So What Difference Does it Make? Mapping the Outcomes of Citizen Engagement

John Gaventa, Gregory Barrett


This paper presents results from a meta-analysis of 100 research studies of citizen engagement in 20 countries. By mapping over 800 observable effects of citizen participation, the authors created a typology of four democratic and developmental outcomes – the construction of citizenship; the strengthening of practices of participation; the strengthening of responsive and accountable states; and the development of inclusive and cohesive societies. Citizen participation produced positive effects across these outcome types in 75 per cent of the outcomes studied, although in each category there were also examples of negative outcomes. A key finding was that in the least democratic and stable countries, citizen associations were found to have a very strong presence and to play very important roles across each of the outcomes studied.

The findings provide important new evidence of the contributions that citizen engagement can make to development and state-building:

  • Engagement is in itself a way of strengthening a sense of citizenship, and the practices and efficacy of participation.
  • Participation is not always used for benevolent purposes and does not always generate positive results.
  • A large percentage of the negative outcomes observed has to do as much with state behaviour as the ability of citizens to engage with it. For example, engagement sometimes faced bureaucratic ‘brick walls’, failures to implement or sustain policy gains, and reprisals. Engagement could also result in a greater sense of exclusion, as power relations in new spaces for participation reinforced old hierarchies based on gender, caste or race.
  • Associations and social movements are important sources of change. Positive engagement outcomes were linked to associational activity, though less so in responsive and accountable states.
  • The study challenges the often assumed link between level of democratisation and positive democratic and development outcomes.
  • Engagement can make positive differences, even in the least democratic settings. This challenges the argument for building states or institutions first and leaving the support of citizen engagement until later.
  • Citizen engagement is not shown to be riskier in weaker political regimes. The case studies revealed a high degree of backlash against increased citizen voice across all settings, including the ‘more democratic’ states.

Citizen engagement can be linked positively in a number of instances to achieving development outcomes, as well as to democratic outcomes. The challenge for donors and policymakers is how to support such engagement effectively. Practical implications of this study include the following:

  • Active and effective citizens who can help to deliver development and democratic gains do not emerge automatically. Intermediary measures of change are important. An awareness of rights, knowledge of legal and institutional procedures, disposition towards action, organising skills and the thickness of civic networks are all indicators which help to measure the degree to which democratic citizenship is emerging.
  • While ‘good change’ can happen through citizen engagement, there are also risks. Careful attention must be paid to the quality and direction of change, as well as to its incidence.
  • Citizens’ action through their own associations and social movements can have as much or more consequence for states as participation through formal governance processes, even participatory ones.
  • Citizen engagement faces risks of reprisal, especially when citizens are challenging powerful interests in the status quo.
  • Local associations and other citizen activities strengthen cultures of citizenship, which in turn can contribute to building responsive states.
  • Systematic reviews of qualitative data over multiple cases and contexts can be as important and insightful as highly quantitative and controlled evidence building in a small number of settings.


Gaventa, J. and Barrett, G., 2010, 'So What Difference Does it Make? Mapping the Outcomes of Citizen Engagement', Working Paper 347, Institute of Development Studies (IDS), Brighton