Why I Use Participatory, Feminist, Decolonised, and Intersectional PMEL Methodologies
I purposely focus on 'niche' processes in my work, research, and in the way I do business. Here I describe why, the problematic frameworks and structures they replace, and what I am doing to decolonise and open up my ways of doing PMEL.
But before that, here are some definitions.
I begin with the definition of PAR, or participatory action research.
PAR focuses on social change that promotes democracy and challenges inequality; is context-specific, often targeted on the needs of a particular group; is an iterative cycle of research, action and reflection; and often seeks to ‘liberate’ participants to have a greater awareness of their situation in order to take action. PAR uses a range of different methods, both qualitative and quantitative.
In my definition of participatory PMEL, this means I adapt each evaluation, consultation, project, or workshop to the cultural and local context that I'm working in. Participatory approaches are also tailored and adaptive, nimble enough to be redesigned to be more effective, and taking the chance to regularly incorporate feedback from communities.
Participatory research for example, means looking at those groups who are not as represented in data as they should be, and designing methods and methodologies to correct that imbalance. At a practical level, this means that in a women's rights project, focus groups should focus on gathering thoughts and analysis from women. You'd think this would be standard practice, but you would be surprised.
Participatory approaches to PMEL also means that programmes should be designed to meet the needs of a wider group of people, rather than those in power as is often the case.
This brings me nicely to mixed-methods data and methodologies. In our industry, there is sadly a bias towards quantitative data, and to those markers of success that can be put into numbers.
This has a lot of uses, especially in clearly communicating change, cost and resource efficiency (including the fact that this data is cheaper and sometimes easier to gather), and in helping to easily visualise progress in a project. Due to our sector's bias, donors are also more likely to prefer quantitative indicators of change to qualitative.
I have a bias towards qualitative data, but I use mixed-methods approaches in all my work - from designing methodologies to data collection and analysis, to skill-building projects. This means that I keep my project open enough to adapt methodologies as I need to, allowing for new forms of data and information to be embedded.
A mixed-methods approach to data also goes beyond merely the qualitative-quantitative binary. It means keeping an open mind as to what kind of data is meaningful and useful, adapting your work to meet new types of knowledge (also known as epistemologies), and combining different types of data. Doing this strengthens the arguments made since you are able to use different sources to validate a few key hypotheses.
DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) are over-used buzzwords in our sector, but I want to go back to their real meaning and give these concepts the respect they deserve.
To me, inclusion goes beyond the obvious sense - as a queer Indian woman, I know how important representation and diversity are, how easy it is to get wrong, and how dreadful it can be to feel like a token hire.
I want to go a step further and include different perspectives. This includes ideas from other industries and experiences from grassroots groups to multi-million-dollar foundations.
I work exclusively with clients that understand the importance of diversity, representation, and inclusion in their real sense, and that practice these values. Everyone I partner with also shares these values.
This could be in terms of respect for each other in a team, for our clients and their work, and for the different cultures, religions, and practices of the communities we engage with. As researchers, a respectful attitude is so essential it doesn't even need to be said - but here I am saying it anyway.
Equality means everyone has the same resources and opportunities. But I acknowledge that we were not all born with or given the same opportunities in life - and this equity is what I seek through my work, providing equitable access to quality services and materials.
This is an incredibly complex term for a significant, global movement that has affected the histories and realities of so many countries. But in research and especially in PMEL, I look at decolonising our work as two related ideas - actively shifting away from the way we have always done our work, and promoting new ways of doing PMEL that are rooted in the cultures of the evaluators, communities, or regions we're working in.
This means actively seeking out innovative ways of conducting monitoring and evaluation activities and rethinking how impact is assessed. This also means challenging why a certain 'best practice' has to be so - these often come from Western organisations, Bretton-Woods institutions, and inherently European or American ways of looking at research and nonprofit work.
Decolonising in this sense means recentring our perspectives in the places where we're working and refocussing on the cultures of our communities. It means not going in with a clipboard and five senior management-approved questions to ask people (extractive research as described above), but rather shifting the way PMEL is structured to begin with their perspective and their needs. Decolonising in PMEL could even be conducting data gathering work in the language of your communities. Again, you'd think this was obvious, but I've been surprised...
Intersectionality looks at the world through a special lens, linking different kinds of oppression. Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw developed the term in 1989, and she defined it recently as
These days, I start with what it’s not, because there has been distortion. It’s not identity politics on steroids. It is not a mechanism to turn white men into the new pariahs. It’s basically a lens, a prism, for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other. We tend to talk about race inequality as separate from inequality based on gender, class, sexuality or immigrant status. What’s often missing is how some people are subject to all of these, and the experience is not just the sum of its parts.
I see it also as a way to define your different identities - for example, I am a queer woman from India. Each of those three layers influences the ways I see the world (therefore my biases), and the ways in which I have been discriminated against.
By taking an intersectional approach to my work, I look at the various social, political, and cultural issues I work on as connected to others, which also need to be targetted to achieve social change. Land rights, for example, are closely linked to indigenous rights, themselves also linked to the rights of women and children.
So that's how I define these key terms. Let me share why they're central to my work and approach.
Traditional PMEL perpetuates colonial, sexist, and paternalistic dynamics.
We have accepted the traditional ways of doing development work without innovating too much. We've accepted that the Western way to do things is the way to do something.
That's problematic because traditional evaluation can be extractive and paternalistic. It views people as beneficiaries, not as central to the work, and people with agency and power of their own.
It's mostly stayed the same for many decades, but I see PMEL changing slowly as development itself evolves.
PMEL agendas are also largely donor-led, without the implementing organisation, its grassroots partners, or communities dictating the agenda for philanthropy, designing the project, or conducting the evaluation.
However, this is slowly changing.
What we see now, as organisations in the developing world become more robust and can attract international funding themselves, is that they are now putting their needs and 'agendas first without waiting for a Western donor to dictate them.
Traditional PMEL also has old fashioned ideas of the role of knowledge creation, generation, and existence. There's still a feeling that an external organisation goes into a community, implements certain activities, and through their work improves certain situations.
So they can pat themselves on the back and report success to their Board members. Or hire the same consultant repeatedly to tell them what they want to hear, without really asking questions about power, cultural relevance, participation, gender, or inclusivity in their genuine sense.
There’s very little focus on the capacities of the communities themselves to be their own agents of change since they’re still seen as the recipients of external aid.
PMEL is still done from the perspective of a subject and an observer. It still has a very Western, extractive, almost laboratory-style nature, which has a lot to do with how methodologies are created.
We still see a great emphasis on quantitative data without looking at how we can use storytelling, qualitative research to gather change from diverse sources.
Why is this?
I equate PMEL with how we have been doing humanitarian and development work since they're closely related. I believe that Western governments, donors, and organisations frame development work as their duty to promote specific living standards in poorer countries, i.e. their ways of living.
What works in London is not going to work anywhere else. And that leads to certain paternalistic attitudes that 'we know what you want, don't worry, we're here to save you.
I've worked in a lot of Western organisations, including a donor organisation. I've seen how destructive those paternalistic, sexist, classist, and racist attitudes towards social change can be.
Colonial attitudes towards our work made us grandstand and overinflate our importance. We wrote the cheques and helped experts to do the work; we were not ourselves the experts.
All of us, not just grantmakers, need to actively take a step back and listen to the perspectives of the places where we work.
There are many overlaps with the white saviour issue, and colonialism in aid, development and PMEL share a common problematic history with race and class. So in decolonising, we also need to become anti-racist organisations as well. There are overlaps here with privilege too, and power.
These issues are also true for local organisations that are based in different parts of the same country. Even if you're' in India but run an organisation in Chennai, you do not know the realities of life in rural areas. That's also something that needs to change. You will naturally approach a project design from an urban perspective of what you feel the community needs.
People are not asked what they want to see in a project or how an evaluation is structured. So evaluation, as it's traditionally done, ends up just being a tickbox exercise without really uncovering anything new.
That's one of the things I'm hoping to change by opening up the question of who holds power, who they hold it with and over, and what they have the power to do.
We need to refocus the conversation around the people who actually matter, not the elitist evaluators with their own biases - and I count myself in that group!
Communities themselves should be leading the design of programmes that target their needs. This is slowly picking up in philanthropy, where some innovative donors are piloting participatory grantmaking programmes, actively involving their people in all stages of their work.
So how can we decolonise PMEL?
Innovation is one of the keys - we need to see new ways of doing development work, planning aid budgets and programmes, doing research, and evaluating what impact and success look like. Sometimes this can be through embedding participatory methodologies from the design to impact assessment stage. I see a lot of complementing areas between participatory and decolonised methodologies.
It's also essential to foreground indigenous perspectives and acknowledge the emphasis we still place on cultural competence and expertise. This involves understanding power, who holds it, over whom, and where it comes from.
Those with power will need to actively step back and open a space for those without dictating their needs and steering their agenda for change. These communities who were previously under the microscope need to have the space - and we as development practitioners need to step aside. So they can join us in questioning, theorising, building, and communicating research—the roles we've typically had.
We need to reorient development and evaluation in community needs and voices and move from seeing communities as the recipients of beneficial programmes to seeing and working with them as partners. And be mindful of our limited role in change!
We also need to acknowledge and respect the crucial issues of sovereignty and self-determination and begin to decolonise by using participatory methodologies, centring programmes in communities' voices, perspectives, realities, and cultural realities. I still hear about Indian NGOs who conduct evaluation and research activities in English - this is quite ridiculous, and making the simple shift of speaking to people in their language would still be a big step.
That's in the design and monitoring stage. When it comes to sharing the results of our evaluation, we need to be more accountable to the people for whom we work - and that's an important shift in thinking. We work with them towards meeting their needs which they will tell us.
For example, when an evaluation is done, I think it's just basic good manners to share its results with the communities, get their feedback, and use that to help us design more impactful and relevant programmes in the future. Yet, this is shared as an 'innovative best practice'. We need to hold ourselves to a higher and better standard, push ourselves to make our PMEL practices deeper, more inclusive and participatory, and go well beyond these simple steps to pat ourselves on the back for doing the bare minimum.
From a capacity perspective, we should support and work through grassroots organisations and intermediaries with more legitimacy and context in our geographies and give grants to these groups. Build their capacities and expertise, and again have them dictate their own needs and development agendas.
What am I doing to decolonise PMEL?
I am working on an alternate framework and methodology to decolonise research and evaluation with a group of researchers. A lot is being spoken about what's wrong with evaluation and research, but no one has offered an answer yet, and that's a gap we're going to fill.
We're writing a manual on how to decolonise our work. It will include a new framework and a series of methodologies - decolonising existing ones and proposing new ones. It will be a book, online training sessions and workshops, workbooks, the whole gamut. We want it to be practical and something researchers can learn about and then immediately start implementing. Stay tuned for more information!
I also use mixed methods and participatory approaches in all of my work within my consultancy practice. This is a conscious effort to focus on my workplace's sociopolitical, cultural, and geographic realities and break the natural bias that the research field has towards quantitative data! I make use of creative and innovative methodologies like storytelling to write case studies, to bring the human element of our work to life so that development is not seen as just targets on a logframe, but sustainable and meaningful work that we do to truly empower and champion our communities' voices.
I'm also actively working to decolonise by partnering with other researchers and PMEL consultants to get a range of perspectives, so we're not designing an impact assessment from a Westernised, colonial perspective.
I acknowledge my privileges in all of this, including the fact I'm speaking to you now in the language of my country's coloniser - sadly, my native language! I have access to particular groups, networks, and resources that a parallel universe version of me that didn't have the chance to be educated in Europe doesn't have.
I'm using that position of power and want to pay it forward, and I'm trying not to be a white saviour about it! I'm building a mentorship programme for my practice that explicitly targets only those researchers and PMEL practitioners that identify as marginalised - through age, gender, sexuality, economic opportunity, physical and intellectual disability, or any similar 'marker'. I want to provide training and mentorship to them, share what I've learned, and open up job opportunities and growth.
I am also growing, learning, changing, and bringing new practices to my work and life. I would love to hear from you about how you are working to shift PMEL practices, decolonise, or make your organisation more participatory. Please share your comments below, or email me!