Sustainability Patterns

Constructive Participationon

Constructive Participation


Photo courtesy Heifer International

People must be involved in doing the work.

Roy Kady is one of the Navajo Nation's best-known male weavers. He's a member of the Dibé bi' iina' group (Sheep Is Life) and has dedicated his life to the Navajo's beloved Churro sheep, as well as to the tradition and spiritual art of weaving. "In our lives, sheep have been the most important," Kady said. "Herding sheep provides you with the opportunity to learn about the earth - rocks, land formations, plant life." But the sheep industry, which is vital to both the Navajos' economic future and spiritual well-being, has been deteriorating. After years of continuous over-grazing, much of the Navajo land has eroded and can't continue to support a sheep industry of sufficient size. Constant in-breeding has reduced the quality and number of mature sheep and goats. Fewer than 550,000 head now exist, and as a result, the last 15 years have seen Navajo wool production decrease to one-third its former volume. After being contacted by The Ranchers Roundtable, Heifer International began sending top-quality rams to 100 Arizona and New Mexico families in the fall of 2002. Kady knew immediately that Heifer was different from other organizations. He said. "These families are very independent and like to do things their own way, and Heifer understands because of mutual respect."

Your organization has identified Organizational Cornerstones.  You have selected an area for program development. You have started to acquire Cultural and Environmental Awareness to determine what needs you can address. You have identified some projects that might produce Early Wins.

Providing the answer you see as the best way to address a problem without involving the people may satisfy your needs, but it will not provide a sustainable solution.

When you see a problem, your first inclination might be to jump in and solve it. It can be very tempting to produce an immediate solution and then ride off into the sunset basking in the gratitude of the people you have rescued.

Unfortunately, the “knight in shining armor” image runs counter to the locals’ feeling that the solution is theirs. You may feel that you are involved in a difficult, uncomfortable, and at times, dangerous job, and your only reward is the appreciation you receive for having made sacrifices. However, your job is not to be a hero, but to make heroes of the people you are working with. Some gratitude will always be forthcoming, of course, but when things are as they should be, in the end, the people will mostly be thanking each other.

The danger is that your influence can be so overwhelming that it will survive long after you have gone. Two years after one African program had been “Africanized,” the size of each resident trainee’s plot of land, the acreage to be planted in each crop, and the techniques to be used were all still dictated by rules laid down by the development organization who, perhaps inadvertently, had established a tyranny of rules and attitudes that “this is how it is done” that no Africans dared to question.

It is difficult to balance the degree to which you allow people to make and learn from their mistakes compared with telling them what to do or doing it for them.


The work must revolve around participation by the people. Avoid paternalism, that is, doing all the work for the people. Plan up-front for ownership by the recipients.

The opposite of doing for the people is involving the active participation by the people. This participation must happen in the preliminary and decision-making phases as well as project execution. Increasing participation is essential to the long-term survival of the program. Work toward Empowered Women and enlist one or more Small Support Groups.

Participation provides tremendous advantages for a program. It is more likely that the program will respect their cultural values and address their needs. Those who participate can enable a better understanding and better communication between the program and the local people. Involvement of the people helps them learn to appreciate the difficulty of the work of the program and helps to address any suspicion about its motives. Those who participate are more likely to commit to improvement.

Development personnel will likely be required to help get the program started. The degree of assistance needed will vary. Avoid providing any more information than necessary, and work to reduce dependency on your input. To this end, do all that you can so members of the community will follow the recommendations in
Passing on the Gift.

Constructive participation is learned over time. Some development agencies, trying to avoid paternalism and the “know it all” attitudes of the past, have moved to the opposite extreme of providing almost no input at all. They set up a local committee and start sending them money, assuming that the only thing needed is funding. This does not work well. It takes effort to help people learn how to participate constructively. Short courses and constant attention to what people are learning from the daily experience in the program is required.

How you work with the people may influence adoption of the technology. Probably the most important factor is developing
Cultural and Environmental Awareness. The appropriateness of the technology is key to successful adoption and requires feedback from the people in the early planning stages. It helps to build on traditional practices so as not to introduce a radical change, which forces people to take a big gamble on unproven techniques. Poor people are less likely to take on a large amount of risk. Development must introduce simple techniques that can easily be integrated into traditional practices.[1]

One important goal of all programs should be the eventual ownership of local participants. From the beginning, every activity should be organized so local people can learn how to manage and sustain it. The purpose of each activity, apart from its own results, is that the local people learn how to manage it themselves.

Mistakes will likely be made. Be humble enough to realize your mistakes and realize that some of the local people’s methods will be improvements on those you have introduced. Mistakes can provide valuable lessons, as long as they are not so frequent or so disastrous that they reduce the program’s enthusiasm or faith in local leadership.

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As a result of their experience, participants learn to plan, solve problems, teach others, and organize themselves. They learn how to face the give and take within an organization and how to help each other without hurting feelings. These skills are essential if they are to form and manage their own organizations successfully.

Participants will increase their self-confidence, pride, and the satisfaction of successful achievement. They will develop the ingenuity and creativity that will help them continue to improve their communities. These changes are crucial to the fulfillment of the broader human goals. This growth through participation is the essence of development, where people learn to take charge of their own lives and solve their own problems.

However, participation is not automatically a good thing. It can divide and tear down as well as unite and build up. The challenge is to keep it constructive. In some programs, a single leader can emerge and take control and everyone else learns to be submissive. In other situations, lack of experience at making decisions as a group causes disagreements. Factions develop and groups disintegrate. Even good decisions can lead to failure, causing disappointment and mutual casting of blame.

Many cultures have no acceptable way of correcting inappropriate or dishonest actions of leaders, so when leaders misbehave, people simply sit back and gradually become convinced that organizations are ineffective, or even dangerous.

Usually little is known about handling money. Financial losses as a result of insufficient planning, poor decisions, graft, or nepotism can cause division and mutual recriminations. These practices teach people that others are not trustworthy, that getting involved in organizations only causes problems, and that locals are not capable of helping themselves. The practices teach manipulation, deceit, exploitation, individualism, hopelessness, and dishonesty. They are destructive and do not produce development—they preclude development. Initial planning and working agreements where risks are anticipated is always a good idea. We hope to have patterns to address these negative side effects.

CHOICE (Center for Humanitarian Outreach and Intercultural Exchange) offers solutions to the hardships of poverty in the rural villages of the world with simple technologies, self-help initiatives and public awareness. The goal is to establish local institutions that can eventually function without outside supervision. These autonomous institutions may take the form of cooperatives, village committees, women’s organizations, small scale enterprises that enhance employment opportunities, or social and cultural organizations that stimulate villager pride and individual dignity. Villagers, however, are taught not to be limited by any of the systems that may have been established with the help of CHOICE; the ultimate goal is to teach villagers to rely on their own ingenuity. CHOICE supports the villagers in the mobilization of their own resources to carry out their chosen solutions. Assistance and intervention from CHOICE is provided only in areas where villagers cannot provide for themselves.

In his two best-selling books, Three Cups of Tea and Stones into School, Greg Mortensen describes how he started building schools with the close cooperation of the local communities in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In 2005, there were riots in response to the Newsweek story about the desecration of the Koran. Areas where NGO offices were located had been destroyed. The buildings, which housed the Aga Khan Development Network, FOCUS, East West Foundation, Afghan Aid, and other NGO offices, lay in ruins, even safes and desks had been smashed to pieces. As he pulled up in front of a new school, Greg and his team could see that no windows were broken. The door was intact. A local resident explained that during the peak of the riots, a faction of the mob had stormed down the road in the direction of the school. Before reaching the boundary wall, they had been met by a group of elders who had donated the land for the school, organized the laborers who had built it, and participated in the laying of the cornerstone. The elders informed the rioters that the school belonged not to a foreign aid organization but to the community. It was their school, they were proud of it, and they demanded that it be left alone. With that, the rioters dispersed. After all the damage had been tabulated, the cost of the riots was assessed at more than $2 million. The school that Greg had helped to build was one of the few buildings associated with an international aid organization that was left standing, and the reason for this, he is convinced, is that the school wasn’t really “international” at all. It was, and remains, local in every way that counts.

Global Volunteers is a private, non-profit, non-sectarian, non-governmental organization engaging short-term volunteers on micro-economic and human development programs in close partnership with local people worldwide. Working at the invitation and under the direction of local leaders, volunteers help create a foundation for world peace through mutual international understanding. Their purpose is to maintain a sustained service partnership with the host community and provide volunteers an opportunity to serve. In 1984 Global Volunteers pioneered direct service-learning programs abroad. Today, they mobilize more than 2,500 volunteers annually on work projects, assisting more than 100 host communities in 19 countries on 5 continents through volunteer service, direct project funding and child sponsorships. Global Volunteers is guided by a unique philosophy of service, stating that to be successful in sustainable development assistance, outsiders must work at the invitation and under the direction of those they are attempting to assist. By remaining faithful to this philosophy they've created opportunities for volunteers to provide a genuine service all over the globe.

[1]Cochran, J., Patterns of sustainable agriculture adoption/non-adoption in Panamá, Master’s thesis, McGill University, October 2003.

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