Sustenance for servitude: Cultivating resilience amongst rights-based development practitioners

20th August 2010 By: In On Africa IOA

Contemporary development theory has evolved to incorporate a vision of progress that goes beyond an emphasis on economic indicators as a barometer of the welfare of society.(2) Instead, holistic human-centred approaches towards development, that re-conceptualise what development means to the individual, are now defended. The United Nations Development Programme's (UNDP) perspective on Human Development (HD) and use of the concept of Participatory Development (PD) are good examples of this change in theoretical foci.


This brief explores the challenges of practical implementation of HD and PD in the 2006/7 Tantyi Youth Empowerment Project (YEP) of the non-governmental organisation (NGO), ‘The Spirals Trust'. By unpacking the experiences of the participants and staff members involved in the YEP, three challenges facing the practical implementation of HD and PD emerge. These challenges include questions about the organisational energy needed to sustain participant driven initiatives; the effects of favouring product over process and the importance of challenging the political status quo as a part of this work. These issues provide insight to practitioners about what this work entails on a daily basis and the broader support needed to sustain it.

Human and participatory development


Broadly, HD seeks to "develop indicators for those less tangible dimensions of poverty that reflect the perceptions of the poor themselves."(3) From this perspective, poverty should not be measured solely in terms of income, but should also be understood as "a denial of choices and opportunities for living a tolerable life."(4) HD is credited with having the merit of reintegrating concerns about economic and social development, human security and human rights.(5) An appreciation of the perspectives of poor persons highlights a crucial ingredient in participatory development: the participation of the poor themselves towards the vision of development that they value. This participatory ethic seeks to foster an environment "where people can widen their range of choices, and exercise these choices safely and freely" in a manner that enables people to be "empowered enough to take care of themselves."(6) This ‘empowerment' consider participants to be active agents instead of passive subjects of development in their environment.(7) Participatory development aims to "reconfigure society to the benefit of the majority of its members, while empowering them to develop themselves as they see fit."(8) They do this through increased networking within their community and service providers who provide access to tools and information about the wider context in which they live and work, so that they can make informed and appropriate decisions about their development."(9) More radically, participatory approaches seek to address institutional practices and capacity gaps which cause social exclusion, thereby ensuring transformation of existing social relations.(10)


The possibilities and challenges of the practical implementation of this approach needs to be explored through more research. Information on the challenges and consequences of implementation is scant, a fact that may inhibit not only the success of PD initiatives but also their continued use.(11)


The Spirals Trust


The Spirals Trust was conceived in 2002 as an attempt to explore issues of identity in post- apartheid South Africa.(12) The Trust emphasised personal development in the form of psychological and spiritual healing as an important aspect of development practice. From this perspective, social development cannot be separated from personal development.(13) The Trust's Tantyi 2006/7 Youth Empowerment Project worked with youth from Tantyi, Grahamstown and was funded by the Eastern Cape Poverty Alleviation Fund through the Eastern Cape NGO Coalition. The Urban Livelihood Assessment Group identified Tantyi as an area that needed critical support for out-of-school unemployed youth.(14) The process had two stages in mind. First, a personal development phase that viewed the participants' personal experience and wellbeing as essential parts of the community's development as a whole. The second phase was an effort to put the visions and aspirations of the group into action. The participants were asked to identify two skills they wanted to learn so that they could earn an income and help their community.


The following section discusses the key lessons that emerged from this project for development practitioners working within the HD and PD paradigm.


An atmosphere conducive to participant-driven initiatives


The YEP methodology focused on personal development and made an effort to understand and commune with the participants' experiences of the challenges they faced in their environment. Workshops emphasised the importance of open communication and dialogues, which also served as the bases of the relationships formed between the service providers and the participants. The focus on personal development that was central to the first phase of the YEP process was celebrated as an empowering process for the participants, in the sense that it helped improve their self-esteem and encouraged them to become more independent and assertive.(15)


The ethic of communication and dialogue was not only imperative to the first phase of the YEP. It became a firm foundation that anchored the project as a whole. The Spirals Trust was faced with the challenge of facilitating dialogue, communication and participation in the group on daily basis. They provided emotional and psychological support to participants, which was necessary given that many of the participants came from broken families and therefore did not always have the "psychological tools to navigate the high levels of participation that was required of them" in order to define and work towards their valued options for life.(16)


This aspect of the YEP consumed more of the staff members' energy than originally anticipated and stretched their capacities beyond their daily work of directing and coordinating the project, towards roles as counsellors for the participants when necessary. Organisational overstretch due to the facilitative burden was evident in this case, and highlighted the invisible work that human-and-participation-centred-development requires. The YEP highlights that the value of participation may be assumed to be easily achievable, yet it requires significant effort to realise in vulnerable communities. Future projects therefore need to ensure that enough support (psychological and otherwise) is available to sustain the invisible work that human and participation centred development approaches entail for the development practitioners involved.

Favouring product over process: Compromising the agenda


In a field that mostly relies on the work of non-state actors that are externally funded, an element said to influence the values of PD is the institutionalisation of its practice.(17) In other words, the way that PD made to conform to bureaucratic standards. Pressure from external funders may inhibit the realisation of PD's aims in many ways. Outside influence may furthermore compromise communities' levels of participation. The YEP participants' levels of participation were not only influenced by the origins of the project, but more importantly by the direction and influence they experienced during the programme.(18)


The project originated from NGO responses to a report on the marginalisation of the youth in Tantyi. This origin here set a predetermined agenda to some extent. Setting out the phases and some of the project's content (first personal development in various forms and then skills training) before the project launch left participants little room to decide on the way forward. Understandably, a project needs to be organised and planned in order to ensure its success, but in participatory work, the broader framework should also allow participants to contribute to the shape of the project during the process.


The tension between complying with funders' requirements while addressing the needs of the Tantyi youth is obvious and was particularly observable in the skills training dimension of the YEP. Particular skills were suggested (keeping in mind what was available in the area) from which the participants could choose. Limited options were presented to participants to choose from.(19) How can the infinite possibilities upheld in formulations on human and participatory approaches be realised in contexts that provide clear limitations to participants' desires? How can impoverished, lacking contexts live up to PD's idealistic aspirations? These questions force us to face the challenges presented by the practice of human and participatory development in vulnerable communities.


Contextual limitations may strongly influence available options, but it remains clear that organisations who promote HD through participatory approaches need support and funders who trust and support organisational autonomy. An open-ended process, in which the project can take on a life of its own whilst it continually responds to the needs of the participants, creates the space and more importantly the time needed to carve out alternative strategies to address participants' needs. Organisations who undertake this work should be aware that they invite an unknown process that will be coloured in by the interests of the participants. Participation is significantly compromised when product is valued over process - the process is, after all, the essence of the outcome. Outcomes could improve and pleasantly surprise funders if only funders invest more time and trust in the process of PD.

Weaving in the broader political picture


Those who work towards HD and PD must be careful when they emphasise personal reform over political struggle.(20) Focus on the power of the individual in HD and PD may downplay the power of the pervasive forces of capitalist society that create many dead-ends for actual development. It is important to acknowledge that "under capitalist social relations of production, individuals can be free neither from hegemonic controls over their participation in the public realm, nor from the direct or indirect consequences of the exploitation of human labour."(21) Even if participants are able to articulate and work towards a self-realisation based on what they value, they remain susceptible to the pressures of the socio-political climate, which may undermine their efforts.


The YEP provides subtle insight into this issue. Participants that found the project successful were mostly incorporated into the service sector to work as development practitioners, home-based care givers and nursery school teachers. Their incorporation into ongoing programmes helped to shelter them and provided a buffered space for them to grow. Participants who did not fare well and did not find the project successful, undertook to create their own businesses to sell products made from their leather craft, sewing and printing lessons. These participants were not prepared adequately to contend within the competitive business sector that dictates the success of enterprises through the marketability and saleability of products. In this context, personal will may not be enough to survive and PD support becomes extremely valuable.


HD and PD work must acknowledge the socio-political status quo in which participants desire to function. A keen understanding of the social pressures that perpetuate inequality needs to be woven into the fabric of the intervention proposed. Encouraging political education by interrogating oppressive systems and bolstering knowledge about human rights is essential in this work. It nurtures a form of development that not only encourages individuals to challenge themselves, but also makes shrewd navigators of those who understand and challenge the systems that undermine their development.

Building resilience: Key lessons for practitioners


Whilst human centred development through participatory approaches is a compelling focus for developmental initiatives, it is important to recognise the challenges practice presents. HD and PD practices must be cognisant of the fact that every project invites people from different backgrounds and experiences. The participatory ethic touted in HD and PD requires significant effort; it takes a lot of work and patience to unpack the history and lived experience of participants. This inadvertently implies that facilitators will probably need to help participants unpack the challenges of the past and to understand how those challenges can be addressed as an integral part of the solutions preferred. The demands that this might make on an organisation should be considered and much more space should be made to accommodate and support these. This is necessary to ensure that a process of empowerment for participants does not overwhelm or unintentionally disempower the organisation running the project.


An equally important exercise is to understand the tangible obstacles to the ‘valued options' of participants in an environment. This aspect requires an element of flexibility on the part of the organisation to navigate the terrain they find themselves in as best they can. The infinite possibilities captured in the phrase ‘valued options' requires organisations to understand that they are inviting the unknown. Ideally, process should determine the end product. This is no doubt a challenge to organisations that are so often externally funded and contractually bound to produce certain outputs. Perceptive sensibilities are needed to design a project in a way that is flexible enough to support an open process. Ultimately, the survival and sustenance of this work requires institutional support that can understand and fuel its principles.


An awareness of the broader socio-political framework is furthermore imperative in this work. Over-emphasising the power of an individual may do little to shift the lived experience of participants pitched up against a hostile system. Inspiring education and advocating for broader political change where needed is a vital component of this work. It holds society accountable to its populace and has the potential to mould it to reflect the needs of its most vulnerable members. This is an important tool that can bring about more transformation and change than having marginalised members of society innocently conspiring with the systems that perpetuate their inequality.

By Injairu Kulundu (1)


The contents of this paper are indebted to previous research undertaken by the author at Rhodes University under the supervision of Dr. Sally Matthews that was funded by the Women's Academic Solidarity Association (WASA).


(1) Contact Injairu Kulundu through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Eyes on Africa Unit (
(2) Desai, M. 1991. "Human development concepts and measurement." in European Economic Review, 35(1): 350-357.
(3) Davids, I. 2009. "Poverty in South Africa: A development management perspective." in Davids, I. Theron, F. & Maphunye, K. Participatory development in South Africa: A development management perspective. Pretoria: Van Schaik Publishers.
(4) UNDP. 1994. Human Development Report. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
(5) Gasper, D. 2004. The ethics of development from economism to human development. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
(6) UNDP. 1994. Human Development Report. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
(7) Eversole, R. 2003. "Managing the pitfalls of participatory development: Some insight from Australia." in World Development, 31(5): 781-795.
(8) Connell, D. 1997. "Participatory Development: An Approach Sensitive to Class and Gender." in Development in Practice, 7(3): 248-259.
(9) Ibid.
(10) Hickey, S. & Mohan, G. (eds.) 2004. Participation from tyranny to transformation. New York: Zed Books.
(11) Nicholls, L. 2000. "Birds of a feather? UNDP and Action Aid implementation of sustainable human development." in Eade, D. (ed.) Development, NGO's and civil society. A development in practice reader. Oxford: Oxfam.
(12) The Spirals Trust. 2003. The vision of the Spirals Trust.
(13) Cabrera, M. 2003. Living and surviving in a multiply wounded country. Medico International.
(14) Care South Africa. 2004. ‘Lesotho and Urban Services Group Household Livelihood Assessment.' Tantyi Livelihoods Assessment, Makana Municipality Grahamstown 1-12 March 2004 Report. Unpublished.
(15) Interviews with participants of the YEP held on 7 August and 24 October, 2008.
(16) Edlmann, T. 2009. Interview held on 28 March. Unpublished.
(17) Kapoor, I. 2005. "Participatory development: Complicity and desire." in Third World Quarterly, 26(8): 1203-1220.
(18) Parfitt, T. 2004. "The ambiguity of participation: A qualified defence of participatory development." in Third World Quarterly, 25(3): 537-556.
(19) Gasper, D. 2004. The ethics of development from economism to human development. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
(20) Williams, G. 2004. "Evaluating participatory development: Tyranny, power and (re) politicisation." in Third World Quarterly, 25(3): 557-578.
(21) Dean, H. 2009. "Critiquing capabilities: The distractions of a beguiling concept" in Critical Social Policy, 29(2): 261-278.