Co-design & Participatory Approaches – Pros & Cons

RDI Network
September 2021
8 min read

Co-design and participatory approaches are an alternative approach to standard programming, research, and evaluation design. It broadens the current power dynamics, allowing all, including marginalised groups to have a say. The researcher becomes the enabler, the ‘researched’, and the local community become partners. Adopting this approach to development work is likely to create meaningful relationships, and results that are likely to be more socially relevant to the local community. The desired outcomes can be mutually and/or collaboratively defined from the beginning. As with any approach there are pros and cons, but there is an increased value that comes with this perspective.

  • Outcomes  match the needs of the community & researchers. Engaging in a participatory approach from the beginning allows a clear set of mutually agreed outcomes to be identified. These outcomes should ensure that the needs of the community are being met. Completing this practice increases the chances of broad stakeholder support and/or collaboration in political dialogues and policies.
  • Voices are heard. Voices that have been traditionally unheard now have a platform to share their knowledge and experiences – that is, voices that will be affected by the research methods and outcomes. Inclusion of a broad range of stakeholder voices enables researchers to design local knowledge and experiences into research from the beginning, allowing more opportunities for research outcomes to be relevant and acceptable to the local stakeholders. Working together with the stakeholders directly involved or end users of the research allows a depth of knowledge and experiences to inform, guide and produce more meaningful research questions, methods and outcomes.. This exchange of engagement begins to shift traditional power dynamics. 
  • Maxmises Influentially. Integrating a broader range of voices, including marginalised groups across the whole of the research process is more likely to produce an outcome that will supported by all/broad group of stakeholders and thus be longer lasting; creating sustainable change and impact.
  • Close the gap between marginalised communities and the government. Public awareness of policies increases when co-designing. It increases advocacy skills within the community. Those involved become empowered and have the confidence to speak up to political bodies. This holds local governments accountable for their actions. 
  • Opportunity for knowledge, skills & cultural exchange. These engagements are long term. They provide a perfect opportunity for collaborative exchanges. The ongoing support from both sides creates an environment to continuously learn from each other. It enables a valuable transfer of skills and knowledge. It also encourages training for development professionals working outside their own community context for cultural awareness, effective communication and for advocacy. These skills are essential for all co-production approaches.


  • Co-Produced reporting standards need an upgrade. Currently there is a gap between co-designing research and reporting standards. While a global and/or universal set of stands and metrics is required, currently each research project would need to define and agree on these measures or standards together at the start of the project. This helps us to all be on the same page about the process. 
  • Time and Resource Intensive. Co-production approaches are often more time and resource intensive. Allowances need to be made for engaging all stakeholders regularly, additional training, language considerations and more project management. Managing the additional resources requires planning and funding from the outset. However, often ownership levels become enhanced which increases sustainability levels.
  • Not ‘Scientific’. Opponents of participatory approaches often view it an ‘unscientific’ approach. This can lead to less funding being approved in more traditional processes. However, it is more important to address concerns of ‘scientific rigour’ and to come to agreement on research, evaluation and/or program standards. By advocating for more evidence to add rigour, perception of participatory approaches can be reshaped, and co-production can become necessary component.


Photo by Paul Hanaoka on Unsplash

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