Participatory Development seeks to engage local populations in development projects. Participatory development (PD) has taken a variety of forms since it emerged in the 1970s, when it was introduced as an important part of the "basic needs approach" to development. Most manifestations of PD seek “to give the poor a part in initiatives designed for their benefit” in the hopes that development projects will be more sustainable and successful if local populations are engaged in the development process. PD has become an increasingly accepted method of development practice and is employed by a variety of organizations. It is often presented as an alternative to mainstream “top-down” development. There is some question about the proper definition of PD as it varies depending on the perspective applied. Two perspectives that can define PD are the "Social Movement Perspective" and the "Institutional Perspective":
The "Social Movement Perspective" defines participation as the mobilization of people to eliminate unjust hierarchies of knowledge, power, and economic distribution. This perspective identifies the goal of participation as an empowering process for people to handle challenges and influence the direction of their own lives. Empowerment participation is when primary stakeholders are capable and willing to initiate the process and take part in the analysis. This leads to joint decision making about what should be achieved and how. While outsiders are equal partners in the development effort, the primary stakeholders are primus inter pares,
i.e., they are equal partners with a significant say in decisions concerning their lives. Dialogue identifies and analyzes critical issues, and an exchange of knowledge and experiences leads to solutions. Ownership and control of the process rest in the hands of the primary stakeholders.
The "Institutional Perspective" defines participation as the reach and inclusion of inputs by relevant groups in the design and implementation of a development project. The “Institutional Perspective” uses the inputs and opinions of relevant groups, or stakeholders in a community, as a tool to achieve a pre-established goal defined by someone external to the community involved. The development project, initiated by an activist external to the community involved, is a process by which problem issues in a community can be divided into stages, and this division facilitates assessment of when and to what degree a participatory approach is relevant. From an institutional perspective, there are four key stages of a development project: Research Stage, Design Stage, Implementation Stage, Evaluation Stage that are defined in later sections of this article. The institutional perspective can also be referred to as a "Project-Based Perspective".
Advocates of PD emphasize a difference between participation as “an end in itself”, and participatory development as a “process of empowerment” for marginalized populations. This has also been described as the contrast between valuing participation for intrinsic rather than purely instrumental reasons. In the former manifestation, participants may be asked to give opinions without any assurance that these opinions will have an effect or may be informed of decisions after they have been made. In the latter form, proponents assert that PD tries to “foster and enhance people’s capability to have a role in their society’s development”.
Participatory development employed in particular initiatives often involves the process of content creation. For example, UNESCO’s Finding a Voice Project employs ICT for development initiatives. Local content creation and distribution contributes to the formation of local information networks. This is a bottom-up approach that involves extensive discussions, conversations, and decision-making with the target community. Community group members create content according to their capacities and interests. This process facilitates engagement with information and communication technology (ICT) with the goal of strengthening individual and social development. This participatory content creation is an important tool for poverty reduction strategies and creating a digitally inclusive knowledge society