Participation for Whom? Reflections on Participatory Research with Young People in Uganda



Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) reads, "State Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child."

Children's participation is not clear-cut, but full of ethical, political, practical, cultural, social and emotional concerns. These issues were the subject of an international workshop(1) on children's participation in research and programming, held in 1997 and documented in the publication Stepping Forward (Johnson, et al 1998). I attended the workshop as a graduate student about to begin research with children in Uganda, and found the process useful and informative. Returning now to the UK, however, I find myself left with more questions than answers. One question in particular dominates my thoughts: Who does children's participation benefit and is it always in the best interests of the child?

The rhetoric behind Article 12 is beyond refute, but its often unquestioned appropriation by NGOs, governments and researchers can be problematic. For example, Kaspar notes that "[it] may, on the one hand, be necessary for adults to market the concept of participatory rights in order to obtain alternative spaces, institutional support and appropriate environments in which to nurture, practice and learn about participation; on the other hand, there is concern that without appropriate reflection, adults may be inadvertently marketing participation to children without knowing the ramifications of the product's effects." (1998)

The following article recounts my experiences in participatory research with children and relays some of the opinions held by young people themselves. Their views provide fertile material for further research and debate around children's participation.

The Study

Fieldwork was conducted over ten months in one rural Iganga District community in southeastern Uganda. The aim of the study was to investigate the ways in which young people negotiate their changing environments -- physical, social, cultural and economic -- in pursuit of their own agendas. In exploring existing social networks and mechanisms available to young people, the research also offered insights into possible routes through which children's participation might be implemented. A parallel aim of the study was to experiment with participatory approaches and methods, partly to contribute to knowledge in this area, but also to question critically the assumed benefits of participatory work with young people.

Uganda proved an interesting setting for such a study, owing to its commitment in principle to young people's participation and children's rights in general. Uganda's decentralized government includes members responsible for child rights and welfare at each tier, and every village is expected to have a youth council designed to facilitate the expression of young people's ideas and to initiate local development activities to empower youth. According to the United Nations Development Program's (UNDP) Uganda country office, however, the involvement of youth in public affairs has not been impressive and youth councils have failed to implement projects designed to empower young people, purportedly due to a lack of funds. My work suggests that young people's acceptance of and engagement with such structures may not be assured, even if adequate funding were available.

Reflections and Practice

The majority of participatory research with children, including my own early experience, has been conducted within the relatively organized settings of schools, youth centers, work places, and street groups. It has often focused on small groups of children, addressing shared concerns and negotiating shared solutions. That such work should dominate early efforts in this field is perhaps inevitable given the many unknowns in working with children in settings such as the home or the village. It is also more convenient to work with young people in organized group settings because they are more visible and accessible to researchers and easier to manage within the typical time constraints and financial limitations faced by researchers. Such studies, however, risk reinforcing Western perceptions of childhood and offer little to those seeking more genuine participation by children.

It is now well-established that conceptions and realities of childhood vary between cultures and even within communities. Take, for example, three 15 year-olds: one in primary five, a second in senior three and a third who left school at age 11 and has since run a small horticulture business. These three individuals clearly have dissimilar needs, yet the policies being implemented by governments and agencies often treat them similarly.

I too began my research in this manner, making allowances for gender and age, but otherwise treating "older girls" and "younger boys" as homogenous groups with similar perceptions and ideas because of their "similar" lives. I soon discovered that even when two lives appear to be similar, their contexts can vary significantly. Consider the case, for example, of two 12 year-old girls, both in primary seven and both from agricultural families. One was the eldest in a monogamous family with two infant siblings, and the other a middle child in a polygamous family with three mothers and fourteen siblings. Their concerns, while shared to some degree, were notably different. The first girl complained about her workload and the periodic and prolonged school absences she was required to take to assist her parents in agricultural activities. The second was more concerned with the lack of available funds for her schooling owing to greater competition among siblings.

Such differences might make participation in groups a rather abstract experience, useful at a superficial level, but not a serious resource for the discussion of more probing issues. On several occasions, activities were steered away from my primary concerns as a researcher and toward broader, perhaps safer, content. For example, a focus group addressing children's ability to negotiate access to education through their families was shifted by participants toward a broader review of the value of education. In most instances, individuals talked more openly following the breakup of the formal meeting, explaining that they did not feel comfortable when their peers were able to listen. This sentiment is reinforced by other factors, such as a distinct lack of mutual trust, that clearly undermine the potential of child participation in the rural Ugandan community where I worked.

Take for example, the answers children gave when asked why they did not consult others in establishing their own income- earning activities:

Some of them may give wrong advice on purpose because they want your project to fail. They don't want some people to gain.

Sometimes you can consult people, but they can give you advice that is not fit -- it can easily lead to failure. Their purpose is to make you fail, to make sure that you don't succeed in what you are doing. That is why I decide things by myself.

Such views are widely held and have been documented by other research, such as Kilbride and Kilbride's work in Changing Family Life in East Africa (1990). These authors suggest that status is acquired through the social manipulation and deception of others -- a factor that clearly undermines efforts at conducting participatory research.

Many insights were more subtle. For example, seeking young people's consent through their caregivers can at times undermine their rights. Children instructed by caregivers to work with researchers face a double burden, forced to respect both their parents and the researchers, irrespective of their own wishes. Following initial research, I realized that several children appeared withdrawn and reluctant in comparison to their behavior with me outside the research program. I began to question whether working with me was really in the best interests of these children.

I adjusted my research approach such that, having received the consent of caregivers, I would meet with the children to agree upon a future time and place to meet (usually later that day). This later meeting time gave the children control of the situation and allowed them to opt out of the obligation to participate. Attendance fell dramatically, but the level of activity and the atmosphere of the sessions improved significantly. Although gratifying from an ethical perspective, this finding was academically frustrating and introduced new theoretical concerns.

Academically, it challenged ideas about sampling and representativeness. In my new approach, I had reduced control over the level of children's participation. Continuing in the previous manner may well have guaranteed an even representation of boys and girls, young and older, school-going and non-school-going. These data would have been misleading, however, obtained (by all intents and purposes) under duress. From a theoretical perspective, I became concerned as to why certain children felt comfortable participating in meetings while others chose to stay away. This phenomenon suggested that programs aimed at enhancing participation and empowering young people might inadvertently create or increase social differentiation and potentially further marginalize certain groups of children.

In later stages of research, I employed a more one-on-one approach in working with children. I did so in response to clear signals from children of their unease in dealing with more sensitive issues in group-based environments. An approach more focused on the individual presented its own challenges, however. The low level of trust among young people also extended to me and to my research. Distrust was heightened by the fact that my interpreter and research assistant was himself a young person (age 17) drawn from within the community. In one incident, I asked a boy of 12, who had told me that he and his sister were unhappy with their level of care and were planning to leave their father's home to live with their estranged mother, whether they were planning to return. The boy was silent for some time before turning to my interpreter and saying "You know my brother -- he is your friend, so how can I say this?"

Assured of confidentiality, the boy did respond, but in several other cases the process was more complicated. I felt the need to revisit certain individuals owing to weaknesses or gaps in my information. Information gleaned in secondary meetings often contradicted that provided in original sessions, and I struggled to understand this anomaly. It eventually emerged that in nearly all instances, respondents had given false information during our initial encounter in order to ascertain whether the information would find its way back into the community. It was only at follow- up meetings several weeks later that, if nothing had been leaked, they would provide what they insisted was the real information. Multiple visits became an integral part of the research methodology to allow for this "testing." It seems clear that the implications of this occurrence need serious further consideration.

From a personal perspective, the adult population posed the greatest challenge to my research. The extent of suspicion and even outright resistance to my activities presented significant barriers. Only after five months of living and working in the community could I comfortably work with young people undisturbed by adults. Some colleagues express surprise at this, but their work has been conducted in more controlled environments such as schools, health centers or youth clubs. Parents and caregivers may not share the same tolerance and appreciation of research as do teachers, health workers and youth leaders, and in some situations the requests of a researcher can directly compromise a parent's or caregiver's authority.

In particular, it became clear that many of the adults had themselves never participated in community development activities and could not relate to my desire to work with children. They thought I should work with them. On account of this concern, a parallel research program was established to provide information of value to the adult community. This addition was extremely costly in terms of both time and finances, but was necessary in order to gain adult consent and the space and freedom to work with young people. I was fortunate enough to be accompanied by my wife, who was able to assist with this parallel program. Without her fortuitous input, this challenge would have presented considerable limitations to the project.

I was especially interested in documenting my own behavior and decisions as a researcher and their implications for the emerging data and output. Too often, I read research reports in which the position of the researcher goes unreported. For those conducting research with young people it is exactly the nature of these personal relationships that needs to be better understood, explained and discussed. For example, my abrupt ending of a session with some young girls might be considered a half-finished and inadmissible piece of work. Once it is clear that the decision was based on an observed change in the girls' attitude and physical stature when an adult began to prepare food within their perceived earshot, it becomes a valuable explanation and offers insight into research practice. A continuation of the exercise would have compromised both the data collected and the interests of the girls involved. I became acutely aware of such situations and of limiting what I call "political litter" -- the potential questioning and explanation demanded of a child after a researcher has left. Such concerns were central to my research approach.


Social research is all about personal relations. Even using the same methods within the same community, a different researcher would likely emerge with different findings owing to her distinct personality and relationships with research subjects. For this reason, acknowledging the role of the researcher is of vital importance. Such accounts will perhaps be more meaningful given their acknowledgement of the context and the personalities involved.

While I am acutely aware that this article offers only personal insights concerning an isolated research project, I hope it will help us look beyond the immediate rhetoric of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and critically question what it means for those on the ground. This analysis is particularly pertinent given the continued, and often unchallenged, establishment of participatory channels for young people in various sectors. This is the right time to critically examine whether, and in what form, participation is in the best interests of the child. Without such reflection, there is a danger that children's participation will remain tokenistic, and perhaps serve the needs of NGOs, governments and researchers more than those of young people themselves.

References & further reading

Johnson, V. et al (1998). Stepping Forward: Children and young people's participation in the development process. London: Intermediate Technology Publications Ltd.

Kaspar, A. (1998). "Patterns for the future: knitting reflection into the practice of children's participation" in Johnson, V. et al (1998). Stepping Forward: Children and young people's participation in the development process. London: Intermediate Technology Publications Ltd.

Kilbride, P. L. & Kilbride, J. C. (1990). Changing Family Life in East Africa: Women and Children at Risk. London: The Pennsylvania State University Press.

UNDP (1998). Uganda Human Development Report 1998. Kampala: UNDP.

(1). The workshop was hosted by the Institute of Development Studies, the Institute of Education and Save the Children Fund (UK) in London and Brighton over 5 days in September 1997.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

CSQ Disclaimer

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.

CSQ Issue: