Exploring Solidarity: Thoughts on Participatory Development

Chanel

Thoughts on Participatory Development

by Chanel Marin

March 15, 2019

Since our initiation in 2015, The Solidarity Project (TSP) has committed itself to providing resources for local communities in Honduras to implement changes in their communities. We believe that communities are best equipped to identify local problems, find opportunities for incremental change, and to implement solutions. A lot of this comes from the Passionist Volunteer background of our co-founders, which emphasized “accompaniment”, or the idea of walking alongside the communities we seek to support. We have since learned the technical term for this type of work, “participatory development.”

Participatory development is a process through which local stakeholders influence and share control over development initiatives[1]. This umbrella term encompasses myriad approaches to development work, including community-driven development, which places communities at the center of decision making, [2] and human-centered design, a creative approach to problem-solving beginning with the “end-user” [3] (in our case, local communities). For TSP, participation is not simply the inclusion of inputs from community members, but is an active process using participation to eliminate unjust disparities in knowledge, power, and economic means[4].

This participatory approach contrasts with traditional models of assistance that I have seen in my two years of working in the humanitarian aid sector. These traditional models tend to respond to humanitarian crises with a top-down approach influenced by donor priorities and technical experts. Due to grant cycles and the need to mobilize large amounts of money in short periods of time, humanitarian aid organizations often apply for grants and then conduct needs assessments. They tend to prioritize efficiency and speed of delivery of services to meet basic needs such as housing, food, or water. While this approach is valid for large scale aid initiatives, there is space in the development industry for improved grassroots approaches, too, that prioritize affected community’s interests and take time to listen to and develop their ideas.

For example, I recently met with a group of youth in Iraq with an interest in supporting their local village, which had survived ISIS occupation. This group of youth had the knowledge, the skills, and the drive to implement projects to support their community but lacked the financial means to implement their ideas. I was fortunate to work with an organization at the time who found the means to provide sub-grants to implement these grassroots ideas, but this was not the primary modality for aid delivery. I had a similar experience in South Sudan, where I had the privilege to meet community members from various villages who similarly knew exactly what their communities needed but lacked the resources to act. In this case, various NGOs had repeatedly assessed these villages but had directed assistance to other villages perceived as having greater need. These experiences have highlighted to me the value of TSP’s approach to participatory development.

TSP embodies the many working definitions of solidarity – solidarity as empathy, as advocacy, as dignity, as equality, as the ability to truly see the other and find commonality through humanity. TSP focuses on connecting all stakeholders in one common goal – that is, the goal of the community. Our financial supporters provide a means through which community members on the ground can realize their own ideas, and in doing so join community members in working together towards one common objective.

Mesa Comunitaria (“Community Table”), our primary mode of identifying and funding projects, was adapted from the U.S. Detroit Soup model of grassroots community organizing. We help community members identify leaders, plan their project pitch, and organize the community for a shared meal during which leaders pitch their ideas and community members vote on the idea they most support. Through this modality, community leaders not only develop their own solutions for local problems, but their fellow community members have a voice in selecting the project they most support.

I am proud to be part of an organization who not only prioritizes community voices but exists explicitly to listen to those voices. We believe that community leaders are best placed to address the needs of the community, and we provide a vehicle for them to do this.

Chanel Marin is a founding member of The Solidarity Project and currently serves on the Board of Directors. She volunteered in Honduras from 2010-2011 and after receiving her Masters of Public Health degree from Yale University in 2016, has worked in the humanitarian sector in South Sudan and Iraq.

[1] World Bank.

[2] Spark.

[3] IDEO.

[4] Tufte, Mefalopulos, Thomas 2009.