Work with us: Community-driven research inspiring change

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Susanne Schirmer

‘People are sick and tired of being subjects of research. We are doing action research so people are becoming subjects of transformation.’

For me this statement from Walter Arteaga, one of the partner researchers in the Participate Initiative, sums up the creative approach my colleagues in the Participate Initiative are taking to engage those that are most affected by poverty and marginalisation in change and to bring their perspectives into the post-2015 process.

The Participate Initiative, recently launched a new short video which showcases some of the exciting participatory research the team has been undertaking with their partners in 29 countries from Albania to Zimbabwe in the past year. The team has been using participatory videos and digital storytelling – together with other participatory research methods –to make excluded voices heard in the UN debates around a post-Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) framework.

Watch the 20 min documentary and be inspired:

Alternatively, if you’re pressed for time check out some of the shorter films:


This article first appeared in the Participation, Power and Social Change blog at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS). Susanne Schirmer is a Project Coordinator in the Governance team, and Communications Coordinator in the Participation, Power and Social Change team at IDS.

Involving the world’s poorest citizens in the post-2015 agenda

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Joanna Wheeler

In September, the world’s leaders, governments’ representatives to the UN and representatives from civil society from many countries converged on New York for a Special Event on the future global framework that will replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2015. Nearby, civil society organisations talked about how to get the voices of the poorest and most marginalised through the barriers that cordon off the UN Plaza and into the post-2015 process.

The barriers are not only physical – in many ways the entire process of consultations and surveys is set up to keep those perspectives from having any real weight. There is no formal system of accountability where the people who are most affected can challenge the decisions made about global development. Yet the success and legitimacy of the post-2015 framework will rest on the extent to which it provides for their meaningful participation.

While there are success stories about how the MDGs have been achieved, these are not often the stories told by the world’s poorest and most marginalised. Development interventions can often have unintended consequences: a village built to house indigenous people in Mexico sits abandoned because of the poor quality structures and the lack of viable livelihoods.

The poorest and most marginalised people have not been reached because of prevailing inequalities, including economic inequality (the lack of sufficient income), geographic inequality (many live in precarious conditions without land rights) and identity-based inequality (for example, gender-based discrimination is pervasive).

These become entrenched in the lives of people living in poverty – and they mean that simple and one-dimensional solutions are inadequate. For example, in Ghana, providing places in school is of little use if children cannot attend because they spend much of their day walking ever-greater distances to get water due to drought.

The experience of poverty is also shaped by social norms and relationships of power that limit access to rights and services. For example, ‘city-makers’ in Chennai, India live on the streets, and are often unable to access services or their rights because they cannot secure formal identification. They are further discriminated against because they come from scheduled castes—making it more difficult for them to access dignified work or stable housing.

GCRN community meeting

GCRN Participatory Research: People in Ghana come together to discuss the issues that affect their lives and build plans to change their situation

In order to understand how people have been left behind by the MDG approach, we need to understand what prevents people from making the changes that they are calling for, and how they think that these obstacles can be overcome. Research carried out by the Participate network in 29 countries shows that future development processes need a different approach in order really to reach those who are most often excluded. This vision for global development provides an important reality-check, and is based on the following:

  • Rights and recognition for all. Rights are foundational for recognition and dignity. Being treated with respect by family members, public officials and representatives of the state, and wider society helps people see themselves as citizens. As citizens, they are able to act to demand greater fairness and access to the resources they need.
  • Inclusion, solidarity, collective action. The most marginalised people experience discrimination within their families, in their communities and their wider society. Collective action is needed to address these problems, and that requires us to address the barriers that stop people coming together to mobilise effectively.
  • Participation, accountability, democratic institutions. Institutions that are democratic and accountable will respond to the demands of the poorest and most marginalised, and participatory approaches to decision-making can help ensure this happens.
  • Services and policies that respond to the needs of the poorest. Services and policies that effectively respond to the needs of the poorest people are holistic, long-term and have a focus on quality. Dignified livelihoods are a necessary element of their success.

It is not yet clear what the new global development framework will look like, and therefore it is even less clear how the perspectives, voices and decisions of those most affected by poverty and exclusion will be included in the process. The current paradigms of development aid are breaking down, and the emerging framework could set out new parameters that put people at its centre and give them a real say in the decisions that affect them.

Meaningful participation needs to start now while the framework is being set – and continue throughout the implementation, monitoring and evaluation stages. Without this, the post-2015 process will become just another top-down example of UN member states failing to address the most pressing problems of our time.

This article first appeared in the Autumn 2013 issue of New World, the flagship publication of the United Nations Association – UK

Searching for dialogues: Convergences and divergences around the Millennium Development Goals and the post-2015 global development agenda

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Carlos Cortez

Lea versión en español 

The dialogue initiated in September at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) is central to the ongoing debate around the construction of a future global development model and its impacts. In particular, discussions centred around the role that the current development model has in perpetuating global poverty and exclusion. In this vein, the UNGA was a space for identifying the existing opportunities as well as the difficulties for opening up a truthful dialogue amongst the diverse actors looking for alternatives.

The Participate initiative and the global campaign Beyond 2015 took the opportunity to engage more with these ongoing dialogues and to present the findings of the research carried out by the 18 partner organisations of Participate.

I believe that with these activities, we advanced towards the goal of bringing the voices of the poorest and most marginalised into the post-2015 global decision-making processes. However, this engagement also confronted us with the difficulties around the advocacy process, particularly the government representatives.

The concerns, ideas and proposals made by various organisations, including Participate’s findings, proved that there are converging issues being raised. However, I could observe notable divergences in the way the emerging problems and challenges are being understood. Worth giving a special mention is the concern around the poverty, exclusion, and lack of rights that a considerable part of the global population endure; as well as the recognition that until now the actions undertaken to eradicate these issues have been limited; to say the least.

The convergent issues

  • Bring to an end the charitable approach to development and demand a focus on rights promotion and protection, and justice for the people living in poverty. Indeed many called for a ‘rights based approach to development’.
  • Recognise that the participation of the poorest and most excluded in decision-making processes, from the local to the global level, constitutes an essential condition to overcome their hardship.
  • Insist in not separating the problem of increasing poverty from increasing inequality, and a call for urgent structural changes to the global economic and financial systems. This was indeed, one of the most critical demands.

The discourse and proposals put forward by the global civil society largely coincide with those of some international organisations. In this sense, NGOs and civil society coalitions presented their proposals framed under side events organised by UN agencies such as UNDP, UNICEF, OHCHR; organisms that largely coincide with civil society’s discourse and some core proposals towards the definition of a post-2015 agenda. However, this was not the case for the vast majority of the governments. Their limited presence and lack of disposition for opening spaces for dialogue with civil society made evident the fact that the lack of success of many poverty reduction programmes are largely a result of intermingled politics rather than bad planning. Hence, envisaging substantial changes to the current governmental lens of what is needed from the new post-2015 development agenda seems like a huge challenge.

In this sense, Participate demonstrated the possibility and importance of bringing the voices, concerns and experiences of the most excluded to the global decision-making spaces. Through an interactive exhibition, the production of a documentary and a panel discussion around our synthesis report, we have shown the value of conducting and promoting participatory action research processes. Processes in which, through innovative and traditional techniques and methods, participants have been able to voice their ideas on how to tackle their problems and what they expect from decision makers. The diversity of materials and outputs have also raised the sensibility and conscience of what is needed in order to face one of the most important challenges for our society in the forthcoming years.

Let’s trust that we will be able to advance on the dialogue and the actions needed to end poverty and marginalisation. Let’s trust that governments, international organisations, the private sector, the civil society and all citizens work together to achieve change.

September 20. Members of the Participate network participating in the Panel discussion around the findings of our research. Left to right: Mwangi Waituru (The Seed Institute, Kenya); Nusrat Zerin (Sightsavers, Bangladesh) and Carlos Cortez Ruiz (UAM, Mexico)

Buscando construir diálogos: Convergencias y divergencias en el debate sobre las Metas del Milenio y un marco de desarrollo más allá del 2015

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Carlos Cortez

English version

El diálogo iniciado la semana pasada en la Asamblea General de las Naciones Unidas (AG – ONU) representa un momento central en el debate internacional sobre la construcción de un futuro modelo de desarrollo y su impacto a futuro. Particularmente, en cuestionar el papel que actualmente este modelo tiene en mantener la pobreza y la exclusión a nivel global. Asimismo puede ser entendido como un espacio que muestra tanto las posibilidades como las dificultades para establecer diálogos entre los diferentes actores involucrados en la búsqueda de alternativas.

La presencia de varios miembros de la red Participate y de la campaña global Beyond2015, en diversos eventos y espacios durante esta semana, constituyó una buena posibilidad de ser parte de estos diálogos y de presentar ante diversos actores algunas de las conclusiones centrales que han surgido del trabajo de las 18 organizaciones que formamos parte de esta iniciativa.

Se puede considerar que con esta presencia se avanzó en nuestro objetivo de llevar las voces y las preocupaciones de las personas en extrema pobreza y exclusión desde sus localidades hasta los espacios globales. Asimismo sirvió para darnos cuenta de las dificultades que implica tratar de incidir en algunos de los actores centrales de este proceso, especialmente los representantes gubernamentales.

Las preocupaciones, ideas y propuestas presentadas por una diversidad de organizaciones, incluyendo los resultados de Participate, mostraron la existencia de temas coincidentes, pero también de divergencias importantes sobre cómo se entienden los retos, temas y problemáticas. Es notable la preocupación generalizada por la situación de pobreza, exclusión y negación de derechos en que se encuentra un sector importante de la población mundial y el reconocimiento de que las acciones para hacerle frente han sido insuficientes, por decir lo menos.

Las coincidencias
• Acabar con las visiones de corte asistencialista y demandar un enfoque centrado en la reivindicación de derechos y en la búsqueda de justicia para la población en situación de pobreza.
• Reconocer que la participación de la población en situación de pobreza y exclusión en los procesos de toma de decisiones, desde el ámbito local hasta el global, constituye una condición fundamental para hacer frente a sus dificultades
• Insistir en no ver de forma separada el problema de la pobreza y el incremento de la desigualdad a nivel global; y en la necesidad urgente de cambios estructurales al modelo económico y financiero a nivel global. Sin duda, uno de los planteamientos más críticos.

Los discursos y propuestas desde la sociedad civil, coinciden con los de algunos miembros de organismos internacionales. En este sentido, destacan las presentaciones de organismos y coaliciones no gubernamentales en el marco de iniciativas presentadas por ciertos organismos del sistema de Naciones Unidas, como PNUD, UNICEF, OACDH , con quienes hay coincidencias importantes en el diagnóstico y en algunas de las propuestas centrales para la definición de la agenda post-2015. Sin embargo, no parece ser el caso de la mayoría de los gobiernos, o los pocos representantes de gobiernos presentes en estos debates. Su limitada presencia y disposición para establecer un diálogo con la sociedad civil global parece evidenciar la posición de que los mínimos logros en la reducción de la pobreza son el resultado de ineficiencias políticas más que de programas equivocados. Por lo tanto, parece un gran reto vislumbrar cambios sustanciales al enfoque de un marco global de desarrollo post 2015 desde los gobiernos.

En este sentido, Participate mostró la posibilidad y la importancia de llevar la voz de los excluidos, sus preocupaciones y experiencias, a los espacios de decisión globales. Por medio de una exhibición interactiva, la producción de un documental y un panel de discusión alrededor del reporte de síntesis de resultados; hemos mostrado el valor de impulsar procesos de investigación acción participativa. Procesos donde a través del uso de las nuevas tecnologías de comunicación e información -entre otras herramientas- los participantes han levantado sus voces y sus ideas, ayudando a ampliar la perspectiva, la sensibilidad y la consciencia sobre qué hacer frente a uno de los retos más importantes que nuestra sociedad deberá enfrentar en los próximos años.

Confiemos en que lograremos avanzar en el diálogo y las acciones para acabar con la pobreza y la marginación. Confiemos en que los gobiernos, los organismos internacionales, el sector privado, la sociedad civil organizada y todos los ciudadanos trabajemos juntos para lograrlo.

Izquierda a derecha: Mwangi Waituru (The Seed Institute, Kenya); Nusrat Zerin (Sightsavers, Bangladesh) y Carlos Cortez Ruiz (UAM, Mexico)

Septiembre 20. Miembros de la red Participate participamos en el Panel de discusión sobre las conclusiones de nuestra investigación. Izquierda a derecha: Mwangi Waituru (The Seed Institute, Kenya); Nusrat Zerin (Sightsavers, Bangladesh) y Carlos Cortez Ruiz (UAM, Mexico)

Participate’s global research findings say that people and institutions must ‘work together’ to address poverty and inequality

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Joanna Wheeler

Participate’s new report Work with us: How people and organisations can catalyse sustainable change’ argues that the wellbeing of the world’s poorest and most marginalised communities will only be improved if they are seen as active partners in efforts to tackle poverty and injustice.

Participation and realising the rights of all
The report brings together findings from the participatory research of the Participate Participatory Research Group that was undertaken by grassroots organisations, activists and citizens in 29 countries including Kenya, the Philippines, South Africa, Bangladesh, Montenegro, Egypt and Nigeria. The views, stories, and experiences of the participants were collected and shared through diverse mediums including participatory film-making, digital storytelling, public forums, public theatre and art.

The research makes an important contribution to ongoing international discussions about a new set of poverty reduction and environmental sustainability targets to replace the current Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2015. These debates are currently riding high on the political agenda with world leaders about to gather in New York for the UN General Assembly and the Special event towards meeting the MDGs.

This research provides a clear message to leaders meeting in New York. Development policies have not met the expectations of the poorest and most marginalised, and this is largely because these communities have been excluded from crucial design and implementation processes. We have an opportunity to redress this with the post 2015 development framework, but the international community must demonstrate its commitment to working with all citizens to realise their rights, and recognise the role that people are playing themselves in transforming their own lives.

The reality of poverty
The ‘Work with us’ report highlights how the poorest and most marginalised communities’ experience of poverty is multidimensional, often characterised by low incomes, insecure livelihoods, limited or no assets, harsh living environments, violence and environmental degradation. These factors combine with multiple and interconnected inequalities, and close down the opportunities that people have to change their situation themselves.

In the report it is argued that development should focus on the very poorest and work with them to make the decisions that matter most in their lives. The research shows that development interventions, broadly speaking, are targeted at those who are easiest to reach, and based on strong assumptions about the experiences of the poorest, rather than building relationships with them to have a real understanding of how they experience poverty and inequality.

In order to address this it is proposed that a number of key principles must underpin future development policy and practice if the ambition of the post-2015 High Level Panel report to ‘leave no behind’ is to be achieved. These include:

  • Rights, dignity and equity
  • Inclusion, solidarity and collective action
  • Participation, accountability and democratic institutions
  • Services and policies which respond to the needs of the poorest

Through their efforts to tackle insecurity, youth researchers in Mathare slum, Nairobi, have learnt what they are able to do as a community, and where ‘working together’ will bring change that lasts. ‘Working together for change – Mathare Slum, Kenya’ (Spatial Collective, 2013)

Work with us exhibition launch
The report will be launched in New York at the opening night of an exhibition of the research findings from the Participate initiative. The exhibition tells stories from people living in the margins, and demonstrates the obstacles, complexities, and impossible choices of the most vulnerable and marginalised groups in developing countries. The stories show the depth of insight and ability of people affected by poverty to create sustainable and meaningful change in their own communities.

The exhibition is launching on Monday 16 September at 5-7pm at the Gallatin Galleries, New York University, 1 Washington Place at Broadway, New York 10003. The exhibition will run from 16-20 September at Gallatin Galleries, and from 21-27 September at RSPop, 501 Lexington Avenue, New York NY 10017.

There will be a panel event to discuss the research findings from the Participate initiative on Friday 20 September at 9-11am at NYU Wagner, the Rudin Family Forum for Civic Dialogue at the Puck Building, 295 Lafayette Street, Second Floor, New York, NY 10012-9604. The panel will be made up of representatives from the UN, academics, civil society and the Participate research network.

Participate is also hosting a screening of the documentary film Work With Us on Friday 20 September at 6.30pm at RSPop, 501 Lexington Avenue, New York NY 10017. This coincides with a month long series of screenings of the film in locations across the world including Kenya, the Philippines, South Africa, Palestine, Uganda and India.

For more information visit the exhibition website –