Good Practices for Effective Participation in Social Protection Design and Implementation

Date: 27 March 2014
Author: Robert Chambers

Good Practices for Effective Participation in Social Protection Design and Implementation

The tendency for programmes intended for those who are poor and marginalized to be distorted and captured by local elites is widely recognized. Men appropriate what is intended for women; local power holders distribute benefits to their relatives, caste, class, ethnic, factional, religious or even age groups. Notoriously in India the non-poor have often defined themselves as poor in order capture benefits intended for others. The means used are many: falsification of records; local elites sharing the spoils with officials; keeping records hidden; intercepting information and keeping poor people ignorant of programmes and their rights; intimidation and threats of sanctions; demanding a proportion of benefits as a price for passing on some of them, and so on. The more patriarchal, hierarchical, caste or class-ridden, factional, ethnically divided, fundamentalist and/or undemocratic a society is, the more such elite capture, exclusion and false reporting can be expected.

For programmes of social protection,1 participation is an obvious prescription to overcome this elite capture but is far from a magic wand. Who participates? Participation can itself be captured to become an instrument for exclusion of those who are meant to benefit, even to the extent of leaving them relatively worse off than before. Participation can also be limited to certain groups of poor and vulnerable people to the exclusion of others: for example, women’s savings groups often leave out the poorest women. People living with disabilities are especially vulnerable.

How effective participatory processes can be in overcoming these tendencies, and what processes can be recommended, will always depend on local context. There is, though, experience of a repertoire or menu of approaches that can be drawn upon, adapted and evolved to fit. Here are some suggestions. They are complementary and mutually reinforcing, not alternatives:

  1. Identifying those to receive social protection. For this participatory social mapping and card sorting is probably the most versatile and widely used approach. Since 1990 millions of social maps have been made. Well facilitated, in public, and preferably first on the ground, they can generate up-to-date, accurate lists of households and counts of people in communities, with card sorting for characteristics, such as disabilities, relative wealth, well-being, and/or food security. The visual medium of mapping means that what is being said can be seen, corrected and added to. A facilitator or other observer can easily see if the classification is being distorted. International NGOs like Plan International have used this approach on a wide scale in many countries. Over five years the whole of rural Rwanda, almost 15,000 communities, has been covered by a government programme generating cloth maps updated by communities, which include wealth/well-being categories and other household data (Shah 2013). These have been used to identify the beneficiaries for the national health insurance scheme.
  2. Facilitating separate meetings of those intended to benefit. This can apply to all groups, and especially to women, to encourage awareness of rights, solidarity, and promote joint action exercising collective power (‘power with’) in monitoring a programme, and preventing and dealing with attempts to divert benefits.
  3. Transparency, information and activism. The many means that can be used to make intended beneficiaries aware of their rights are well known, including television, radio, pamphlets, public meetings, religious meetings, NGO advocates and activists, the use of rights to information (the Indian Right to Information Act being a notable example of radical rules which have been extensively exploited for instance to obtain and make public lists of those who have benefited), public interest litigation, and activist champions in many walks of life.
  4. By-passing gatekeepers. With ICTs and individual bank accounts, the means for by-passing elite interceptors have multiplied. Transfers of funds for work carried out under the Mahatma Gandhi National Employment Guarantee Act which guarantees to those who want it a hundred days of work at the national minimum wage are now made direct to bank accounts. In Kenya, the M-Pesa facility on mobile phones has been used for direct and prompt transfers of funds to almost any part of the country.
  5. Participatory approaches to monitoring. (Levy 2003; Barahona 2013). This can take at least two forms. The first is using participatory methods to provide accurate feedback on who has benefited or is benefitting from a programme. An pioneering example has been analysis of the Starter Pack programme in Malawi. This provided a package of agricultural inputs intended for the poorest. Participatory mapping identified the households in communities, who were then classified by villagers into three categories of food security: extremely insecure, food insecure, and food secure. These were checked against those listed as having received benefits (Barahona 2012: 142 citing Chinsinga et al 2002). This showed, for instance, that 21 per cent of programme recipients were food secure and only 40 per cent were extremely food insecure.

The second form of participation is monitoring by the beneficiaries themselves, who may take initiatives to expose capture and to demand their rights. This can have other spin-offs, including groups recognizing that there are others who should be included but who have hitherto been left out.

Themes threading though these five activities are rights, information and empowerment. And there will surely be others under the rubric of participation. All these activities take dimensions of decentralization beyond the limits of official institutions. In a participatory mode, beneficiaries have the potential to leap over or by-pass the lowest levels of administration and those better off and more powerful in communities. By enabling beneficiaries to make effective demands for their entitlements, they change power relations and improve programme performance. In sum, participation can mitigate or overcome elite capture by the lowest levels of administration or by those powerful in communities themselves by taking decentralization further steps—to the intended beneficiaries themselves.


Barahona, Carlos. 2013. “Are we targeting the poor? Lessons with participatory statistics in Malawi.” In Who Counts? The Power of Participatory Statistics, edited by Jeremy Holland, 137-145. Rugby, UK: Practical Action Publications.

Chinsinga et al. 2002. TIP Messages: beneficiary selection and community targetting, agricultural extension and health. Module 2 of the 2001-2 TIP Evaluation, Statistical Services Centre, University of Reading available at

Holland, Jeremy (ed.). 2013. Who Counts? The Power of Participatory Statistics. Rugby, UK: Practical Action Publications.

Levy, Sarah. 2003. “Are we targeting the poor? Lessons from Malawi’.” PLA Notes, 47: 19 – 24.

Shah, Ashish. 2013. “Participatory statistics, local decision-making , and national policy design: ubudehe community planning in Rwanda.”’ In Who Counts? The Power of Participatory Statistics, edited by Jeremy Holland, 49-63. Rugby, UK: Practical Action Publications.

UNRISD. 2010. Combating Poverty and Inequality: Structural Change, Social Policy and Politics. Geneva, UNRISD.



Robert Chambers is a Research Associate in the Participation, Power and Social Change Team at the Institute of Development Studies, Sussex. He is an undisciplined social scientist and failed manager of rural development. His main operational and research experience has been in East Africa and South Asia. Books written at intervals include Rural Development: Putting the Last First (1983), Challenging the Professions (1993), Whose Reality Counts? Putting the First Last (1997), Participatory Workshops (2002), Ideas for Development (2005) and Revolutions in Development Inquiry (2008). His current concerns and interests include professionalism, power, the personal dimension in development, participatory methodologies, teaching and learning with large numbers, agriculture and science, seasonality, and community-led total sanitation.


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  1.  In this piece, social protection follows the UNRISD (2010) definition and is taken to include promoting equitable labour markets, social insurance to mitigate risks associated with unemployment, ill health, disability, work-related injury and old age, and social assistance through cash or kind transferred to vulnerable households.

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