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Options for community facilitation

Good facilitation creates group confidence within communities 

2004 Available in English, French, Portuguese and Spanish

Photo: Isabel Carter/Tearfund

From: Facilitation skills – Footsteps 60

How to facilitate participatory learning effectively

by Solomon Dibaba Leta.

Photo: Marcus Perkins/Tearfund

Photo: Marcus Perkins/Tearfund

I have worked for twenty years with government institutions and non-government organisations (NGOs). Some of the workshops, meetings and seminars I have attended during this time were very boring. In fact, most of the participants who attended these meetings did so either because they had to, or to escape from office routines. Some of the people leading these meetings enjoyed listening to themselves talking. They felt their duty was to show how much they knew about the subject. I remember watching their gestures and movements instead of concentrating on what they were saying. I often criticised their approach instead of learning about new information or ideas. What was wrong and what should have been done?

Many of the community development workers I have met in rural Ethiopia think that facilitation is a means of passing on fixed ideas so that community members begin to think and act in ‘proper’ ways. Some even think that facilitation is a way of ‘teaching’ community members to accept new ideas without raising any questions or doubts. However, I believe that facilitation is a process that involves three actions:

  • participation
  • team-building
  • ownership of the process to ensure sustainability


Good facilitation creates group confidence within communities. This may mean that people try out new ideas that they would not usually risk under normal conditions. For example, many people in Ethiopia are aware of HIV and AIDS. However, the change of behaviour that should have resulted from such awareness is regrettably not there. This is partly because of a lack of proper community facilitation. Knowledge about a development issue does not always result in taking action. Knowledge is only likely to change our behaviour when the right level of motivation is created through good facilitation.

Developing the motivation of community members is a gradual process. It comes as a result of people themselves owning ideas and being prepared to act on them. Many development trainers believe communities are ignorant of new ideas about development. They expect them to listen and obey them. They only use a one-way system of passing on information.

The sense of ownership 

If we push ideas on to people and expect them to take action simply because we tell them to, this will bring poor results. People will say, ‘this water pump or school belongs to such and such NGO.’ It is not theirs – it ‘belongs’ to others! Although the water pump or school was built for them, they were not part of the process and so feel no sense of ownership.

My personal experience in the PILLARS (Partnership in Local Language Resources) process has helped me to observe alternatives to traditional community development. We have used a community facilitation process in preparing development literature in local languages. This has been used in Ethiopia in the Wolaitta area and in a Sudanese refugee camp in Sherkole (Benishangul Gumuz) and has proved to be a much more sustainable approach. Team-building, a participatory approach and collective ownership of activities are central to the facilitation techniques used. There is plenty of flexibility within the process to meet the particular needs of each situation. In the Sherkole refugee camp, this process resulted in collective confidence and a sense of ownership of their activities. This, in turn, helped them to think about how to sustain their activities without depending on outside support.

Pride in the culture and language 

The facilitation process in the PILLARS workshops is designed to empower participants and to equip them with basic skills in preparing information materials in their own language. It also enables participants to replicate the process so that the knowledge gained is linked to community transformation. The approach encourages pride in people’s culture and language.

The beginning of the process is often difficult, both for the facilitators and participants. The participants in Sherkole were refugees who had never before been involved in producing development information in their own language, Mabban. The facilitator was mobilised to work with a group of people he had never known before. After the first day of activities, participants gained confidence – first in their own team and then in themselves. The activities and team-building process helped them to achieve things they would never have done on their own. Collective decision-making and regular use of energisers made all the sessions interesting and enjoyable. The team spirit formed among the participants in Sherkole has helped them to develop joint vision and strategic goals for their area of the Sudan.

Unexpected achievement 

They have now learned the skills to prepare development literature in their own language. More importantly, they now own this process. They no longer need to wait for the government or NGOs to provide them with information from outside. Those Sudanese refugees in Sherkole who speak the Mabban language have created their own language committees in their communities so that they can print and distribute the development information they need. They are able not only to sustain the process but also to replicate it. Mabban refugees have unexpectedly performed something that is no less than a miracle. This was the result of a process of participatory facilitation in which everyone played a role.

Gifts of knowledge

This participatory approach in community facilitation used in Sherkole and Wolaitta has created confidence, self-awareness and commitment among community members. People in Wolaitta have realised that they can be proud of their language and themselves produce the kind of information needed in their area. The Mabban refugees have new gifts of knowledge for their people in the Blue Nile area of the Sudan.

There was initially some doubt about whether the PILLARS process could be used with refugees. However, this facilitation process based on participation, team-building and carefully planned activities has certainly proved successful.

Solomon Dibaba Leta trained as a journalist. He has worked with World Vision for many years in Ethiopia, training staff in communication skills and helping define their communications strategy. He has been acting as a PILLARS consultant for Tearfund since March 2003. His address is: PO Box 27275, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

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