The low adoption rate of new technologies by rural communities in developing countries in the 1970s and 1980s revealed a need for a different approach to the setting of research agendas and technology transfer. More recent programmes have shown a shift away from 'top-down' researcher-led projects, towards a 'bottom-up' participatory approach. Here, all stakeholders are extensively consulted and local people are actively involved in development initiatives, leading to more focused and community-driven solutions to problems.
Recognition of, and long-term investment in, the participatory approach is crucial for any organisation attempting to bring about change at a community level. Commitment at the institutional level is also necessary to make participatory research an integral part of programme design and management, rather than simply a 'bolt-on' to a more traditional mainstream approach.
The participatory approach also presents new challenges in terms of changing the mind-sets of researchers, requiring them to consider all stakeholders as valid participants in the programme. The researcher becomes more of a facilitator, empowering the whole community (particularly its most marginalised members) to take ownership of the project.
This paper aims to give a general overview of participatory research. It highlights important factors to consider when embracing the participatory approach, as well as discussing the new challenges it presents. Examples and case studies from Africa will demonstrate how greater emphasis on the process of mutual knowledge acquisition and decision making, rather than simply project outcomes, is now forming the basis of many community development projects in health and agriculture.