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IAF Africa Conference 2017: Arusha, Tanzania

November 2017



Usually when the word facilitation is mentioned, the word participatory is not very far away.  Indeed, the word participation has done very well for itself over the years. According to the original meaning of the word, participation just meant to take part in something but, in development language, such simple explanations have long become outmoded as participation has come to have both a much broader and a more specific meaning.  For example, The State of the World’s Children 2003 which focused on child participation defined participation as one of the key elements of democracy:

The process of sharing decisions which affect one’s life and the life of the community in which one lives. It is the means by which democracy is built and it is a standard against which democracies should be measured.[1]

When a word grows so rapidly in meaning, it is in danger of being reduced to a chameleon, taking on the colour of meaning that anyone wants.  Thus, while we continue to use, and showcase, different methods of participatory facilitation, as was done in the previous facilitators' conference, we propose that we use the forthcoming conference to reflect also on the purpose and nature of participatory facilitation as a whole in order to better inform our theory and practice of facilitation.

Facilitation and participation

There are many typologies of participation, one of the most famous being Roger Hart's Ladder of Participation.  On his ladder, the bottom three rungs, identified as manipulation, decoration and tokenism consist of false forms of participation yet these are often the very forms of participation which are lauded by those who use them to show how participatory they are when in fact they are doing the opposite.  Thus, in Kiswahili for example, the word used for participate, shirikisha is an active verb which requires an object.  Instead of people deciding to participate, they are participated by others, usually those with greater power.

Thus, in facilitation, as in teaching one can have a situation which looks participatory on the surface but which is, in fact, clearly controlled by the facilitator. Facilitators behave in a manner similar to 'chalk and talk' teachers where participants answer questions to which the facilitator already knows the answer and which s/he uses to push the participants towards an end which s/he has already determined.  By contrast, participatory facilitators follow the precept of Robert Chambers that they should 'hand over the stick' and allow the participants to lead the process.

The differences are summed up in a paper which tries to demystify facilitation.[2]  They divided the aims of facilitation into three underlying categories.

  • Instrumental rationality values actions in terms of their ability to achieve pre-set goals by manipulating others (things, people) as objects. One does something because it is a way of achieving one’s goals.
  •  Strategic rationality shares with instrumental rationality a goal-oriented approach to action. However, people are viewed as strategic actors, rather than as objects, which need to be outwitted to achieve one’s predetermined goals through others.
  • Communicative rationality gives rise to interaction in which the goals and plans of action of different actors are negotiated and co-ordinated through “use of language (or corresponding non-verbal expressions) oriented to reaching shared understanding” (Habermas, 1984). In other words, action is taken through agreement and shared understanding. One does something because of a feeling of commitment and interdependency with others.

The authors dismiss instrumental rationality as, in such situations, the participation is manipulated and controlled by the person in charge of the process, usually an outsider.  However, strategic rationality does bring the participants into play in a more meaningful way while communicative rationality answers to the need to 'hand over the stick' to the fullest. 

People are not regarded as passive pawns to be manipulated, but as rational human beings capable of shaping their environment to realise their own interests through interaction with others. Interventions based on communicative rationality assume that there is no single reality but multiple perceptions of reality.

Such an approach also shows the importance of welcoming diversity, 'multiple perspectives' and therefore accepting that the facilitation might end up with substantially different goals and outcomes from the ones originally intended by the facilitator or the organisation/person who hired her/him.  As people come together with the facilitator in 'active learning' they come to understand issues in their complexity and how to address them themselves, instead of 'adopting externally-provided solutions'.

Facilitation styles

Based on the above, the authors identify three opposing sets of facilitation styles:

  • Inside or outside the process.  Some facilitators consider themselves as insiders or as actors involved in the change process with a specialist role like any other actor. Others act as outsiders manipulating the process of others. They believe that their presence does not directly change the phenomena being studied and pretend to be detached from the object of study in the name of objectivity and neutrality (Selener, 1997).

The 'insiders' use mainly qualitative methods and happily accommodate multiple perspectives presented by the participants, adapting and developing these perspectives together. By contrast, the 'outsiders' are more interested in achieving 'objective truth' through quantitative analysis. These are usually more palatable to those who hired them who always demand 'evidence based recommendations' while the 'insiders' are more accountable to their participants.

Obviously the dichotomy is not so clearcut and facilitators are often faced with the dilemma of how to maintain a flexible approach which encourages perspectives which might even go against the original aims of the project they are facilitating while providing to the donor the results they demand.

  • Reflective versus problem solving.  A reflective facilitation style highlights reflection so that individuals’ learning can be on-going and sustainable.  This style highly values the process of building people’s capacity for problem solving, adaptation, negotiation and conflict resolution. (Stacey, 1992; Wheatley, 1992).

The problem solving facilitation style focuses more on the problems than on the people solving the problems. The problem solver helps people to manage the problem situation. In this facilitation style problem-solving is considered a linear process taken in a series of steps: identifying problems, analysis, formulation of solutions and implementation.

The 'reflective' facilitator is more concerned with 'problematisation' than problems, encouraging participants to reflect on their reality in greater depth and, as they do so, they come to take over the learning process and how to apply it. Thus the methods used encourage collective critical reflection on their reality.  By contrast the instrumental style concentrates on 'problem solving' rather than 'problematisation'.  Although analysis is involved it is directed narrowly at finding solutions to these.  Thus they are more 'product oriented'

  • Integrative and distributive mediation style.  Facilitators often act as mediators to assist negotiations between people for joint decision-making. There are two negotiation styles: integrative and distributive (Pruitt and Carneval, 1993). Integrative negotiation seeks a win-win situation serving the interests of all parties. Distributive negotiation represents a win-lose situation in which one party wins at the expense of the other. A facilitator can prefer a mediation style that serves one party (e.g. donors, government) at the expense of others, or an integrative style that takes into account the interest of all actors.

The integrative mediation style will seek to bring the participants together in joint analysis and decision making in a 'win-win' situation as far as possible.  By contrast, a distributive style will concentrate more on bringing people to agree to the goals of the project which s/he is facilitating.

It should be emphasised here that the reason for identifying these different styles is not to be judgemental (well not very much) but to show the different facilitation styles adopted in response to the inevitable interaction between the world view of the facilitator herself/himself, the demands of the project/programme and its funder and the world view of the 'beneficiaries' of the programme. All the above styles interact and change according to circumstances. However, if our intention is to be participatory it is essential to understand the underlying dynamics behind the different methods and instruments we use and how they fit into the broader context.

Some of the comments on last year's conference welcomed the plethora of different facilitation instruments and methodologies but wanted to see more of an underlying theme behind these leading to more of a common understanding arising out of the diversity, hence the decision to suggest the over-arching theme of participation in facilitation for this year. 


The conference has set the following themes where abstracts can be developed for the presentations:

  1. A critique of participatory facilitation as a whole, or different forms of participatory facilitation
  2. Participation versus effectiveness.  Content versus process.
  3. The qualities of participatory facilitation
  4. Power and participation
  5. Inclusive participation
  6. Art and participation.
  7. Participation and protection
  8. Gender and participation
  9. Workshop participation
  10. Facilitation in mediation and conflict resolution

[1] UNICEF (2002) The State of the World’s Children 2003, UNICEF, New York p.4

[2] A. Groot and M. Maarleveld (2000) Demystifying Facilitation in Participatory Development, IIED Gatekeeper Series No. 89