About participatory tools

A variety of participatory tools are used as part of the Reflection-Action process to help people to analyse rights and power and to better understand and plan action on the issues that affect them. Asking people directly about such issues can lead to silence, fear or confusion. The tools provide structure to the process and encourage discussion, enabling people to base their analysis on the systematisation of their own knowledge. This respect for people's own knowledge and experience is a powerful foundation for learning - one which builds on what people know rather than focusing on what they do not know.

Identifying the right tool

There is a huge basket of tools available, including visual tools (such as maps calendars and timelines), social audit tools (such as participatory budgets, citizens' scorecards and transparency boards) and creative tools (such as role play, forum theatre and song) - and we are continuously adding new ones to the Tools section of this site. With visual tools, the graphics are usually constructed by groups working on the ground and using moveable objects. This makes the process more participatory, flexible to accommodate agreed changes, and helps to empower those who are not literate. Visual techniques provide scope for creativity and encourage a frank exchange of views. They also allow cross-checking the validity of information given with a number of other people. Usually the graphic is then copied onto a flip chart or into a notebook, giving the participants a valuable record of their discussion.

Asking good questions

No tool or method is a substitute for good questions, and every tool can be undermined with bad questions. Indeed, all participatory tools can be distorted, manipulated or used in exploitative ways if used without sensitivity to power relationships. Open-ended questions can stimulate critical thinking and dialogue. It is important to listen carefully and to dig deeper, beyond the obvious responses, asking why and why and why again to find the root causes of problems. It will also be necessary to ask questions that may be uncomfortable, which explore power relations whether based on gender, class, caste, race, physical or intellectual ability, hierarchy, status, language or appearance. Good questions are timely and appropriate and get under the surface and explore structural issues.

Risks in using participatory tools

The big challenge is in how we use participatory tools - not in the fact that we use them. They must be seen as a catalyst rather than a substitute for debate and the tools should never become an end in themselves. If power relations are ignored there is the danger that they will be used in manipulative, extractive, inequitable and damaging ways. Practitioners recognise that unless we are sensitive to power we will never be able to use such methods for a truly empowering, rights based approach. Likewise, respecting people knowledge and experience as a starting point is of fundamental importance - but it is important not to romanticise this and restrict people to a local level analysis. Participatory tools should be used as a means to link micro to macro analysis.


The following key resource books are recommended:

  • Reflect Mother Manual, ActionAid International, 1996.
  • Communication & Power, ActionAid International, 2003.