The Ladder of Participation

Catalyst. Change Agent.  Development worker.  This is someone who generates ideas, promotes new practices, models healthy behaviors, draws attention to opportunities, and encourages networks to help people move forward in reaching their goals.  This is not someone who imposes their own ideas on others, but rather helps others realize their own potential and the opportunities at hand that they might otherwise miss. 

Development is a process, not a project, where people involved develop skills, knowledge, knowhow, confidence, and the ability to identify and address their own issues and has the capacity to expand opportunities for people to fulfill their basic needs and achieve their aspirations for a better life.

Multiple elements are needed for this better life to happen.  First you need leaders, but just as importantly, you need participants who are willing and eager to challenge their current state of living and move onward to a better way of life. 

If a leader believes people should listen and follow their directions because of some imposed authority yet fails to consider the ladder of participation, well, people may listen while on the first rung but quickly step back into old patterns as soon as the leader walks away. 

The Ladder of Participation was developed by Sherry Arnstein in 1969. 40 years later, programs may still be neglecting the top portion of the ladder.  Apparently, some development programs claim to involve others actively in the process…  yet many of these lack true involvement  and critical thinking causing failed attempts at development.

The bottom 3 rungs are programs which are not participation but rather mindless, using, and domineering.   The top 5 rungs are considered participatory to different levels and extents based on ability and interest.

The first rung is Manipulation where the people have no understanding of the issues and don’t understand their actions.  They are fed some sort of information and mindlessly perform it.  That is, until they see it as meaningless without purpose and then revert to previous behavior.  This is easier to use on young people who are still developing and want the approval of those they idealize.

The second rung of Decoration is where those in charge use others as puppets to get across their message.  They don’t necessarily pretend that it is inspired by the group but use them to strengthen their cause in an indirect way.  The leaders could hand out free T-shirts with certain propaganda and then have the group sing or dance in an event without having much of an idea what exactly they are promoting.  “Walking Advertisement” that gets written words on a T-shirt out yet people are more excited about a new clean shirt than the actual cause.

The third rung is Tokenism which is just a step up from Decoration.  At this level, people are given somewhat of a voice but have little actual power with that voice.  It is more for face since the leaders have the power and control of what is said and in what contexts.  People are allowed to speak on conference panels, but have been fed answers which will get certain responses by those watching.

Finally, the fourth rung!  Assigned but informed is the first step in the right direction of participation.  This is where they move from droids to living human beings with a voice!  They understand the aim of the project, they know who has been in charge and why they were chosen to be involved, have a meaningful role, and volunteer for the project after the project has made clear to them.  This is where they are given a choice to continue on with the group after having a clear understanding of what is going on.

The fifth rung of Consulted and informed is when the project is designed and ran by certain leaders yet the process is understood by the people and they have a voice that is truly listened to.  When you have a school or program with scarce skilled teachers, it is important to listen to the feedback of those who are involved.  Outside donors may come in and hold an evaluation meeting with the whole group to bring to light accomplishments and areas to improve.  If people are not taken seriously at this level, they may feel disempowered and that nothing will actually happen to resolve the issues at hand.

Rung level six is Adult-initiated, shared decisions with group.  The leaders may have fabulous ideas for programs and projects after doing a participatory analysis of the community.  Hopefully it is in line with what the community desires.  This is kind of the equal opportunity level where everyone has a voice and there is harmony between the two groups.

Child- initiated and directed is the exciting seventh rung.  Groups think amongst themselves and are able to carry out complex projects.  For us, by us.  It is the most empowering level within their peer groups. 

Lastly, Child-initiated, shared decisions with adults makes up the final rung on the ladder of participation.  The sad part is, rarely are there supportive adults who are willing to listen.  Young people and groups have such a desire to be useful and to live a meaningful life yet when they are shut down again and again, they can lose hope in authority figures to bring about the change that is possible.  Now, if they do find a supportive adult who will mentor and challenge them to take their idea even further, think of all the possibilities. 

Think about the different participatory levels and how this would develop a generation of change agents who are excited about developing their communities and taking proactive steps towards a better tomorrow.  Young people want excitement, to live purposefully, challenges, and to progress towards something bigger than them.

Too often, we keep young people in the dark thinking it is for their best interest or that they should just trust whoever is in leadership or authority.  We keep them on the first three rungs because they are easier to control and we feel good about how others are viewing these well-behaved mini-me’s. 

Active participation takes work, patience, listening, flexibility, and putting our own agenda to the side for the betterment of others.  It can be messy and allows room for failures.  It can also allow individuals to shine and realize a potential they never knew they had.  To be a supportive leader that sees a group flourish with a little guidance is an excellent feeling. 

To be a change agent in development is exciting.  Development isn’t about doing things for others, but helping others help themselves today, tomorrow, and for the generations to come.  Development workers must stop doing the first three rung level work that looks good on paper or at a music, dance and drama competition but lacks the sustainability and ownership of the others.  Become change agents who inspire others to become the same…

–          Idea and basic concept evolved after reading Roles of the Volunteer in Development, Toolkits for Building Capacity by US Peace Corps.

On a side note…

 From my personal experience, I believe one of the largest reasons for young people to say “eh, I stopped going to church since it was my parents thing and not mine….” Is because church leadership thinks they are doing the best for kids by keeping them on the first 3 rungs without challenging or giving them opportunity to be active participants with ownership.  Church becomes entertainment, something to pass time and socialize, a way to keep face.  They are told what to believe without knowing why or the importance to their life as an individual, perform in Christmas plays without truly understanding the sacrifice and depth of it all…  I remember coming up with different activities and ways to get people to participate yet I was told they would discus it at “the next board meeting” which was an easy way for the pastor to push aside the idea.  The lack of adult support was depressing.  Hopefully, this has changed in the last 10 years or so.  I know there are good people out there who are working on this.  Thank you for challenging others and being an inspiration to us all…


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