How can we use what we know about participatory methodologies to the Sustainable Development Goals?

Think-piece by Samuel Poskitt, Participation Lab, University of Reading

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are the centrepiece of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which the UN describes as a ‘plan of action for people, planet and prosperity.’ The 17 SDGs, and their 150 indicators, are designed to promote social and economic development, whilst remaining within the limits of Earth’s ability to support human existence. Participation of all members of society is considered vital for the achievement of the SDGs. A wealth of expertise exists regarding participatory methodologies for engaging different people, but there has thus far been limited exploration of how this expertise may be applied to support progress on the SDGs.

(The UN Sustainable Development Goals)

In the Participation Lab’s Second Annual Workshop, we invited a group of academics and practitioners to explore how existing knowledge on participatory methodologies, could be applied to help meet the SDGs. The workshop took place on the 30th June 2017 at the University of Reading. It brought together 27 academics and practitioners, from the UK and globally, who represented fields including human geography, education, international development, and the arts. The participants all engaged in a set of carefully-designed activities, as well as listening to prepared presentations. Key learning points included: the importance of making the SDGs relevant to actors at the local level, empowering disadvantaged populations to add their voice to policy and action on the goals, and helping to monitor progress on working towards them.

 The Workshop

The workshop was introduced by Hilary Geoghegan, from the Participation Lab, who explained the SDGs, as well as the need for participatory methodologies to help work towards them. This was followed by a brief reflection, by me, on learning from ‘Facing the Future 2016,’ a previous workshop I attended on the SDGs. I described how Facing the Future delegates had concluded that the SDGs should be viewed as ‘design principles,’ requiring collaborative, creative and care-based approaches, if they are to be met.

Session 1 was designed and facilitated by Rachel Pateman and Sarah West, from the Stockholm Environment Institute at the University of York. Participants were split into groups then given sets of cut-out cards, each with one of the 150 indicators written on them. The groups were then asked to match the cards to the SDGs they thought the indicators corresponded with, as well as to think about how participatory methods could help support and measure progress on each one. This activity raised some interesting questions, regarding how the global-level goals could be made more accessible at the local level, how diverse voices could be included in action for the SDGs, and how disempowered people could be connected to those in power.

(Workshop participants matched indicators to SDGs, and considered how participatory methods could help work towards them.)

Session 2 subsequently involved a series of seven presentations, which provided some examples of how participatory methods could help address the questions identified in Session 1. These were given by workshop participants who described their research, and explained how it could help support the SDGs. The presentations focused on a range of different participatory methods, including: citizen science with marginalised populations and young people, ‘Global Youth Work,’ technology and visualisation, democratic innovation, and ‘Software as a Service.’ Some general themes emerged in how the presenters thought their research promoted the SDGs. These included:

  • Linking the global and the local, for example by helping young people connect their own everyday experiences, with those of young people in the Global South.
  • Encouraging action on the SDGs, by facilitating community engagement.
  • Including disadvantaged populations, such as young people, illiterate and alliterate populations, and farmers, in working towards the SDGs.
  • Making connections between people with diverse types of knowledge, at different spatial levels, and with different roles and interests. Also, connecting humans and nature.

Following the presentations, I led Session 3, in which the participants were split into groups, and asked to reflect on what they had learned from the presentations. Participants were asked to consider the questions: “Who are the audiences of the SDGs?” “What challenges do they face in meeting the SDGs?” and “How can participatory methods help to overcome these challenges?” This resulted in some interesting responses, considering how participatory dialogues, as well as storytelling, and embodied, kinaesthetic approaches, could help to account for the experiences of marginalised groups in action on the SDGs. Moreover, workshop participants thought participatory methods could be used to help monitor progress on the SDGs.

(Participants explored who the key audiences of the SDGs are, what challenges they face, and how participatory methods could be used to overcome them.)

Sarah West and Rachel Pateman then chaired Session 4, which considered the ethical challenges of conducting participatory research. Working in small groups, participants read through proposals for participatory research projects, then discussed the ethical challenges that could be encountered in each one. The challenges participants identified included:

  • Issues regarding whether participation in the research was culturally appropriate.
  • Danger of participants revealing too much about themselves, which could cause emotional distress.
  • Increasing the risk of retribution against participants, if the research is not in the interests of others.

This emphasised the importance of ensuring participatory researchers have sufficient awareness of the socio-economic and cultural context, in which their research occurs, as well as building trust, sharing data with participants, and ensuring they can signpost participants in the direction of pastoral support, where necessary.

Following a brief discussion on opportunities for funding participatory research for the SDGs, led by Muki Haklay, the workshop closed with a group discussion. The participants concentrated on what they had learned about the SDGs, as well as how participatory methods could help achieve them. The group seemed to agree that the SDGs are more usefully viewed as desirable principles, that can help us think about alternative ways of living, rather than as definitive end-points. The indicators were considered more achievable, because they are more specific and better defined. The participants questioned the relevance of the SDGs for local-level actors. Moreover, the group raised the issue that the indicators are measured using metrics and tools that are not meaningful to people’s everyday realities.

(In the closing group discussion, participants were asked to indicate how achievable they consider the SDGs to be. The responses were mixed, but there seemed to be a general agreement the SDGs are most useful as desirable principles, that can challenge us to think about new ways of living, rather than as concrete targets.)


Learning – How can participation support progress on the SDGs?

As described above, the closing discussion challenged the relevance of the SDGs at the local-level. The SDGs, themselves, focus on the global level, but the workshop participants thought action towards achieving them, was most important, as well as most effective, at the local level. In all the workshop activities, participants identified ways that participatory methods could be used to help connect actors at the local level with the SDGs. For example, in Session 1 one group proposed that citizen science could be used to help monitor local water quality, to help achieve SDG #6 ‘Clean Water and Sanitation.’ Another group thought that including local people in Participatory Action Research could help value local knowledge, as well as use it to inform policy and action on the SDGs.

Workshop participants also thought that participatory methods could help empower disadvantaged populations, by including their voices in research that could inform policy and action on achieving the SDGs. For instance, in Session 3, one group thought participation could help achieve SDG #5 ‘Gender Equality,’ through accommodating marginalised voices. Moreover, they thought participatory methods could enable people to have ‘safe’ conversations about gender, in which they could challenge incumbent cultural and institutional barriers, without fear of retribution.

Another way that participants thought participation could support progress on the SDGs, was through monitoring progress on the indicators. Workshop participants proposed that involving local level actors in research to monitor progress could make the SDGs relevant at the local level. Furthermore, it could empower marginalised stakeholders, by enabling them to hold those responsible for progress, to account. This is illustrated in Figure 1, below – a ‘theory of change,’ drawn up by one group in the activity reflecting on the presentations.

Figure 1. Theory of change, illustrating how participation in monitoring progress on the SDGs could make them more relevant, and stimulate action, at the local level. This could subsequently empower people to hold governments accountable for progress on the SDGs.

(Source: workshop participants)

In summary, the Participation Lab’s Second Annual Workshop engaged participants, from diverse fields, in a carefully-designed set of activities for exploring how participation could help support progress on the UN Sustainable Development Goals. We found that the use of participatory methodologies could help make the global-level SDGs relevant to local-level actors, as well as empower marginalised populations. Participatory methods could be especially useful, when used to monitor progress on the indicators for the Goals.

For more information, please see the Participation Lab website, and Twitter feed (@participlab).