revolution must be built from the bottom up, linking local to global. This means investment in community organisation and capacity development, and enabling spaces for the collective action of marginalised communities to emerge. This means empowering citizens – especially the poorest and most marginalised – to participate in the data revolution by developing the skills and capacity of people living in poverty to define the rights that matter most to them, capture and make use of this data, be included in creating, monitoring and implementing policies, and hold institutions to account based on this data.


This article first appeared in the Post2015.org blog. Neva Frecheville is Co-Chair of Beyond 2015 and Lead Analyst Post-MDGs, CAFOD.