Participation in democracy, in employment, in education, in cultural development – these are all enshrined as individual rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They are also included in the Harare Declaration as priorities for the Commonwealth. But what does ‘participation’ mean? Here, we examine this notion from the point of view of project planning.

The history of international and national development efforts includes many different approaches to and interpretations of ‘participation’. When we think of a ‘participatory project’, we think of one where the main beneficiaries of the project have also been involved in some way in designing and managing the project.

But some people seem to just attach the word ‘participatory’ to projects because it sounds better, even though complete control of projects remains with outside planners or elites. For example, there exists a ‘participatory family planning project’ where participation only means coming to the clinic for contraceptives.