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Approaches to participation

Participation has evolved from disparate roots in areas such as democratic theory, political empowerment, colonial development and planning. More recently, it has become an important component of most development work. Use of participation is considered by many development practitioners to have provided a new paradigm in research and development, one that is completely different from the more conventional top-down approaches. This so-called paradigm shift does not only change the way in which the issue of development is viewed, but also the way it is addressed.

However, the subject of participation is complex and often misunderstood. There are many ways of defining participation and many ways of participating. All too often the term is used to describe a situation where village people are merely co-opted into an outsider's activities. Participation in its more advanced form is much more concerned with fostering relationships, partnerships, with ways of thinking, and with structures and processes - all of which can combine to create an integrated and harmonious approach to the way development is practised. Naturally different interpretations of participation, and the different uses it is put to, have given rise to a diversity of approaches using different methods. As the theoretical framework which holds the diverse practical approaches together becomes more clearly understood, there is a growing convergence of views about participation and an increasingly frequent exchange of methods, experiences and approaches across sectors, countries and parts of the development process.

The motives for increasing participation

The motives for increasing participation stem from three broad roots: (1) functional motives are those concerned with the efficiency and effectiveness of research and development, and are the main driving force behind the efforts of many governments to improve participation; (2) empowering motives are concerned with participation as an end in itself and are closely linked to democratic processes, they are associated much more with the approaches of community-based organizations and the NGO movement; and, (3) philosophical motives which have explored the understanding of knowledge and knowledge systems between formal science and indigenous culture, and tried to encourage a greater interaction between them.

Different ways of generating knowledge

A vital part of the development process is the generation and use of new knowledge. Generally, this has been taken to mean that which is produced by the formal scientific research. However, a lot of literature now exists on the traditional (indigenous) knowledge systems, and their efficacy in tackling the necessities of rural communities. As knowledge increases on the capacity of the poor to manage their environment and achieve sustainable livelihoods over centuries, there is a growing acceptance of the relevance of their knowledge systems in any poverty alleviation and sustainable livelihood programmes. Empowerment is seen more and more as part of the way to efficient development, and indigenous knowledge systems are becoming progressively more acceptable, as new interpretations increasingly question reality, in the accepted sense, and point out its subjective nature.

Moving towards a new approach to participation

In spite of this trend, much of the language and categorization in participatory research continues to be restrictive and often implies that the agenda setting for the research is done by the formal research systems, with the fishers being invited to participate in it. In reality the fishers have their own valid "research" which has provided a large amount of indigenous knowledge covering a wide diversity of areas related to their environment, livelihoods and coping strategies over many hundreds or thousands of years.

If new approaches to participation in research are to be explored, it is necessary to move towards a more balanced perspective of involvement in knowledge generation which gives due credit to the past efforts of the fishers in creating their own store of knowledge. This paper tries to develop a more balanced framework for this purpose based on the work of others.

Some attempts have been made to bring formal scientific and indigenous knowledge generating processes together through participatory research, mostly in the agriculture sector and much less in fisheries. Depending on the level of participation of the farmers in the process, participatory research has been broadly classified into four categories: contractual, consultative, collaborative and collegial, with collegial research being equally accommodative of the two knowledge systems.

Fisheries research and participation

Perhaps fisheries is one sector where the usefulness of the indigenous knowledge is far more important to the fishers than the outputs of formal research, in terms of its applicability. It includes not only knowledge of the ecology and behaviour of fish, oceanography, navigation, fishing methods, and processing and preservation of fish, but also of the social, economic and governance structures which operate at the community level. Also, given that fishers are not concerned with only the sector in which they make their income, they have often accumulated knowledge in other areas such as health, agriculture, forestry etc. Whilst the majority of knowledge used by fishers to carry out their livelihoods is self-generated, they do from time to time also contract, or consult with formal researchers while trying to solve a felt research need.

Formal scientific research in fisheries also has a long history. It has evolved from a focus on species identification and taxonomy, through ecology, behaviour and biomass estimates, to methods for expansion of harvesting capacity. In more recent years, the emphasis has moved towards supporting more effective fisheries management measures in response to the over-exploitation of many of the world's stocks. A less pronounced move in recent times has been towards the social and cultural aspects of the fishery.

Such conventional fisheries research has tended to be based on natural-science methods and is predominantly production-focused. Historically, naturalists have used indigenous knowledge to a very limited extent such as in the collection of species and to learn about animal behaviour. In many cases of fishing boat and net development, the vessels of fishers were used to test the methods. In other situations, fishers have been used as a source of information for their local knowledge.

There is a growing number of studies on conventional approaches to fisheries research which question their effectiveness in informing policy in ways which benefit the development process. There is a growing realization that the focus, approaches and methods of fisheries research should change, but they continue to form the main framework on which research is based in most countries.

However, there are changes at the international level such as that reflected in the UK Government's Department for International Development's (DFID) Renewable Natural Resources Research Strategy (RNRRS), which recognizes the benefits of demand-led research with a high degree of participation at the design, implementation and validation stages. The driving force behind such collaboration is the recognition that neither formal scientific research nor indigenous knowledge on their own is able to deal with the size and scope of social, economic and environmental problems which are currently facing the sector. In recent years more collaborative approaches to research in fisheries have been adopted and some of these approaches have started to produce benefits. This process is, however, at a very early stage and needs to go a long way before it can become sustainable.

Towards greater participation in research

A new way forward is required and a more collegial approach offers some benefits. These include: (1) a research process which is able to call upon and combine existing knowledge from two parallel knowledge systems relatively quickly and cost effectively; (2) research which can combine localized and practical knowledge and skills of the fishers with the theoretical, systematic and rigorous skills of the professional researcher to make research more relevant and reliable; (3) research results generated which are more appropriate to the needs of the fishers, more closely linked to their aspirations and capacities, and validated by them during the research process; (4) faster uptake and quicker impact of the research results as a result of the joint validation process; and (5) more relevant information passing from research into the policy process thus generating greater appreciation of the value of the research and increasing the possibility of improved research funding.

While these benefits are significant there are also constraints to the wider adoption of participatory research in fisheries. Some relate to the characteristics of the sector itself, some are political or administrative. Others are to do with power and control. There are also limitations of the methods and the need to adapt these to the specifics of the sector. The approaches also raise questions of validity and reliability of the methods which need to be considered along with ethics and the fallibility of the data. While they represent an obstacle, none is considered to be insoluble.

If the benefits of greater collaboration are to be achieved, then a more collegial approach to research must be adopted not only at the stage of research design and implementation but also in the analysis and interpretation of data, the dissemination of research results and how those results feed into the policy process. This offers the opportunity for the use of a range of participatory approaches within the research and development cycle. To be successful this will require fundamental changes in the awareness and orientation of both formal researchers and fishers to the knowledge systems of each other. It will also require changes in trust, relationships and of the way different knowledge systems are viewed and valued. It will also require changes in the institutional structures and processes within which research operates. These will need to adopt more interdisciplinary approaches to research, develop interagency linkages and adopt new ways of combining social and natural research systems. It will also require changes in the way policy and research work together.

Conclusions and Recommendations

In conclusion it is suggested that participatory research in fisheries has a very significant and positive contribution to make to the lives of fishers, to the research process itself, and to achievement of sustainable and equitable policy objectives. However, the process is at an early stage of its development and there is much to be done if it is to be mainstreamed as an effective approach.

It is recommended:

That a programme of research be initiated to understand in much more detail the indigenous knowledge systems of fishers. This should include not only the extent of that knowledge, but also the methods by which it is generated, validated and communicated.

That the methods which have been developed in other sectors for participatory research are, where appropriate, adapted to suit the fisheries sector and that they take into account the knowledge generated from recommendation 1. Where such methods are inappropriate, new methods specific to the needs of the sector should be developed.

That, on the basis of the results of recommendations 1 and 2, a collegial approach specific to the sector be developed in a participatory way.

That the implications of this approach, for the institutional and policy structures and processes, be investigated and guidelines be developed for taking the changes forward.

That the importance of moving to the resultant collegial approach to research in the sector should be acknowledged and promoted at the highest levels and that the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries should be complemented by technical guidelines incorporating this approach.

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