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Asian Development Bank

Chapter 6.3 Communities and participation

Inclusion and expectations

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6.3.1 Involving the most vulnerable

The aim of CBDRM is to enable communities to protect themselves more effectively against hazards. Participation is a means to this end. To the extent that it can empower and thereby mobilise the community collectively, it will succeed. If only some parts of the community are involved, its impact will be limited at best, it is quite likely to overlook those most in need, and in some circumstances it may lead to community fragmentation and hence to total failure. To avoid these dangers, there must be a thorough understanding of the community from the start. Good stakeholder and situation analysis is essential to reveal the composition of the community, the relationships between different groups within it, who is vulnerable to disaster and how, and how the community can be mobilised to reduce the risks it faces.

Communities are not homogeneous or united; social relations are not equal. In any society there are winners and losers. Some groups are weaker than others, or in some cases deliberately marginalised. As a result, their voices are less likely to be heard, and more effort will be needed to involve them in community initiatives. As the most marginal groups in society tend to be the most vulnerable, this is an important issue for development, DRR and climate change adaptation projects. Targeting the most vulnerable and marginalised within communities and ensuring their inclusion and participation may not be straightforward: it will probably require continuing effort throughout the lifetime of a project, and possibly beyond.+In humanitarian action, there may be some tension between the desire to protect the vulnerable (and, hence, to address the causes of their vulnerability, which may include socio-political structures) and the need to maintain the fundamental humanitarian principles of impartiality, neutrality and independence. This debate is largely driven by experiences in complex political emergencies, but it is also relevant to other types of disaster.

It is not practical to involve everyone all the time in CBDRM activities, but it is essential that all groups within a community are represented and engaged in some way. Special effort may be needed to facilitate participation, for example by organising meetings and other activities at times of day and in places that make it easier for certain groups to attend, or by creating separate and safe spaces where they are more confident to speak out. Many projects hold separate meetings for women and schedule these to fit as far as possible with their many domestic and other responsibilities. The time and effort required for participatory initiatives can be a barrier to very poor people, whose overriding daily pressures to earn a living and feed a family already place heavy demands on them.

It is essential to be explicit about the objectives of a participatory CBDRM process. Different social groups may have different objectives (indeed, relationships between outsiders and local communities usually involve different ends). The process can then be developed to reconcile those objectives. Where objectives are unstated or unclear, misunderstandings will arise that may prove damaging in the longer term. There is also the issue of how to strike the appropriate balance of private and public gains from a project, especially where resources are limited. Sometimes a difficult choice has to be made between action that benefits the community as a whole (e.g. an embankment to protect against floods) and interventions that focus on particular households and groups in need. Communities may have high expectations of what they might receive from outsiders, whilst outsiders may risk giving the impression that they will address all aspects of a problem even though they are not in a position to do so. To some extent this is inevitable, given DRR’s holistic aims and principles. Agencies should seek to implement progressive yet manageable programmes with achievable objectives, and they should be open about what they are doing and why.

6.3.2 Information and openness

The more transparent the process, the greater the likelihood of success. This requires sharing information and knowledge, which does not always happen. For instance, many participatory processes simply extract information from people, to be used by others. This sometimes happens with community-level vulnerability and capacity assessment, in which information is acquired from community members through participatory techniques, but the data analysis and subsequent disaster planning are carried out by external agents. The outcomes of participatory appraisal exercises should therefore be shared publicly with all those who take part. This allows knowledge gained from different groups within the community to be shared between those groups and debated by them, leading to better mutual understanding of each other’s views and needs. It also gives community members a chance to challenge the conclusions of the appraisal – and the appraisers. The community may insist on such sharing as a precondition of its involvement in participatory work. Openness also generates trust (see Box 6.1: The three Ts). Transparent feedback mechanisms should be integral to every project.

Box 6.1 The three Ts

Successful participation is sometimes said to rely on the three Ts: transparency, time and trust.

  • Transparency requires clarity, openness and accountability. It respects the need for communities to be informed about the drawbacks of interventions as well as their benefits.
  • Time is needed to build meaningful relationships between communities, outsiders and intermediaries, to implement activities and to enable communities to take ownership of the process.
  • Trust is the result of transparency and time in the participatory process, creating a sense of shared effort, goals and responsibility.
Adapted from J. Corbett et al., ‘Overview: Mapping for Change – The Emergence of a New Practice’, Participatory Learning and Action, 54, 2006,, pp.13–19.

6.3.3 Power relationships

Organisations need to look closely into the nature of community structures and power relationships, the influence of local elites on local decision-making, and the implications of choosing to work with particular community stakeholders. Projects should be aware of the risk of creating tensions within communities by appearing to favour particular groups. Programming tools such as Do No Harm (Local Capacities for Peace Project)+M. B. Anderson, Do No Harm: How Aid Can Support Peace – Or War (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1999). are useful for examining the divisions, tensions and connections within and between communities (see also Chapter 15). Where people-centred participation involves real social change, it leads inevitably to the possibility of confrontation and conflict with those accustomed to holding power and controlling resources. For example, attempts to remove restrictions on women’s or other groups’ access to decision-making power are often resisted, usually on the grounds of respect for tradition and cultural norms.

Agencies and project facilitators need to be careful in their choice of local partners, and when identifying whom to include in project activities. Local authorities, political leaders and business people are often keen to be involved, but in some cases they may have little understanding of the needs and circumstances of marginal and vulnerable groups, or they may have their own agendas. On the other hand, securing their engagement in DRR can be beneficial because of the skills, connections and resources they bring. Members of local elites cannot be disregarded, for they have the power to block or disrupt community-based initiatives. Working out how to acknowledge and include local leaders without putting the weaker members of the community at a disadvantage can be a major challenge. Facilitators may find that some of the groups involved are unwilling to declare all their intentions, especially if these involve capturing resources from other sections of the community or external agencies. Participation cannot always uncover such hidden objectives and unstated agendas, and those involved must remain alert for indications (see Case Study 6.2: Revealing and reconciling different views).

Case Study 6.2 Revealing and reconciling different views

An earthquake in the state of Maharashtra in India in September 1993 left 53,000 houses either totally destroyed or seriously damaged; about 10,000 people were killed. Since some of the villages affected had been reduced to rubble and had become burial grounds, the government decided to relocate 49 villages to safer sites, and promised to provide a plot of land and a basic house to every household that had to move. This involved designing layouts for the new villages and houses. Official designs produced for both, based on town planning, were completely different from those of traditional villages and showed no understanding of villagers’ needs. Attempts at construction ended in failure and it was finally agreed to involve people more actively in planning.

In one village, facilitators explored how space had formerly been used. Meetings were held with villagers to identify what features they wanted to see in the new village and its housing. The groups also visited the new site. There were heated arguments when the different groups’ ideas were shared in a village meeting. The grid layout prepared by officials was strongly supported by the younger, literate men who had studied in towns, who felt that features derived from town designs would make the village look better. The older men, younger non-literate men and most of the women felt that this design was not suited to their way of life and daily activities. The main reason for not liking the grid design was that houses would not be clustered. Women felt that this would lead to the disintegration of social and cultural ties and support networks based on kinship and caste groups. One man pointed out how difficult it was to turn a bullock cart in a grid design where roads turn at right angles. When it came to discussing public facilities, the women’s plan focused on water points, which had been overlooked by the men.

Despite these problems, the process arrived at a commonly agreed solution, based on a mixture of the cluster and grid plans – and it took only three days.

M. K. Shah, ‘Participatory Planning with Disaster Victims: Experience from Earthquake-hit Areas of Maharashtra, India’, Refugee Participation Network, 21, 1996,, pp. 15–17.

6.3.4 Insiders and outsiders

Although participation should be community-centred, outsiders do have a role to play. As long as they remain facilitators, and their work is guided by people’s needs and aspirations, they can be genuine partners in transformation. This sounds easy enough in principle, but the practice is much harder. The relationship between external disaster specialists and local people involves differences in outlook, power and resources. Outsiders have different educational, social and cultural backgrounds, and they work for organisations that may have considerable financial, technical and other resources. The possession of material resources, especially funding, conveys enormous power. Because of this power, and the assumption that all participatory efforts are good in themselves, disaster specialists may be tempted to intervene without waiting to find out if they are really needed – or wanted – by the community. In such circumstances, the participatory process is likely to be directed by outsiders, and aimed towards seeking confirmation of decisions made externally. This often happens unconsciously. If funds are made available too widely or easily, this can undermine local initiatives and organisations.

Even where there is dialogue, outsiders find it very difficult to understand the community’s environment, needs and points of view. To be sure, some of this can be blamed on the attitudes and approaches of the outsiders themselves, which are the product of their education, institutional culture and so on. But there is a more fundamental factor here, too: the impossibility of ever being able to put oneself fully into somebody else’s position and see things through their eyes.+M. R. Bhatt, ‘Can Vulnerability Be Understood?’, in J. Twigg and M. R. Bhatt (eds), Understanding Vulnerability: South Asian Perspectives (London: Intermediate Technology Publications, 1998), pp. 68–77. Trying to fit others’ views into frameworks of understanding, filtering the knowledge gained and reshaping it, can have the effect of imposing a kind of conceptual uniformity on the diversity of people and their experiences. Outsiders also have to be transparent about their own aims and agendas, what they seek to provide and what they cannot do. Trust, which is a vital ingredient of participatory relationships, will break down if external agencies send out the wrong signals about their aims and capacities, or raise community expectations unduly.