Using Participatory Action Research to Improve Development Practice

Monday 25 January 2016 - Friday 29 January 2016 09:00 to 17:00
Convening Space, Institute of Development Studies

This exciting new course from the Participation Cluster at IDS still has a few places available so it's not too late to apply! Running over five days, the course is designed to develop understanding and skills in the theory and practice of a range of participatory action research (PAR) methods.

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Why Participatory Action Research?

Participatory action research is a way of engaging people living in poverty as agents of change. It is of particular importance to development practitioners today, as it can ensure their interventions are relevant, appropriate and inclusive. As such it is increasingly relevant for NGOs working in the global South or North, as they shift towards a more people-centred way of developing, delivering and assessing their projects and programmes of work.

Traditionally, project ‘beneficiaries’ have rarely been included in researching issues, finding solutions, designing indicators or measuring change. PAR provides a way of changing this, offering an inclusive community-driven approach to development. This happens through a process of participatory evidence gathering and collective analysis. This in turn leads to actions which support mutual aid and collective action at the grassroots, inform NGO programme change and enable evidence based contributions to policy development. It is also an effective way of building participatory learning into organisations that are trying to support development and social change. IDS has been developing processes and methods to enable this to happen at scale both in organisations and across communities.

This course is designed to provide participants with the conceptual and practical tools to design and carry out PAR in their own organisations and with their partners. It will also provide them with a practical understanding of how to achieve rigour using participatory methods.

Course Structure and Outcomes

This course will be interactive, participatory and applied. Prior to the course, participants will be asked to think of a critical question that they are dealing with in their work, or relating to their organisation's practice. Over the week participants and facilitators will explore this question, identify a PAR process appropriate for addressing their question, and learn how to manage this process. Participants will learn about a range of methods, and develop their ideas into a detailed plan that they will be able to put into action on returning to their organisation.

The course will comprise a series of interactive sessions, blending some theoretical and conceptual learning with experiential learning and sharing.

  • Session 1: will be an introduction to the theories and key approaches of PAR; analysis of the key concepts (in particular, participation, complexity, change); introduction to ethics and care in PAR. We will relate these concepts to your own practice.
  • Session 2: we will share and discuss case studies of using action research in international development. This will include: work on disability in Bangladesh; citizenship in Nicaragua and the UK; peace in Myanmar; slavery and bonded labour in India, and the role of volunteers in Philippines, Mozambique, Nepal and Kenya.
  • Session 3: students will present and discuss their own question in small groups. This will be followed by training in action research design. Students will begin to design their own inquiry process with the support of peers and facilitators.
  • Session 4: further training in managing the participatory research process including facilitation, recording, analysis, planning and monitoring.

By the end of the course, all participants will have designed a PAR process to address a key issue relating to their organisational and/or their own professional practice. They will:

  • understand how to use appropriate PAR methods within this process
  • have considered the ethical, political and practical challenges
  • have clarity about further training and resources needed
  • understand how the contribution of their PAR process can improve their own and their organisational practice.

The course directors will provide one Skype post-course coaching session to assist participants in embedding their learning.

Who is the Course Relevant For?

This course is open to NGO practitioners, facilitators and change agents as well as donors developing evidence-based programmes. We will offer a course tailored to the needs of postgraduate students at a later date.

Course Leaders

The course will be led by Jo Howard and Danny Burns with Robert Chambers and Patta Scott-Villiers.

Danny Burns
Danny Burns leads the Participation Cluster at IDS. His work focuses on participatory learning for social change with a strong emphasis on systems thinking and complexity. Between 2002 and 2010 he was Professor of Social & Organisational Learning at the University of the West of England (UWE) where he co-directed the SOLAR action research centre. Over the past eight years he has directed or co-directed more than twenty participatory research projects.

His current work includes a major action research programme on slavery and bonded labour in India and Nepal and a four country action research programme with VSO. Danny has also worked extensively with SNV and the British Red Cross. He is author of Systemic Action Research: A strategy for whole system change and (with Stuart Worsley) Navigating Complexity in International Development: Facilitating Sustainable Change at Scale which focuses on action research and participatory inquiry as large-scale change strategies.

Jo Howard
Jo Howard is a Research Fellow based within the Participation Cluster at IDS, who also works on cities, governance and popular politics. She has used a range of participatory action research and learning processes to work with marginalized groups, and with civil society and governmental organisations to strengthen how they work with these groups.

Her work spans the UK social policy field and the international development arena, and over the last twenty years she has worked with civil society and governmental partners in the UK, Central America, Central & Eastern Europe and Africa. Her topics range from women's empowerment and state-civil society partnership work, to participatory governance and participatory monitoring and evaluation. She is currently working with VSO and with the Swiss Development Agency on processes of action learning and reflective practice as well as conducting action research into citizenship in Nicaragua and the UK.

Robert Chambers
Professor Robert Chambers is a Research Associate in the Participation Cluster at IDS. He has a background in biology, history and public administration. Decades of work in development have taken him from being a colonial officer in Kenya, through training and managing large rural development projects, to a fundamental critique of top-down development and the championing of participatory approaches. His current concerns and interests include professionalism, power, the personal dimension in development, participatory methodologies, teaching and learning with large numbers and Community-Led Total Sanitation.

Patta Scott-Villiers
Patta Scott-Villiers is Co-Leader of the Power and Popular Politics Cluster at IDS. Her research focuses on political marginalization, asking how people on the margins explain it and resist or embrace it. People's reaction to political marginalization has major implications not only locally, but also nationally and internationally and her research tries to make these implications clear.

Currently Patta is focusing on young people and their actions, drawing on many years of work in East Africa's borderlands and latterly in the slums of its large cities. Most of all she seeks to bring her research back to the people who have contributed to it, taking analysis and research results back to communities and stimulating conversations about what it means and what can be done. Patta is also pursuing a line of inquiry into how people debate public issues, as well as studying the powers and limitations of popular politics – street talk and protest – and the role that research can play in supporting it.

Course Fee

The course fee is £1,500 (GBP). The fee includes the tuition fees, course materials, lunches, refreshments and one group dinner. It does not cover accommodation or travel costs.

Please contact the Course Coordinator, Richard Douglass ( if you have any queries.

Accredited by the British Accreditation Council for Independent Further and Higher Education as a Short Course Provider.

Application Procedure

Please contact the Course Coordinator Richard Douglas ( to find out more and to book your place.
All applicants should read the course terms and conditions before applying.

Please note:

  • Course leaders and teachers may change at short notice; 
  • We regret that no scholarships or funding are available from IDS for this course.

Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, Brighton, East Sussex, BN1 9RE