I am currently completing my PhD in Law and Development, where I used participatory action research (PAR) as a methodology for my fieldwork with refugees. Recently, I have been asked about PAR and why it has value outside of research. Below are some of my reflections.
Community Development deals much more directly about creating change through participatory action as well as research. It is a set of theories based on the need to create transformative change. Community development starts and ends (then restarts) with the engagement of people.
Community development has many potential ‘origins’ and strands of the theory and practice that can be seen in the work of Latin American theorists, rural development theories based on African contexts, theories related to participatory action research and even in 1800s British contexts with the Quakers’ business models and workers’ rights movements. Strands of community development practice have also found a way into practices of international institutions such as the United Nations or World Bank, with a focus on community participation in development programmes. The range of models and applications can leave community development a feeling like a collection of disparate practices. A mixture of international organisational development or council-level governance initiatives on the one hand and informal education, mutual aid networks and collective action on the other. Some sense of potential for community development to localise in different environments with their own academic, cultural histories and values, can make community development as a field seem paradoxically both without a ‘home’ and relevant across global contexts. Often marginalised groups have little space to have a voice in the public space in the media or at policy-level. The aim of community development practices and participatory action is to include marginalised people in not only the research but also to contribute to public debate or spaces where decisions are made that impact them.
In a PAR approach, a community - whether organisations, non-profits, a community of practice, or another community group - leads the research question. The role of the research is to facilitate the group to reach a research question to address and reach their goals. Participatory action research (PAR) focuses on recognising and building the capacity of impacted persons to participate in decision-making processes in research. This is the crucial stand-out for participatory research.
What are the applications of Participatory Action Research?
Planning and deciding on long term community interventions that address needs and works within limited resources can be difficult. This approach focuses on working together with the community to generate project ideas and bring projects to fruition with a great sense of ownership. Participatory action research (PAR) may be used as part of a project management process to adapt services being delivered to a particular community. Increasingly organisations have turned to participatory monitoring and evaluation to better understand the impact of projects, and nudging organisational learning and change to be done in a more inclusive manner.
Even integrating smaller PAR projects into the project cycle, such as PhotoVoice, can support a greater sense of ownership and trust with a new community. It can show the community the ability to be responsive and co-create concrete outcomes and overcome conflicting issues.
Increasing Community Engagement
It is easier to build a network than it is to build a cohesive and engaged community. PAR can find and strengthen spaces for dialogue and collaboration or explore reasons for why communities choose not to engage. Not all communities are cohesive nor long-lasting. A PAR project could help address the question of how to make a particular community more sustainable.
Community-Driven Outputs, Toolkits and Impact Measurements
Once communities have come together and want to take the next step into creating outputs, PAR can ensure a process that is representative. The outputs could aim to create policy papers, engage in lobbying or be focused on organisational processes such as toolkits or impact measures that seek to be more inclusive.
Building Participatory Management Processes
Organisations can unintentionally exclude members of a community from decision-making processes. PAR can be used to discover ways to increase critical engagement within management processes including greater accountability.
What are the challenges of Participatory Action Research?
PAR is not suitable in all circumstances and contains a number of challenges. It is important to be aware of these challenges before going into any PAR project. This does not necessarily mean that you should not engage in participatory processes, but plan and prepare for the potential risks.
If communities are unable to narrow their goals - such as 'end all gang violence', they may find themselves frustrated and eventually become unwilling to participate. Before starting any project it is important to manage both objectives and expectations of communities, especially if the communities are vulnerable and marginalised. These communities have often had false or over-ambitious promises, which has resulted in a lack of trust and increased awareness on the limitations of the potential impact of community projects.
When working with marginalised or vulnerable communities, it is important to understand that there may be forms of divisions and conflict within the community. It is easy, even with the best of intentions, to appear to favour one part of a community over another. This can lead the project, and the research team associated with it, to lose trust or even become viewed with hostility. An important aspect of PAR planning, therefore, must involve a Do No Harm approach.
PAR is a time-consuming process to enact. The lack of apparent direction and the need to give up control to communities can feel frightening for research and project managers used to planning everything in detail. Building trust and periodically re-establishing trust cannot be overlooked. This may not fit in with funding cycles and deadlines for organisations. As such it should be discussed before starting a project so that spaces for dialogue and interaction on the viability of a project can be put into research or development project plans. PAR works best in an eco-system or organisation that is already functioning and not requiring basic funding for operational costs. Given the time consuming and highly interactive nature of PAR it would be difficult for the project team to stop and start in relation to funding concerns.
Despite the challenges, PAR and the community development approach can bring, for me, it has been an immensely rewarding experience. The potential for community-led change is more important to utilise in the current times of socio-economic and worldwide health crisis.