Using Participatory Action Research to Improve Development Practice (online)

Gain the skills and knowledge to design and carry out a genuinely participatory action research process.

Participatory action research (PAR) is an important way of engaging and working with people who are living in poverty or other forms of marginalisation, as agents of change. It is of particular use to development practitioners and researchers today, as it can ensure their interventions are relevant, appropriate and inclusive. 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-led approach to development. It is also an effective way of building participatory learning into the processes of organisations that are trying to support development and social change. A facilitated process of participatory evidence gathering and collective analysis can lead to actions in different arenas: actions at the grassroots which support mutual aid and collective action; actions at the organisational level which inform NGO programme change and enable evidence-based contributions to policy development. Through a range of programmes and over many years, IDS has been developing processes and methods to enable this to happen at scale both in organisations and across communities. This work informs the PAR short course.

Course aim

To equip you with the conceptual and practical tools to design and carry out participatory action research in your own organisations, projects, or with partner organisations. You will also gain a practical understanding of how to achieve rigour using participatory methods and apply them at scale.

Who should attend?

This course is ideal for NGO practitioners, facilitators and change agents as well as donors developing evidence-based programmes and government ministry staff. It is also valuable to researchers and postgraduate students wishing to orient their work within the PAR paradigm.

How you’ll learn

This online course is delivered through a combination of whole group and small group interactive sessions, with expert presentations and Q&A, plus offline reflection and preparation. The interactive sessions blend some theoretical and conceptual learning with practical sessions which enable experiential learning and sharing.

Prior to the course, you’ll be asked to think of a critical question that you are dealing with in your work, or that relates to your organisation’s practice. Over the two week course, you will explore this question; identify a PAR process appropriate for addressing your question, with the support of your facilitators; learn how to develop and manage this process; and reflect on the ethical challenges. You’ll learn about a range of methods, and develop your ideas into a detailed plan that you will be able to operationalise on returning to your organisation.

Week 1 focuses on theory, practical examples, and training in action research design. Week 2 focuses on developing your plan, with training and practical sessions on ethics, facilitation, recording and analysis.

There will be a compulsory induction session on 12 January 2022.

The course sessions are organised over two consecutive weeks, with sessions running from 9:00-13:00 GMT.

Week 1: You will be required to attend online Monday to Thursday, 9:00-13:00 GMT. On Friday you will work offline, individually on your initial PAR plan, with one-to-one sessions available with the facilitators.

Week 2: You will be required to atttend online on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, 9:00-13:00 GMT. On Thursday, you will do offline individual work on your final presentation of PAR design.

 Content covers the following:

  • 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.
  • Discussions of case studies using action research in international development. These are likely to draw on: dialogic cooperative inquiry to build inclusion and accountability in Ghana, South Africa, Egypt, Uganda and India; participatory video processes and PAR in India and Kenya; systemic action research to address slavery and bonded labour in India; organisational action research in the UK.
  • Time to present and discuss your own question in small groups. This will be followed by training and practical sessions for designing your own action research process, with the support of peers and facilitators.
  • Further practical training in managing the participatory research process including ethics, facilitation, recording, analysis, planning and monitoring.
  • Time to finalise and present your PAR design and get feedback from your peers and instructors.

Learning outcomes

After completing this course you will be able to:

  • Understand how to use appropriate PAR methods within a research or organisational learning process.
  • Have considered the ethical, political and practical challenges.
  • Have clarity about further training and resources needed.
  • Understand how PAR processes can improve your own and your organisational practice.


Danny Burns is a professor at IDS. His work focuses on participatory learning for social change with a strong emphasis on systems thinking and complexity. His work emphasises the development of methods which allow participatory processes to be scaled while also reaching the poorest and most marginalised. 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 decade or so he has directed or co-directed more than twenty participatory research projects. His current work includes a major multi-country action research programme on child labour, and an action research-based peace building programme in Mali. Danny has also worked extensively with amongst others SNV, VSO, Action Aid and the British Red Cross. He is author of Systemic Action Research: A strategy for whole system change (2007). His recent book (with Stuart Worsley, 2015) Navigating Complexity in International Development: Facilitating Sustainable Change at Scale focuses on action research and participatory inquiry as large-scale change strategies.

Jo Howard is an IDS Research Fellow and leads the IDS Participation, Inclusion and Social Change Cluster. Her work focuses on social inclusion, intersecting inequalities, governance, power, participation and accountability. Her methodological approach includes participatory action research with community groups to promote and support processes of accountability, empowerment, citizenship and inclusion, as well as facilitation and learning with organisations, for reflective practice and knowledge exchange. Her work spans the UK social policy field and the international development arena. She recently managed a five-country collaborative and participatory research project on participatory accountability in Ghana, Egypt, South Africa, India and Uganda, which linked findings into the global SDG process. She works with donors and INGOs on processes of organisational learning and reflective practice. She completed a PhD at the School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol, in which she employed participatory and creative methods to generate knowledge about citizenship with people living in marginalised settings in Bristol (UK) and Matagalpa (Nicaragua).

Danny and Jo are co-editors (with Sonia Ospina) of the Sage Handbook of Participatory Research and Inquiry.

Entry requirements

You are expected to think carefully about why you want to develop your skills in PAR. Your application must specifically address this question.

You should also come to the course prepared to share a critical question or issue that you are dealing with in your work, your PhD project, or relating to your organisation’s practice, that you believe can be addressed through using a PAR approach.

The course is taught in English. To derive the maximum benefit from the course, you should be proficient in English and able to take an active part in discussions. Your English needs to be of an intermediate standard or higher. Ideally you will have an International English Language Test System (IELTS) score of 6.5 or above, or a Common European Framework for Languages (CEFR) score of B2 or above.

Participants will need an internet connection sufficient to stream live video (Zoom, Facetime or similar) in order to engage fully with the course 

Course fees

Course fees are £900.

Once you have received confirmation that your application has been approved, the fee must be paid in full to secure your place on the course. 


Unfortunately there are no scholarships available for this course.

Charities, civil society and public sector

A limited number of discounted places (20 per cent discount) are also available for participants from small not-for-profit organisations (income under £10 million), plus civil society and public sector organisations in low income countries. This is at the discretion of the course convenor. Please indicate in your application if you wish to be considered for this discount.

IDS alumni bursary

We are pleased offer a bursary for one IDS alumni. This single award, funded by IDS, is in the form of a 20 per cent course fee discount. It is subject to terms and conditions, and will be offered to one applicant on a first-come first-served basis. Please indicate on your application form that you wish to be considered for this bursary. 

How to apply

Before applying please read our short course Terms_and_conditions_(pdf) and Code_of_Conduct (pdf).

The application procedure is a three-stage process:

Stage 1: Apply by completing the online application form. Deadline for applications is 16:00 GMT, 6 January 2022.

Stage 2: You will be notified within one week as to whether your application has been approved or not. Successful applicants will receive the registration form and an invoice for the course fee. Places on the course are not guaranteed until fees have been received.

Stage 3: Once fees have been received, you will be sent confirmation of your place on the course.

What participants say

‘A very valuable coming together for reflection and learning to catalyse social change.’

‘This is one of the most inspiring, mind-opening courses I have been in!’

‘The team demonstrated values that created an enabling environment for learning.’

‘I particularly liked the human quality and the relaxed and friendly atmosphere in which we discussed and exchanged views and ideas.’

Key information

From 17 January 2022 until 28 January 2022

Apply now

Secure your place on this course.

Complete the online application form

Key contacts

Leah Plati

Programme Officer (MA) Programme Manager (Short Courses)


+44 (0)1273 915832

About this specialist short course

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