Module 2: “Nine Plagues” of Community Participation

PLAGUE #1: The paternalistic role of development professionals

Paternalism of development professionals creates a dangerous power dynamic in which foreign “experts” claim entitlement to the final say during project design and implementation. They monopolize decision-making, manipulate the needs of the community to match their preconceived notions of the community’s deficiencies, and trivialize community members’ perspectives.(1)

Mini case study

Paul Theroux, former Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi, commented in a New York Times article about the dangers of the “more money” platform that is promoted for Africa by development “experts.” He states, “If Malawi is worse educated, more plagued by illness and bad services, poorer than it was when I lived and worked there in the early ‘60s, it is not for lack of outside help or donor money. Malawi has been the beneficiary of thousands of foreign teachers, doctors and nurses, and large amounts of financial aid, and yet it has declined from a country with promise to a failed state.” He argues that the feeling of entitlement to decide the fate of Africa should be in the hands of Africans—not in the hands of distant multinational companies ignorant of local realities on the ground.(2)

PLAGUE #2: The inhibiting and prescriptive role of the state

Botes and van Rensburg assert that, for the state, community participation programs are often more about “maintaining existing power relations in society and ensuring the silence of the poor,” as well as “legitimizing the political system … as a form of social control.” Participatory programs should work to improve the well-being of the destitute and produce alternative, more democratic, more empowering decision-making models.(3)

“Participation is often constrained at the state level by partisanship, funding limitations, rigidity, the resistance of local and national bureaucrats, and the state’s inability to respond effectively to the felt needs of the populace. Government bureaucrats as the instruments of nation states are very much in a hierarchical mode of thinking which inhibits participatory development and undermines the people’s own governing abilities.”(4)

Mini case study

Most government operations view community participation from a utilitarian perspective—community resources (land, labor, and money) are used to counteract the costs of providing services. In essence, participation is viewed as a means by which the aims of a project can be achieved in a more cost- and time-effective manner.(5) A study of community participation in Oaxaca, Mexico, illustrates this mindset and its disadvantages. During the 1980s, the Mexican Ministry of Health integrated participatory strategies into its health initiatives because the nation “was under tremendous internal and international pressure to expand health services.”(6) Since the Ministry was crippled by a scarcity of its own resources, it co-opted community members in order to fulfill its policy objectives and satisfy the preferences of global counterparts, not to fulfill “democratic or intrinsic values.” This “resource dependency approach to community participation” ultimately created “additional dependencies of the health system,” achieving much less in terms of health outcome than could have been achieved if participation had been valued as an “integral component of a process of community development.”(7)

PLAGUE #3: The over-reporting of development successes

This plague is pretty easy to fix, yet is committed often. Those involved in development prefer to accentuate their successes while glazing over their faults. This is for the simple reason that “[s]uccess is rewarded, whereas failure, however potentially informative, is not.” Such a frame of mind is injurious in that it undermines valuable information that could be used to improve an intervention’s efforts in the future.(8), (9)

Mini case study

In his book The Critical Villager: Beyond Community Participation, Eric Dudley provides a hypothetical example of why developers feel the urge to hide their failures :

“The field worker on a short-term renewable contract needs to meet targets of numbers of trees planted or latrine squat-slabs distributed. If the trees die or the squat-slabs lie unused the information is liable to be studiously ignored or optimistically massaged. The policy makers, watchful of future funding, succumb to the pressure, imagined or otherwise, to report to their donors that objectives were met. The donors, aware of the stiff competition in the compassion industry, need to report a cozy scene of gratitude and money well spent. The knowledge of the nature of failure, the very information which could allow intervention policy to be improved, is lost.”(10)

PLAGUE #4: Selective participation

Selective participation occurs when “the most visible and vocal, wealthier, more articulated and educated groups … are allowed to be partners in development without serious and ongoing attempts to identify less obvious partners.” Exclusion of more marginalized members of the community—often the members who understand best the intricacies of poverty and injustice—leaves decision-making leverage in the possession of self-appointed individuals who may be far removed from the real issues of the broader community.

“One of the worst manifestations of selective participation occurs when the development agency ‘buys’ the goodwill and support of key interest groups in the community, which is also referred to as ‘community-renting.’ This is often the result where community involvement exercises are susceptible to manipulation and misappropriation … Since participation for the developer is largely a matter of convenience, the objective is to find a partner in order to allow the project to continue and the screening of the representativeness of the partner is, at most, secondary.”(11)

Mini case study

In an article entitled “The Social Impact of Social Funds in Jamaica,” which analyzes mixed methods of participation, targeting, and collective action in community-driven development (CDD), the community of Port Royal is scrutinized for the effectiveness of its development endeavors. While the community is “extremely tight knit … clear divisions based upon class, status, religion, and political affiliation” run rampant. Personal animosities and long-standing family conflicts heighten these divisions.(12) Those in opposition to the local, semi-governmental planning authority Port Royal Brotherhood formed their own development group called the Port Royal Environmental Management Trust (PREMT). When the PREMT pursued an independent education and technology project through the Jamaica Social Investment Fund, a community-driven project assisted by the World Bank, they did so without consulting the “traditional leadership” of The Brotherhood.(13), (14) While the computer center that was implemented in a local school was seen by many as a sign of “positive, modern change,” followers of The Brotherhood were less enthusiastic about its success.(15) Unilateral decisions like the ones made in this case study, as well as the selective participation of perceptibly favorable individuals or groups within the community, are regular occurrences in Jamaica.

“Jamaica’s political culture, and the many divisions that exist within its communities, may make the participatory process difficult to implement in a manner that is truly inclusive. Typically a leader within the community receives support from one faction within the community and not with another. This creates a situation where the project tends to incorporate the interests of one sub-group of the population while ignoring the others. This in turn has the potential to both generate a project that benefits many members of the community, but simultaneously reinforce divisions within it.”(16)

PLAGUE #5: Hard-issue bias

The hard-issue bias favors tangible deliverables, which are more conducive to objective evaluation, to the less visible, more abstract achievements of community development programs.

“In many development projects the so-called ‘hard’ issues (technological, financial, physical, and material) are perceived as being more important for the successful implementation of these projects than the ‘soft’ issues (such as community involvement, decision-making procedures, the establishment of efficient social compacts, organizational development capacity building and empowerment).”(17)

Botes and van Rensburg suggest that this could be a “result of the assumption that social and cultural features (the so-called ‘soft issues’) are ephemeral, intangible and unnecessary time-consuming in comparison to the more easily managed ‘hard issues.’” This assumption “inevitably results in a technical bias, which neglects the fact that inappropriate social processes can destroy the most noble development endeavor.”(18)

Mini case study

At the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, it became evident that “integrated slum improvement based on full community participation” was needed to improve sanitation, promote a healthy environment, and ultimately alleviate hunger and misery. An Urban Community Development (UCD) project in Visakhapatnam, India—riding on the principles of self-initiative and mobilization—undertook a variety of projects in environmental improvement, income-generation, health, education, and self-help housing. While many positive lessons came out of Visakhapatnam’s strategies, several problems shed light on the difficulty of valuing “soft” advances in the presence of a “hard” program bias.(19)

“[T]he emphasis on integration is difficult to sustain as ‘hard’ programs, such as housing and infrastructure, are given greater priority (by project staff and community members alike) than ‘soft’ projects relating to health, education, and social development … Thus, tensions exist between the short-term goal of shelter provision and the long-term process of empowerment; between the use value of self-help housing and its status as a potential commodity; and between the Project’s commitment to develop female leadership and the tendency of the housing scheme, which provides scope for political patronage and brokerage, to reinforce male-dominated leadership structures.”(20)

PLAGUE #6: Conflicting interest groups within end-beneficiary communities

Much like the plague of selective participation, this plague concerns the conflict that can arise between disparate interest groups when development projects introduce scarce resources and rare opportunities for growth and change. Dissonance amongst community constituents, competition, and lack of shared vision causes difficulties in the identification of project goals and objectives.

“The stratified and heterogeneous nature of communities is a thorny obstacle to promoting participatory development. In heterogeneous communities people are often less likely to participate due to divisions of language, tenure, income, gender, age or politics, than in less diverse communities.”(21)

Mini case study

The case of a joint gold mining venture between Colorado-based Newmont Mining Corporation and Peruvian company called Buenaventura provides an example of not only the detriments of paternalism (Plague #1), but also of the community clashes that can arise with the introduction of a development project. Located in the Andes Mountains outside Cajamarca, Peru, Yanacocha mine has evolved into the largest gold producer in Latin America. Since 1993, Yanacocha has yielded 26 million ounces of gold.(22) Newmont’s intensive extraction of ore from land believed to be sacred by local peasants offers a close glimpse “into the moral ambiguities that often attend when a first-world company does business in a third-world land.”(23)

“[W]here Newmont sees a new reserve of wealth—to keep Yanacocha profitable and to stay ahead of its competitors—the local farmers and cattle grazers see sacred mountains, cradles of the water that sustains their highland lives.”(24)

Yanacocha has also been a chronic displeasure to locals because of the drastic environmental toll it has taken on the land on which they depend for their livelihoods. The company’s use of cyanide for extraction has contaminated local water supply, diminished animal herds, and demolished fish hatcheries. Trucks carrying the mining byproduct once spilled mercury over a 25-mile stretch of road. Locals, thinking the mercury contained gold, collected the poisonous metal, incurring dangerous health risks. But the dichotomy between local desire and corporate motive is not that clear-cut. Many campesinos support the mine because it has created thousands of well-paying jobs. In an attempt to garner community rapport, the company has also donated communication and transportation infrastructure that promises to stimulate economic development, built water treatment plants in villages, and funded clinics and schools.(25) With such a melting pot of conflicting interests—outrage from environmentalists, delight from the unemployed, distrust from locals loyal to their sacred land holdings, and skepticism from the international community—it would have been difficult for any program to win the endorsement of everyone.

PLAGUE #7: Gate-keeping by local elites

If a local leader or group leadership authority in a particular community interposes itself between the development agency and the project beneficiaries to maintain power, the outside organization may have difficulty ensuring that the best interests of the community members are being pursued.

“There is always the danger that decision-making at community-level may fall into the hands of a small and self-perpetuating clique, which may act in its own interests with disregard for the wider community.”(26)

And in developing countries, “the peculiar dynamics of informal settlements often lend themselves to an autocratic style of leadership based on patronage, which reinforces the prevailing inequality of the existing social structure … In this way, and in spite of their sometimes useful role as mediators for the urban poor, they limit the direct and active participation of low-income people in general. This behavior by more dominant groups has often deprived the weaker and more vulnerable social segments of participation in community affairs. This may also lead to self-centeredness and selfish development decisions.”(27)

Mini case study

In studying community initiatives within three racially diverse localities in Britain—Bristol, Leicester and the London Borough of Tower Hamlets—a group of researchers found that competition for scarce resources in community settings led to racial discrimination, competition, and disagreement about accurate representation by “gatekeepers.” The researchers describe the predicament in which Caucasian English residents (labeled group “A”) and Bengali residents (labeled group “B”) of Tower Hamlets find themselves.

The groups “are physically ‘locked into’ an inner city area in which public housing, educational and communal resources are static or declining. The demand by B for ‘more’ resources will be construed by A essentially in terms of a lose/win situation, that is through such sentiments as ‘the Bengalis take over ‘our’ houses, ‘our’ jobs and ‘our’ schools.’ Public institutions seeking to respond to the demands of B will be opposed by A through accusations of ‘favoritism’ and A will seek to express its grievances by mobilizing around slogans such as ‘Rights for Whites’ etc. However, this situation can be altered if A can see clearly that co-operation with B could lead to an increase in the level of overall resource available.”(28)

Tenant activists in one of the housing estates realized that cooperation, as well as the appearance of “representativeness” and “a broad and inclusive pattern of participation,” could help them win housing grants.(29) Public debate over who was best able to represent “the community,” however, “was often contentious and problematic.” (30) With so many forms of representation vying to be heard—constitutional and democratic representatives, community religious representatives, “grassroots” representatives (natives), and professional representatives—“the search for individuals from both majority and minority ethnic populations who are ‘truly representative’ seems an endless and possibly futile pursuit.”(31) In other words, “[t]he notion of seeking ‘a community’s views’ by consulting with key community leaders is far too broad brush an approach and cannot do justice to the intricacies of the decisions to be reached or the complexity of views within any community.”(32)

“Our research … revealed many examples of situations where it was important for a project’s/initiative’s legitimacy to be able to claim that either the community was involved or it could speak for the community. Within these cases there was often strong competition to possess the ‘community franchise’ and this sometimes involved a conflict between professionals over who was more able to speak on behalf of a community.”(33)

Often, only those who have power—as well as time to commit to “being a representative”— assume a speaking position.(34)

“In cases where the mismatch between the status and experiences of the ‘gate-keeper’ is considerable (for example, elderly, powerful, established males speaking on behalf of young, poorly educated, recently arrived Bengali women and children) then the challenge to the spokesperson’s legitimacy has great validity.”(35)

PLAGUE #8: Excessive pressures for immediate results: the accentuation of product at the expense of process

As Botes and van Rensburg acknowledge, “[t]here is always a tension between the imperatives of delivery (product) and community participation (process), between the cost of time and the value of debate and agreement.” This overwhelming pressure for immediate outcomes hampers emphasis on institution-building and pushes poverty reduction programs into the realm of welfare and relief. Such an exigent stress on rapid results sometimes goads developers to finish the projects quickly at the expense of forgoing community involvement.(36)

“For many, participatory development is too time-consuming and not cost-effective, because participation in practice is always a slow and uncertain process and is likely to involve more paper work and soul searching … [But] although true participation involves greater costs for the identification, design, and planning phases, it may actually be saving more time and money during the implementation and evaluation phases, because it ensure that people take ownership of a project.”(37)

Botes and van Rensburg point out, though, that “hasty technocrats” are not the only ones who are impatient. Potential beneficiaries, too, want speedy, tangible delivery. The authors suggest that both need to realize, however, that “product without process runs the risk of doing something communities do not want or need, or cannot sustain.”(38)

Mini case study

Instead of a concrete example here, it may be more helpful to understand the differences between product and process using this chart, provided by Botes and van Rensburg.(39)

Process versus Product

Decision-making dynamics

Underlying assumptions


Process less important than product

Developer-centered approach: characterized by top-down decisions taken by development elite

Rely on formal know-how and expertise to resolve development problems in the shortest possible time

Time and product

Process more important than product

People-centered approach: characterized by bottom-up decisions taken by community members or their legitimate leaders

The immediate resolution of a development problem is less important than the way in which the process of problem-solving is taking place—even if it requires a longer time. Build on the saying ‘it is the approach rather than the outcome of the message that spells success.’

Participation, consultation, and process

PLAGUE #9: The lack of public interest in becoming involved

This plague has two dimensions. Sometimes, community members do not want to become involved simply because the project does not interest them. This could suggest an underlying deficiency in project design—developers may be introducing a service not needed or wanted by the community. Other times, community members, disillusioned by failed expectations in past projects, may have little faith in the promises of agencies.(40)

Mini case study

Poverty and lack of awareness have encouraged the inhabitants of San Salvador Island, situated off the coast of the Philippines, “to use unsound fishing methods such as explosives, sodium cyanide, and fine-mesh nets.”(41) Before World War II, according to residents, the island was endowed with abundant fishing grounds. But “[w]ith the threat of starvation, occupying Japanese troops used explosives to catch fish, thus introducing blast fishing.” In the 1970s, fish gatherers competed to catch fish for aquarium exports to the United States by using sodium cyanide.(42)

In addition, cutting and burning of upland agricultural vegetation, as well as logging, have caused deforestation of the Zambales Mountains, resulting in silt obstruction in nearby coral reefs. All of these practices “have resulted in declining fish yields from the island’s coral reefs beginning in the early 1980s.”(43) The social circumstances of San Salvador—particularly an unregulated market economy and local leaders who support destructive fishing techniques—has led fishers to believe that the depletion of natural resources is “beyond their control.”(44)

To alleviate this environmental degradation, the researchers of this article suggest that “natural resources cannot be sustainably managed unless those who use the resources perceive it to be in their interest and are deeply involved in the planning and management process.”(45)

In the Philippines, “[t]he impetus for the community-based development model”—which, from a resource management perspective, is based on the idea that people are capable of formulating their own solutions to environmental problems—“began in the mid-1940s when the government was implementing top-down infrastructure development projects. This approach was found to be ineffective in terms of creating long term, holistic development. Consequently, the growing discontent over the socio-economic and political situation and the ineffectiveness of delivery of services from the government sectors led religious organizations and other community sectors to form groups to affect societal change through mass organizations or unions.”(46)

To sensitize the public to the detriments of certain fishing methods, the fundamentals of marine ecology, the dynamics of fisheries, and proper resource management, the Marine Conservation Project for San Salvador (MCPSS) began in 1989. This project heavily relied on the involvement and input of locals, as well as the environmental expertise of two community fieldworkers.(47), (48) Some community members, however, were reluctant to participate.

“The hesitance of some of the community members may be attributed to a historic failure of development programs on the island, the sensitive nature that the project addressed and distrust or disinterest in the environmentalist agenda. Education programs, which highlighted the poor condition of the island’s resources and the potential increased fish yields and other benefits that the MCPSS might bring about, eventually convinced more community members to support its objectives.”(49)

In due course, the MCPSS group was able to rally the participation of community members by using “slide-shows, role-playing, … lectures to explore basic ecological and environmental concepts …, field outings with children and an environmental drawing contest.”(50) And ultimately, the “approach helped reverse the decline of the island’s coral reef and associated fishery.”(51) But in the beginning, the plague of public disinterest threatened to dislocate the project.

Go To Module 3: "Twelve Commandments" of Community Participation >>


(1) Ibid, 42-43.

(2) Theroux, P. “The rock star’s burden.” The New York Times (19 December 2005). Accessed on 03 June 2010.

(3) Botes and van Rensburg (2000), 45.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Morgan, L. “Community Participation in Health: Perpetual Allure, Persistent Challenge.” Health Policy and Planning. 16.3 (Oxford University Press, 2001): 221.

(6) Ibid, 226.

(7) Zakus, D. “Resource Dependency and Community Participation in Primary Health Care.” Social Science & Medicine. 46.4-5 (Elsevier Science Ltd., 1998): Abstract.

(8) Botes and van Rensburg (2000), 45.

(9) Dudley, E. The Critical Villager: Beyond Community Participation. (Routledge, 1993): 11-12.

(10) Ibid, 12.

(11) Botes and van Rensburg (2000), 46.

(12) Rao, V., and Ibáñez, A. “The Social Impact of Social Funds in Jamaica: A Mixed-Methods Analysis of Participation, Targeting, and Collective Action in Community-Driven Development.” Policy Research Working Paper 2970: World Bank Development Research Group. February 2003: 10-11.

(13) Ibid, 11.

(14) Ibid, 3.

(15) Ibid, 12.

(16) Ibid, 21-22.

(17) Botes and van Rensburg (2000), 46-47.

(18) Ibid, 47.

(19) Asthana, S. “Integrated Slum Improvement in Visakhapatnam, India.” Habitat International. 18.1 (Elsevier Science Ltd, 1994): 57-58.

(20) Ibid, 58.

(21) Ibid, 49.

(22) “South American Operations.” Newmont. Accessed on 4 June 2010 <>.

(23) Bergman, L., and Perlez, J. “Tangled Strands in Fight Over Peru Gold Mine.” The New York Times. 25 October 2005: page 1. Accessed on 04 June 2010.

(24) Ibid.

(25) Ibid, 1-7.

(26) Botes and van Rensburg (2000), 49.

(27) Ibid, 49-50.

(28) Harrison, L., Hoggett, P., and Jeffers, S. “Race, Ethnicity and Community Development.” Community Development Journal. 30.2 (April 1995): 145.

(29) Ibid, 145-146.

(30) Ibid, 146.

(31) Ibid, 147-148.

(32) Ibid, 148.

(33) Ibid, 147.

(34) Ibid, 148.

(35) Ibid.

(36) Botes and van Rensburg (2000), 50.

(37) Ibid, 50-51.

(38) Ibid, 51.

(39) Ibid, 52.

(40) Ibid, 51.

(41) Christie, P., Buhat, D., Garces, L., and White, A. “The Challenges and Rewards of Community-Based Coastal Resources Management: San Salvador Island, Philippines.” Contested Nature—Promoting International Biodiversity Conservation with Social Justice in the Twenty-first Century. (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2003): 382.

(42) Ibid, 386-387.

(43) Ibid, 382.

(44) Ibid.

(45) Ibid.

(46) Ibid, 383.

(47) Ibid, 383-384.

(48) Ibid, 388.

(49) Ibid, 389.

(50) Ibid.

(51) Ibid, 384.