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C.4 Participatory Communication

Participatory communication is based on dialogue. It is an approach that involves people and facilitates interaction with the affected communities. It allows for a more direct sharing of information and the exchange of perceptions and feedback to empower people. It directly involves them as decision makers and as active users of water and sanitation facilities. 

There is always space for some participatory communication - even in the acute phase of a response - and opportunities should be sought as the response progresses to promote community engagement and participatory communication E.2.

Participatory communication does not depend on the use of defined tools or approaches, but many of them can facilitate its practice. The selection of participatory, two-way, communication tools and approaches relates to the reason they are being used and on the availability of resources, skills and time. Tools can range from participatory learning and action methods to the use of playful and engaging universal language tools such as music, arts and sports. Other tools and methods include Household Visits T.18, Focus Group Discussions T.14, Transect Walks T.52, Community Mapping T.7, Community Drama and Puppet Theatre T.6, Songs and Stories T.47, Role Play T.41, Three-Pile Sorting T.51, Pocket Chart Voting T.31, Motivational Interviewing T.27, Accessibility Audits T.1 and many more. Approaches such as PHAST F.6 and CLTS F.2 also promote interactive communication.

Although many approaches were designed for rural areas, participatory methods can be used in urban contexts. The advancement of affordable digital technology and Social Media T.44 offers new ways to access and engage with people - even remotely C.8.

Participatory communication encourages the sharing of opinions, experiences and ideas about local WASH-related issues and needs. It can help to mobilise individuals and provide space for people to exercise their rights and take action. It enables people to be actively involved in data collection, analysis, planning and decision making. The use of participatory communication facilitates a better understanding of people’s different perceptions, priorities and needs. WASH-related information can then be tailored to specific situations, feedback can be used to improve the response and problems can be identified early on. 

People have their own expert knowledge (e.g. of their community, community dynamics, or WASH-related practices and preferences). Accessing this knowledge supports WASH interventions that are more locally acceptable and appropriate. In each group or community there are always different perspectives and realities; participatory communication methods can help to identify the differences and contribute to a more inclusive programme. It can also help to build self-confidence, ownership and trust and leverage community support for the intervention. For humanitarian responders it generates immediate feedback on their intervention, enabling them to be more accountable during a WASH response. 

Participatory communication may be more challenging in isolated or remote areas or where insecurity or severe public health risk requires a remote response C.8 but it can still be initiated quite quickly and easily. 

Although participatory communication is relatively inexpensive it can require substantial numbers of staff and significant staff time. Staff and community workers need good communication skills and may need training and refreshing in participatory communication techniques. Trained community workers can become a lasting asset to the programme and the community. Participatory communication requires communities to remain engaged over time and, if carried out mechanistically, may start to feel like a burden to some communities. 

Process & Good Practice

  • Focus on the objectives of participation. Ask ‘participation for what?’ Select activities that are appropriate for a certain objective, rather than rolling out a standardised set of tools. Participatory communication requires relatively autonomous teams that can adapt their strategy for each community (including the time allocated). The approach requires the WASH team to evolve from using standardised approaches and to make room for a two-way process.

  • Ensure that participatory activities are adapted to specific audience groups such as children, youth, elderly adults, or persons with disabilities. Specific needs should be assessed depending on the context and materials and communication methods adapted accordingly. Identify preferred communication channels for girls, boys, women and men including those with disabilities (who may have different requirements and preferences).

  • Develop a communication strategy and plan C.10 that employs both participatory and mass communication methods where appropriate. The need for mass communication will depend on the urgency of the situation, the size of the population and access, but two-way communication must be employed wherever possible.

  • Recruit community mobilisers or outreach workers with good communication skills (including active listening), an ability to speak in the preferred language of the affected people and an understanding of the community they will be working in. Gender and age should be considered in the team’s composition. 

  • Provide training and support for effective communication skills to all staff members (not just hygiene promoters) and encourage staff and volunteers to continuously develop them.

  • Listen to what communities have to say and ask questions, rather than provide unasked-for information and advice.

  • Share the information gathered through participatory communication methods and encourage discussion with the affected community.

  • Endeavour to use visual aids wherever possible. The use of visualisation can be helpful in communications with people with limited literacy, but also benefits communication with almost anyone.

  • Consider using participatory communication techniques that allow participants to express themselves more indirectly, particularly about sensitive subjects. It may be useful to reduce discomfort (e.g. using a third person perspective or more discreet voting tools).

  • Assess why certain groups do not seek out or access information and identify how these barriers can be overcome.

  • Use digital technologies and social networking to document, capture and create visual imagery, if appropriate, enabling people to easily access information and engage with each other. Photography and film T.30 are key forms of documentation and expression in a networked environment.

  • Ensure that a monitoring and feedback system is set up to adapt accordingly.

  • Be creative.



To understand the perspective of the affected community, tailor interventions to their specific situation and encourage them to play an active and influential role in the decisions that affect their lives.


  • Participatory communication is a two-way process that requires listening, dialogue and interaction.

  • Participatory communication helps to strengthen ownership and allows potential tensions and obstacles to be addressed quickly. WASH interventions are more likely to be successful if those affected by crisis are involved in decision making and feel that they can be a part of the response. 

  • Any communication intervention (even via the mass media) should be as interactive as possible. 

  • The use of participatory tools or methods does not guarantee participatory communication; it also requires empathy, listening skills, a respect for locally generated knowledge and the ability to empower others C.2. The communication methodology should be adapted to the needs and capacities of different sub-groups of the community and be accessible and inclusive to reach vulnerable populations. 

  • Participatory communication should be part of a hygiene promotion (HP) communication strategy. Almost all - if not all - HP programmes use participatory communication. 

  • Participatory communication supports accountability to affected populations and enables rights-holders to claim their rights and have a voice.


Pratical guidelines in participatory communication

Tufte, T., Mefalopulos, P. (2009):  Participatory Communication. A Practical Guide World Bank Working Paper No. 170, World Bank

CDAC Network (2019): Collective Communication and Community Engagement in Humanitarian Action. How to Guide for Leaders and Responders

Designing participatory communication

Mefalopulos P., Kamlongera, C. (2004): Participatory Communication Strategy Design. A Handbook, FAO

Methods used in participatory communication

Guijt, I. (2014): Participatory Approaches. Methodological Briefs Impact Evaluation No. 5, UNICEF Office of Research