Ethics of participatory approaches in sport for development
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Participatory methods in sport for development can enhance effectiveness by engaging stakeholders in programming, research, and evaluation, respecting self-determination rights.
This article was submitted as part of our call for articles on participatory approaches in sport for development. For more information and to find out how to submit, read the call for articles.

Participatory approaches hold promise for sport for development. Meaningful engagement of participants and other community stakeholders in programming, research, monitoring, evaluation, and learning can not only make interventions more effective and impactful; self-determination is also a fundamental right. Through various participatory research and evaluation projects that we have been involved in over the years, we have come to recognise the power of participatory approaches in centring and elevating participants’ strengths, capabilities, wisdom, and aspirations. 

At the same time, we have been investigating the complexities and tensions in participatory approaches. These are not to be ignored but embraced as opportunities for learning and growth, as spaces for creative conflict and innovation. In this article, we share some reflections on one particular area of tension in participatory approaches: ethical issues. Navigating the ethical complexities of participatory approaches with eyes wide open is essential. The reality is that participatory approaches are not guaranteed to be an empowering experience for participants. Much depends on how ethical issues are negotiated when they arise in practice. We need to move beyond ‘do no harm’ to promote a critical ethic of care and self-determination; that is, participants’ right to be structurally recognised and have control over decisions that affect their lives. 

Let us illustrate these points in relation to two ethical issues that we observe regularly through our own vantage points as researchers and evaluators in sport for development: power imbalances and extraction.

Power imbalances

The negotiation of power relations is critical in sport for development, for example when seeking to make democratic decisions around objectives, activities, and how to implement them. Questions that will arise when using participatory approaches include: who has (or is granted) power to decide? Who benefits? Whose perspectives, needs and aspirations are centred? How do we ensure that marginalised voices and experiences are able to co-shape decisions that actually benefit them? 

In research, this requires a shift in power relations from participants as ‘objects’ or ‘subjects’ to being ‘social actors’ who are involved, consulted, heard, supported and have decision-making power. It is essential to recognise participants' rights, needs, and aspirations, and support their agency throughout the research or programme. In our work, we try to use a strengths-based approach that acknowledges participants’ diverse existing capacities in engaging in a programme or research project. We seek ways of working that emphasise an organic, iterative process of shared decision-making on research and knowledge mobilisation strategies and activities. This type of collaborative approach builds on the idea of genuine and dialogical partnership, in which critical capacity building is a mutual journey where all partners (participants and other stakeholders) can learn and grow.

Power imbalances are omnipresent. In our own research, we have regularly experienced tensions between a commitment to share power and fear of losing control over the project. For example, Carla recalls how she had to negotiate power relations to allow the young women in their research to take ownership of an important part of the project:

‘I learned that what was feasible and meaningful for the co-participants was not necessarily what I could envisage. I needed to “back away” and create spaces for co-participants to “drive the bus”.’ 


There is often a gap between the rhetoric of participatory approaches and their purported benefits, and how they appear to be practised (King & Cormack, 2023). Participatory approaches can offer an alternative to potentially paternalistic development work and to research that is potentially extractivist in nature, but the reality is not that simple. Indeed, participatory approaches can end up reproducing colonial extractive processes and practices. For example, co-design can harm participants and communities through the construction of white expertise and experts, through the representation of ‘otherness’, and through the objectification of participants as a resource containing experiential knowledge to be ‘captured’ or ‘mined’ for the benefit of researchers (King & Cormack, 2023). Co-design and other participatory approaches often maintain ‘a “gaze” on individuals or communities, rather than identifying or addressing structural issues, let alone fundamental underlying systems of oppression’ (King & Cormack, 2023, p. 8).

As researchers, we continuously reflect on how we can do our work differently in ways that counter extraction and instead build critical community capacity, especially within the context of the coercive reward systems of academia (Luguetti et al., 2023). Consider, for example, how the knowledge produced in participatory research is shared with community stakeholders. This needs to be done in ways that are accessible, meaningful, equitable, and beneficial for participants, and should be discussed from the outset and constantly reviewed collectively throughout the research (Spaaij et al., 2018). For example, we have long been concerned that we benefit disproportionately from participatory research by publishing primarily in academic journals (or fairly long, ‘dry’ research reports), which helps advance our own careers. Even when such publications are openly accessible, their format and language are often prohibitive – or plain boring – for the communities we work with. Together with participants, we have been co-designing other modalities for knowledge mobilisation that may be more meaningful, such as plain-language summaries, infographics, blogs, cartoons, podcasts, and community-based workshops.

At a deeper level, we recognise the need for equity in terms of who benefits from participatory approaches. When we co-design research and sport for development programs with participants, we oppose the idea of ‘giving people a voice’ whilst we hold the power and knowledge. Rather, we work toward amplifying people’s voices by trying to facilitate capacity building and address community needs (for example, Luguetti et al., 2023). This includes a commitment to collaboratively nurturing skills and knowledge linked with social justice, activism, and democracy, for instance through community training initiatives. 

None of these actions will structurally transform the aforementioned power imbalances, let alone alter underlying systems of oppression, but they can benefit participants and communities in real ways. An important condition is that such actions are not merely transactional but embedded within a critical ethic of care that is profoundly relational and conscious of how social injustices may be reproduced within participatory approaches, opening them up for scrutiny, dialogue, and collective action toward change.


About the authors

Ramón Spaaij is Professor in the Institute for Health and Sport at Victoria University, Australia, Visiting Professor at the Utrecht University School of Governance, Netherlands, and Research Fellow at the Centre for Sport Leadership, Stellenbosch University, South Africa. 

Carla Luguetti is Senior Lecturer in Physical Education and Health and Research Fellow in the Institute for Health and Sport at Victoria University, Australia. Her research focuses on topics of sport pedagogy and social justice.

Rebecca Giglia is a PhD Candidate in the Institute for Health and Sport at Victoria University, Australia. Her research focuses on inclusivity, empowerment and community partnership in group-based physical activity.

Photo by Carla Luguetti, Victoria University


Victoria University
Lecturer in Health and Physical Education
Victoria University
PhD Candidate
Victoria University


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