Designing for Participation

By Eric Zan

Smith et al. in anOpen Development: A New Theory for ICT4D explore the potential of openness for the developing world1. Taking their inspiration from the ethos of the free and open source movement, openness refers to the free access and modification ofinformation inan environment of participation. The growing excitement behind the movement and the proliferation of its enabling technologies, dubbed Web 2.0, have given rise to what this could mean for the development agenda. The idea is that when networked activities are enabled, transformative results can occur through the participation and collaboration of a more inclusive community. But how does this actually happen and how can it be improved?

One way Web 2.0can contribute to international development is to provide tools that support a community driven approach. An increasingly popular concept in development is the belief that community participation is vital to reaching development objectives2. The approach is based on similar values to the openness movement, where the participation of the beneficiaries of development projects is deemed critical for success. If ICTs can create and improvemethods for that participation, it will conceivably play a role in improving the outcomes of development initiatives.

We have already witnessed how previous technological advancements have contributed to the creation of participatory methods in development. Tools for photography and video became cheaper and easier to use and proved effective tools for creating dialog among communities3. For example, in Tanzania, disposable cameras were utilizedto communicate a community’s values to their local political representatives4.

Newer technology is similarly allowing for the creation of new participatory methods as technology use has moved from one of stationary access to a more mobile and networked experience. Wikis and social networking platforms are web 2.0 technologies that enable interactive conversations that may allow knowledge production to be built by communities more comprehensively and with minimal intervention from developers. The power and wisdom of the crowd can beleveragedfor monitoring elections or enhancing maps using place-based knowledge. For example, theMAP Kiberaproject exposes the conditions of slum communities through content generated online by the community members themselves.

Web 2.0 tools arealso characterized as highly customizable. Participatory development frequently requires substantial improvisation as methods conceived in the design phase of a project need to be adapted when the practitioner actually interfaces with the community. Therefore,Web 2.0 tools areespeciallyconducive to the environment of participatory development and the more this type of technology is accessible by the poor, thenthe more methodswill be at the disposal of participatory practitioners3. With more participatory methods to deploy, practitioners improve the reach of participation in development activities so that outcomes are informed by a better representation of the community, leading to more equitable solutions.

Applying openness to development this way assumes that participation, and thus more of it, always leads to better outcomes. However, there are significant pitfalls with the application of participation as a tool for development. Heeks highlights a number of reasons participation can be problematic5. The major issue is the difficulty of attaining true participation.For one, political and cultural influences can affect who is allowed to participate, leading to a representation that reflects the existing power dynamics of a community. Those voices most marginalized in a societyare suppressed and the approach can actually result in amplifying the inequity of a community.

Even when participation is more inclusive, participation can also be unrepresentative due to a lack of motivation. Members of the community may not feel an incentive to take part if they know something will be created whether they take the time to participate or not. Even if full participation doestake place, inadvertent outcomes may occur due to groupthink and groupshift.With everyone involved in the effort to be completely inclusive, the various stakeholders and their varied backgrounds make it difficult to communicate, creating barriers in sharing and to creating collective knowledge5.

Can ICTs overcome these problems? Can they allow participation to be done in the “right” way? See part 2.

1Smith, Matthew L., Laurent Elder, and Heloise Emdon. "Open Development: A new theory for ICT4D." Information Technologies & International Development 7.1 (2011): pp-iii.
2Dongier, Philippe, et al. "Community driven development." World Bank Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (2003).
3 Chambers, Robert. "Paradigms, poverty and adaptive pluralism." IDS Working Papers 2010.344 (2010): 01-57.
4 SDC (2003) Views of the Poor: The Perspective of Rural and Urban Poor in Tanzania as Recounted Through their Stories and Pictures, Bern: Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation
5 Heeks, Richard. "The tyranny of participation in information systems: Learning from development projects." (1999): 9

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