Participation in Development


When the story comes from a communications perspective, how misleading the picture of international development and NGO impact can be? Here our project manager Matt Daw talks about how can participatory photography projects capture the true impact of international development on local communities.

…it is worrying that the complexities of meaningful and sustainable development practice are not discussed more openly and given more public prominence.

During a trip to Indonesia in 2012 I asked the staff of our local partner organisation about their experiences of the international effort in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami. Their work in the region was prompted by the human need created by this event, however they were one of the few international NGOs to stay active in communities in Indonesia after the initial disaster relief effort. As they operate in partnership with communities, aiming to build up local capacity and resilience to disaster and health risks, their work took them to some of the most remote and disconnected communities in the islands. They had a bewildering portfolio of horror stories concerning what they found, but among the most worrying of these were not accounts of damage left by the tsunami, but of relics of interventions by other NGOs that had been and gone before them. Gleaming silver water towers standing like alien artefacts in communities with no infrastructure and a dire shortage of drinking water, not connected to anything. Concrete blocks of classrooms beginning to be reclaimed by the tropical foliage, unheeded by the inhabitants of nearby villages with no school teachers, school books or curriculum.

The most telling of these eyebrow-raising tales was of a community facing health problems caused by poor hygeine and water-borne disases. On the outskirts of this community stood not one, but two concrete blocks of drop latrines, equipped with fly traps, locking doors, all mod cons. Locals continued to use the undergrowth for their toilet trips, and the latrines – the most solidly built structures in the community – were being used to store grain. It turned out that these two blocks had not been built by the same NGO. The first (I won’t name and shame here) identified the community as a target for aid, conducted some research, and concluded that water-borne diseases were the priority issue for the community. The solution? Build drop latrines, so people don’t have to use the bush. Simple! So a few weeks of volunteer labour later, there is a spanking new toilet block. The village elders are invited for an inauguration ceremony, photos are taken, and the NGO departs in a rosy glow of satisfaction at a good deed done. A few months later, another NGO engages with the village, and finds that there is a problem with water-borne diseases due to open air defecation. There is a block of latrines, but these are not being used. No one has responsibility for them, no one knows how to maintain them, and in any case, for the villagers the idea of going to the toilet indoors and in the same place as others in the village seems disgusting. So what to do? Simple! They built another block of latrines, held an inauguration ceremony, took some photos, and off they went. I kid you not.

So when our partner organisation reached the village, the problem identified by both NGOs was no closer to being solved, and there were two blocks of drop latrines which no one had the faintest clue what to do with. The next few months were spent working with community members to build understanding of the hygeine risks of open air defecation, and to develop a community-led plan for the use and maintenance of the toilet blocks. Nothing new is built,  the time spent working in the community is considerably greater than the other two NGOs, and there are no photos of celebrations and grateful villagers in front of their new building to show the folks back home. But the rate of water-borne diseases in the village is falling. And continues to fall.

The series of toilet photos are from a baseline survey Emilia Mdaruvinga did in Zimbabwe under the PhotoVoice & CAFOD WASH Project– photographing everyone in her community with the toilet they use.

© Emilia Mdaruvinga / CAFOD / CARITAS / PhotoVoice

The huge response from donors to the 2004 tsunami, and the resulting influx of NGOs with little or no experience of working in Indonesia and no long term organisational strategy for development programmes there, makes this an extreme example. It illustrates, however, how misleading the picture of international development and NGO impact can be when the story comes from a communications perspective. Access to education a problem? We need schools! Send money to allow us to build a school! Thanks for your donation – look at this photo of the school your money helped build! If there are cultural, attitudinal or practical barriers that prevent children – or even teachers – attending school, there is no impact from building one. The same money spent on staff time working with the community to address these issues would do an infinite amount more; 10 children attending lessons under a tree represents a quantum leap from no children attending a beautiful concrete classroom. This is a simplistic way to put it, but since donors, funders and voters can have a big say in what money gets spent on and what policies are approved, it is worrying that the complexities of meaningful and sustainable development practice are not discussed more openly and given more public prominence. The media is interested when a situation is dire, and charity fundraising adverts highlight the desperate need to persuade people to dig deep. Then charities want to show their impact, and show that it was all worthwhile, and the story is dominated by smiling children and carefree communities whose needs have been met thanks to the change the charity brought about. The hard work of development – the capacity-building workshops in target communities, the painstaking negotiations with local and national government, the engagement of community stakeholders – this gets far less press. And yet this is where the money is spent – or certainly where a lot if it should be. But salaries and administration costs do not sound worthwhile to donors who want to see more children going to school. A school does seem important.

In the past few years PhotoVoice has prioritised international development as a target area for improved participation and community voice. For the work of international agencies to have validity as a force for positive development, the communities they seek to benefit must be informed, engaged and active in the process. Too often in the history of development this has not been the case – leading to inappropriate interventions and unsustainable improvements that cease to have any impact after the direct work of the outside agency ceases. Furthermore, economic and infrastructural development of a community can entrench or increase inequality if it does not make efforts to involve and empower all levels of communities it engages. Development programmes are bound to bring change, but it is not a simple thing to ensure that a change is positive for everyone in a community, or that it will last.

Likewise, it is important that those supporting international development – whether with their money or their vote – understand the true narrative of development. If neither the funders and voters, nor the communities themselves, understand the processes that are undertaken to bring about development, it becomes a ‘black box’ where change happens but is not seen, and cannot be evaluated, improved and prioritised.

In order to try and bridge the gap and give the world a peek into this ‘black box’, PhotoVoice has started building participatory photography components into a range of international development programmes, bringing photography in as a tool to bridge the gulf between communities at the frontline of development, and the various stakeholders that contribute to what is done in their name. In one such project in Zimbabwe, more than 30 community photo-monitors are monitoring water and sanitary health issues as experienced by their community, recording over time how facilities, behaviour and health in the community is affected by CAFOD’s WASH programme.

Already, one year into the three year programme, the work of the community photo monitors has revealed unforseen issues and affected the priorities of the programme. Some of the community members have requested support to use their photo skills to advocate locally for action by the local authorities, and PhotoVoice will provide resources and training to equip them to do this during our next field visit in june 2014.

Project Manager Matt Daw training participants in a project. © George Matonhodze / CAFOD / CARITAS / PhotoVoice

PhotoVoice’s methodology creates a platform for the equal representation of views within a community. Our projects foster communication and dialogue through a visual medium that does not rely on high literacy levels, and captures perspectives in photographs that can be discussed and unpacked by all stakeholders within and beyond a community, regardless of whether the photographer feels confident or practically able to be physically present and express their opinions in public. Equipping local residents – unpaid representatives of the community – with cameras, and creating a robust local system that enables them to feed their photos into a public forum for regular discussion, makes development practitioners more accountable to those their project is intended to benefit. Data alone may not present a true picture of the impact felt by certain sections of a community, and will not reveal the unanticipated knock-on effects of project activities that an evaluation would not even think to ask about. Through PhotoVoice, a tool is provided that allows community members to capture what they feel needs to be seen and discussed, and using a camera they can provide both their message and the evidence to support it in one communication.

Through our projects participants are also introduced to using the video function on their cameras to capture their thoughts at the time of taking a photo, or interviewing a subject for their views or to obtain permission for the use of the photo in public. The focus, however, is on the power of the still image to capture a detail, and also a perspective on that detail. The series of choices made by a photographer helps to form a meaningful message, and ensures that the resulting photo is a useful communication of that message. The voice accompanying the photo, explaining its significance to the photographer or the community, is just as important as the photograph itself. The use of video provides one way to capture this in the moment before it is lost, without literacy being a barrier. In any case, photographers are given the opportunity to explain their photos when they are released to be seen by other stakeholders, and whatever they say about an image remains with it as a caption to ensure a photograph’s intention is not misread.

When a development programme succeeds in bringing about benefits for a community, PhotoVoice monitors within the community capture the true impact of these changes for real people. Too often the public story of development is dominated by fundraising asks and media depiction of disasters. Embedded community photo-monitors ensure that the stories that are usually untold can be captured and shared, showing the complex reality of development; the small changes that have to happen to pave the way for the bigger ones; the challenges that are encountered and overcome through the efforts of the community; the multiple stakeholders who have a part to play in making change happen, and ensuring it lasts. By capturing a story of change as it happens, community members can inform the process and allow NGOs and government agencies alike to adapt their practice where needed to ensure mistakes are not compounded and programmes reach their potential.


PhotoVoice is currently working with the Overseas Development Institute on Development Progress, an international research project that aims to measure, understand and communicate where and how progress is being made in international development. PhotoVoice is engaging community members in 6 countries around the world where development has brought significant change to society and the lives of those in it. These people have first-hand experience of what has changed, over what time, and what impact this has had on the lives of real people, and are creating digital photo stories that give a grassroots perspective on the realities of development in action.

The series of toilet photos are from a baseline survey Emilia Mdaruvinga did in Zimbabwe under the PhotoVoice & CAFOD WASH Project– photographing everyone in her community with the toilet they use.

© Emilia Mdaruvinga / CAFOD / CARITAS / PhotoVoice

About the PhotoVoice & CAFOD WASH Project
CAFOD’s 3-year Water and Sanitary Health project in Zimbabwe aims to ensure that everyone in the target communities has access to enough clean safe water, and knows how to protect themselves from disease through good hygiene practices. As part of the project PhotoVoice has trained 30 adults and 40 young people in photography and visual literacy across more than 20 villages in the peri-urban region of Mutare, Zimbabwe.
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About Development Progress
Development Progress is a wider project led by ODI, focused on increasing understanding of, and engagement with, the process of international development. Working across a range of countries, and exploring different focus areas for development in each, PhotoVoice will enable local residents to create digital stories (photo slideshows with audio narration from the photographer) that explore and reveal their experiences of the changes brought about by international development work in all its forms.
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