The areas in which development practitioners usually have most experience of working in a participatory way are at the stages of needs assessment, and to a lesser extent, project design. It is comparatively easy to use participatory methods for the purpose of needs assessment since the exercise is usually of a short and fixed duration, yields obvious benefits in being able to persuade donors that the needs the project is addressing are indeed the priorities of the intended beneficiary populations concerned, and does not necessarily commit the emergent project to continuing to work in a participatory manner. In short, the benefits are clear, whilst overall control over project activities – and the needs assessment process itself – need not be diminished. (CARE 1999)

Participatory appraisal is the term used to describe a process and a set of techniques for the collection and analysis of qualitative data. If a rapid appraisal is a discrete study, participatory appraisal is an extended process that can last for months or years as communities develop their own skills needed to address issues, analyse options, and carry out activities. The emphasis is often not so much on the information as it is on the process, and on seeking ways to involve the community in planning and decision-making. The key feature of participatory tools is their emphasis on participatory decision-making – enabling beneficiaries and stakeholders to analyse their own situation, rather than have it analysed by outsiders. (IFRC 2002)


This section excerpted from IFRC 2002 (below).

  • Triangulation – This refers to the process of cross-checking information. Triangulation uses multi-disciplinary teams that include different skills, experience and viewpoints; a range of tools and techniques for data collection and analysis; and different sources of information about the same problem. In this way, the reliability and bias of findings can be assessed, and if necessary addressed.
  • Multi-disciplinary approach – People with different skills, experience and viewpoints will look for and find different things, and the team as a whole will obtain new and deeper insights. Women should always be included on the team, as should members of the community or group in question.
  • Mixing techniques – Using different techniques gives greater depth to the information collected. Typically the team would aim to use a mixture of interview and discussion techniques, diagrams and mapping, and direct observation.
  • Community – Most activities are performed jointly with community or group members, or by the community or group on its own.
  • Optimal ignorance – Adopts a ‘quick and dirty’ approach, balancing the degree of precision to be achieved, with the time and resources available. Unnecessary detail or accuracy should be avoided, as this increases the burden of data collection and analysis, and risks compromising the timeliness and appropriateness of findings.
  • Flexibility and on-the-spot analysis – Plans and methods are semi-structured, and discussed and modified as fieldwork proceeds. The team constantly reviews and analyses its findings to decide how to continue. As understanding increases, so emerging issues and unexpected findings come more clearly into focus, and plans and methods can be revised.
  • Offsetting bias – The team should constantly seek to identify possible sources of error and bias, and see how they influence findings. Views should be obtained from a cross-section of the community or group, including women and children and other vulnerable groups. This may require advance training in skills such as gender awareness, communicating with children, etc.


Part 1: Mapping Techniques (includes participatory mapping, mobility/service maps, historical mapping, social network mapping, community mapping, dependency mapping, transect walks)

Part 2: Calendars & Timelines (includes daily calendars, seasonal calendars, historical timelines, community timelines)

Part 3: Ranking & Scoring (includes pile sorting, proportional piling, matrix ranking & scoring, pairwise ranking, wealth & well-being ranking)

Part 4: Describing Relationships (includes stakeholder analysis, Venn diagramming, free listing)

Part 5: Other Methods (includes pocket chart, why-why tree, SWOL analysis)


Note: These sources are strictly those with a large variety of participatory techniques. For additional documents on specific techniques, please see individual blog posts. 

Part 1: Documents Describing the Techniques

CARE. Sha, M.K. et al. Embracing Participation in Development: Worldwide experience from CARE’s Reproductive Health Programs with a step-by-step field guide to participatory tools and techniques. CARE. October 1999. Accessible here.

IFRC. Handbook for Monitoring & Evaluation, 1st Edition. International Federation of Red Cross & Red Crescent Societies. Geneva, Switzerland. October 2002. Accessible here.

WFP. Choosing Methods & Tools for Data Collection: Monitoring & Evaluation Guidelines. United Nations World Food Programme Office of Evaluation. Rome, Italy. Accessible here.

WFP. Emergency Food Security Assessment Handbook, Second Edition. World Food Programme. Rome, Italy. January 2009. Accessible here.

WV. Rapid Assessment Procedures (RAP): Addressing the Perceived Needs of Internally Displaced Persons in Gulu District, Uganda. World Vision. 14 September 2000. Accessible here.

UNHCR. The UNHCR Tool for Participatory Assessment in Emergency Operations, First Edition. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Geneva, Switzerland. May 2006. Accessible here.

UNHCR. Handbook for Planning and Implementing Development Assistance for Refugees (DAR) Programmes. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Geneva, Switzerland. January 2005. Accessible here.


Factors for participation in program design: (CARE 1999)

  1. First, on completion of the assessment, the design team themselves need to pull together an overall synthesis of issues, priorities and opportunities. This may also take into account additional available information to that collected in the field. Clustering of the problems allowed the team to identify a discrete number of key issue areas, with the central problems of each highlighted and located within a central spine. In turning these issue areas into an initial strategy – selecting which ones the project should deal with, and potentially how – both the cause-effect and opportunity analyses developed at community level and validated by the assessment team across communities, were extremely important.
  2. Second, once an outline strategy has been produced, delineating broadly what ‘lines of action’ the project will have the capacity to pursue, this can be discussed in detail with potential participants, in order to refine the framework and begin the delineation of an operational strategy. Usually this is a lengthy process, which may begin before project funding is secured, and certainly will continue during the start-up phase when a more detailed design is developed.
  3. Third, the design stage, both before and after funding, provides project staff with the opportunity to introduce criteria concerning participation in the project. These may include the type of target groups the project will wish primarily to work with; the types of organizations with which the project will work (whether these should be existing or newly formed structures); whether there might be conditions regarding these organizations, such as on the participation of women; or whether the project will simply be relying on the self-organization or mobilization of participants.