International Development CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) Participate project


Participate has been established to ensure that the most vulnerable and marginalised communities have the opportunity to shape post-2015 policymaking and that a future global framework reflects the priorities of those directly affected by poverty and injustice. It will fill a crucial gap in the current policy context and provide a more accurate insight into the realities of how people experience poverty and how they think change is possible at ground level. Initiatives such as the United Nations Development Group 50+ country consultations and global surveys provide important inputs into the post-2015 process. Participatory research can complement these efforts by engaging the most marginalised and vulnerable groups, helping them to directly communicate the reality of their lives and what is most important to them.

The Participate initiative will draw together an extensive body of participatory research that has been carried out or is in the process of being carried out that can provide an invaluable contribution to discussions about what should replace the current Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The initiative is co-convened by IDS and Beyond 2015 and funded by the UK Department for International Development.

For more information or for further evidence in support of this submission please contact Joanna Wheeler, Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies and Co-Director of the Participate initiative (

This submission responds to the following questions:

Lessons learned from the adoption of the International Development Targets and the Millennium Development Goals: in particular how effective has the MDG process been to date, and

Targets: was the MDG “target-based” approach a success? Should it be retained? How should progress be measured?

The process: are the right voices being heard? What are the opportunities for and constraints to global consensus?

The content of future goals: what would be a good set of global goals? What continuity should there be with the MDGs, and how should the unfulfilled MDGs be taken forward?

1. The MDGs have made modest inroads in tackling global development challenges in part because they have not had legitimacy with those most affected by poverty. So despite the emergence of international frameworks for reducing poverty, there are important lessons from the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGS) with regard to the barriers they constructed for achieving both inclusive and socially transformative global development pathways.

2. Firstly, given their sectoral focus the goals did not really reflect the realities of the most marginalised and vulnerable. The interconnectedness of the issues that affect the lives of people in the poorest communities, and their views on what is important were also not sufficiently considered, and given their marginalisation, their stories are rarely told. In addition, the current framework of the MDGs does not reflect or respond to the rapidly changing realities of people living in poverty, how they understand change and what will lead to positive change in their lives. These challenges span both the formulation, implementation, and monitoring of these global development frameworks.

“What is needed post MDG is a much more effective and realistic way of keeping in touch and up to date with the rapidly changing realities of poor people. The rate of change is quite spectacular.” (Robert Chambers, IDS 2012)1

3. Understanding this rapid change is essential as it highlights complex issues and development challenges such as an increasingly mobile world. The MDG’s have tended to target static populations—providing services within localities. Mobile populations: pastoralists; refugees, people moving from the rural to urban locations often find themselves outside of the infrastructure and services that are provided through programmes linked to the MDGs.

4. Secondly, the MDGs have been relatively poor at influencing the underlying structures that perpetuate inequality and poverty. Social and political norms and institutions that lead to discrimination, exclusion and systematic marginalisation are entrenched at the structural level, for example how in many countries children with disabilities are not required to go to school.

5. Accountability of governments to their citizens is also an essential component of transformative development that responds to the complex socio-political realities that individuals and communities face. An informed and empowered citizenry engaged in transparent and accountable governance processes is integral to decision-making that is inclusive of the voices and perspectives of people from all sections of society.

“In Nigeria, the poorest people in our communities are not aware of the MDGs, they mean very little in their day to day lives. This has of course contributed to their limited success in Nigeria. If the government is not open and transparent with its citizens on their responsibility to meet these global development goals, then how are the people going to be empowered to hold them to account?” (Oga Steve Abah, Director of the Theatre for Development Centre 2012)

6. This relationship between citizens and the state is particularly challenging in insecure contexts, and contexts where there are high levels of violence. The MDGs have been particularly inadequate where violence and fragility affect societies.

7. There has also been a significant deficiency in terms of the mechanisms for how governments and international agencies can be held to account for delivery of the goals. Accountability within global governance frameworks is only possible if they are built in dialogue with stakeholders from the initial stages, in both an open and transparent way: the most important stakeholders in the process of building a global development framework are those whose lives they aim to impact upon. Previous attempts to include those living in poverty have been experienced by many as “extractive”—with poor people feeling that their voice has been used for political ends which are not their own. There are considerable lessons to be learned about what to do, and what not to do. If the future of development is to be characterised by a tangible degree of “ownership” by those who are affected by it, then it is crucial to learn these lessons.

“Without the involvement of the people who a framework is supposed to help, work to hold decision-makers to account against their commitments will be poorly grounded and carry little weight.” (Dr Amy Pollard, CAFOD and Beyond 2015 2012)

8. Demands for social justice are increasingly part of mainstream development debates, such as the Beyond 2015 campaign’s call for a framework that is informed by people living in poverty and injustice. A future framework should speak to the fundamental concerns of a more just and sustainable world, rather than only measuring progress in relation to narrow, sectorally-defined indicators. This will only be possible if the pathways to change supported by the post 2015 framework are informed by the experiences of those living in poverty and marginalisation.

9. The right voices to hear in relation to the post 2015 debate are the voices of those most affected by poverty, marginalisation and vulnerability. Perspectives of those living in extreme vulnerability and poverty matter in making decisions about how international development should happen. They matter, not only because they are the people most affected by development, but because their perspectives can shed light on how lasting change is possible.

10. The UK government and other national governments, the UN, and other key agencies are increasingly recognising the importance of engaging these marginalised perspectives in the post-2015 debate. While initiatives such as the UNDG process, global surveys and those using new technology will provide important inputs into the post-2015 agenda, participatory research can complement these efforts by engaging the most marginalised and vulnerable groups, helping them to directly communicate the reality of their lives and what is most important to them.

11. There is an extensive body of participatory research that has been carried out or is in the process of being carried out that can provide an invaluable contribution to this dialogue. The Participate initiative has been established to draw this work together, ensure that knowledge from the margins shapes post-2015 policymaking and that a future framework reflects the priorities of those directly affected by poverty and injustice.

12. Of central importance in the role of participatory research in the reframing of the MDGs is the knowledge generated regarding the real stories of people’s lives and what is important to them. This knowledge provides detailed insight into how and why things happen to people in communities where there are large numbers of people living in poverty, and what it is that makes the problems that they face intractable. Because participatory research is rooted in long-standing relationships it is able to engage those who feel threatened by institutional processes, and as such is more likely to reveal the reality of what is going on; this is essential for example in conflict-affected contexts where safe spaces for people to freely articulate their priorities are limited.

13. As such, through participatory research you are able to understand more about how development interventions are experienced, whether or not they make a difference, and if so whether it is positive. Of particular significance here is the way that participatory research reveals the many unintended consequences of development interventions which show up statistically as successes. A participatory approach called Reality Check that has been used to evaluate development interventions through a longitudinal process of research immersions, have recovered unanticipated outcomes that are outside the scope of traditional impact assessment methodologies. In Bangladesh (SIDA, 2007–11) this approach revealed how new legislation to curb abuse and harassment of girls led to increasing bullying of boys and increasing issues of low self-esteem. In Nepal (DFID 2012) the approach showed that promotion of cash vegetable growing in eastern Nepal by development agencies led to plummeting market prices and whole harvests being abandoned. In addition to unintended consequences these approaches have also revealed inadequate response to real needs, and again reflects the importance of ensuring that development interventions, and the global framework that shapes these interventions are catalysed by the contextualised realities of people’s lives.

14. The data collected within the participatory research process has relevance and integrity as it is situated and contextualised within a wider location and community context. Without the benefit of understanding the systemic features of the context within which people live, data can be disembodied, decontextualised and policy-irrelevant. Participatory visual processes can reveal and communicate powerfully about experiences from the margins by providing further contextualised examples of the complex and nuanced understanding of the subjective aspects and consequences of development. Participatory research processes which draw substantively on group analysis processes enable deliberation and interrogation of ideas and issues building a deeper understanding than traditional surveys and qualitative depth interviews.

15. The evidence base being built through participatory research is far from anecdotal. For example, Reality Checks which have been supported by a number of donors (which have been carried out in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Nepal, Mozambique, Mali, Malawi) have involved in-depth work with 700 people in three districts, and 300 local service providers. This provides a depth of understanding of both the issues that are important to people, and how people’s lives play out. The Participate Initiative will synthesise major participatory studies from the past five to seven years, as well as those ongoing, in relation to their implications for the post 2015 framework.

16. To conclude this section, it is important to emphasise that a global consensus is not necessarily desirable or achievable, except on very minimum standards. Instead, it is more important to identify the issues, groups and perspectives that have been invisible in the current MDGs, and why these matter for a future framework. There is a need for a new development framework that recognises the complexities of development problems and does not reduce these to simplistic and narrow goals.

17. A critical question for the new framework is its core purpose. A goal oriented approach inevitably led to development interventions being results driven. The first goals have been mainly about services and much less about social and sustainability goals. To reach the poorest or the most marginalised populations, goals and their interventions must take into account the multiple, intersecting and dynamic social and structural inequalities that keep them poor and excluded. Following on, the core question becomes about what results matter and how we measure them. Currently, service delivery interventions produce results that favour actions and outcomes that are easy to count.

18. What would a new development framework look like if its primary purpose was to alleviate the deprivation of those living in the greatest poverty and those most marginalised? It becomes a required result to ask about whom benefits, as well as how many. For example, large clean water infrastructure programmes may bring needed water to millions, but if the price of the new water source is not affordable, the poor in those areas will not benefit. When HIV prevention has focused mainly on numbers of new infections, medical technologies and individual behaviour change, prevention efforts have failed or had limited success.

“Health is driven by social and structural drivers, including gendered roles and relations, sex, poverty, ethnicity and age that create and reinforce inequities and exclusions, stigma and discrimination that determine health and access to services. For example, changes in how we deliver prevention of parent to child transmission of HIV is a strong case study of how the health sector has succeeded in lowering transmission rates. But equally importantly, it shows how efforts also continue to fail to lower rates as much as is possible. Failures reflect policies and programming that do not adequately address the complexities of being a poor girl, young woman or an older woman--who may have a partner or not, who is pregnant and who is HIV positive.” (Beryl Leach, Panos London, 2012)

19. We have learned a lot about the role of inequality and exclusion in delivering development that helps transform the lives of the poorest populations. Given the complexities of poverty and marginalisation, approaches that have remained in sectors and service delivery silos have had limited success. We gained important evidence about the importance of including populations and communities in development planning and implementation. And we have learned a lot about how to measure and evaluate complex interventions. A post-2015 framework that is equitable and sustainable will be built on this knowledge and practice. Goals will speak across to each other and indicators will explicitly address gender, inclusion and equity measures.

20. As iterated throughout this submission, a key consideration for the future framework is about how it is monitored and what systems will be put into place for accountability. This requires creating mechanisms for people living with poverty to hold governments and international institutions to account. Significantly, examples from citymakers (homeless population) of Chennai suggest that institutionalising community-led systems of preparing report cards on state actions on ensuring rights and entitlements can keep government engaged in community needs. Participatory monitoring is empowering in nature and also strengthens communities awareness about their rights and the responsibilities of governance institutions. Mechanisms for ensuring that these accountability mechanisms are intrinsically connected to the new global framework will help ensure that the legitimacy lacking in the MDGs will be built at the heart of the post-2015 process.

21. The message at the core of this submission is that there is an urgent need to understand from people living in poverty their experiences of the policies and practices associated with the pursuit of the MDGs, and their views on the future prospects for positive change. In doing so, we will be able to see the effects of institutions, relationships and development processes as they interact in people’s lives and build a new global framework that is both legitimate and accountable to people living in poverty.

October 2012

1 All quotations are from members of the Participate: Knowledge from the margins for post 2015 initiative. For more information see the Participate project page on the IDS website:

Prepared 21st January 2013