Paula Donnelly Roark is a social scientist with a long career in international development, starting as a Fulbright-Hayes recipient in West Africa in 1975. In her field, most people are either participation practitioners or social researchers/analysts—but Paula is skilled in combining both components in her field implementation programs. Her extensive experience in applying carefully researched and tested theory to ongoing project implementation in the field establishes her as an expert in applied social sciences. As such she has extensive experience in the analysis and discussion of the realities of social change, and the possibilities for social justice in the developing world. More recently, as social change around the globe has intensified, Paula has been able to focus on similar social change realities in North America.

Paula’s unique career path began in a rather dramatic way. She left the US for the first time after graduating from college to visit the relatively new republic of Algeria. Going there turned out to be more of an adventure than she had originally anticipated. As it turned out, Paula was on the first plane to enter the country after a well-staged military coup. This experience began a long process that changed the direction of her life and work. The political tumult; the never ending discussion of ideas new to her, the association with people of profoundly different cultures living radically different life experiences began an intellectual process that changed her life and values.

Several years later, married to the wonderful man who introduced her to Algeria and its cultures, and with a brand new baby, Paula and Phil moved to Morocco where the learning curve of understanding social, cultural, economic, and political perspectives continued and inspired her to pursue an MA in the social sciences.

Paula, with her husband, returned to the African Continent as a Fulbright-Hayes recipient assigned to Burkina Faso, West Africa. Her husband worked as a hydrologist for an engineering firm. The couple, with their now two high-octane children in tow settled in Ouagadougou. Paula’s true graduate education was about to begin. Assigned to the University of Ougadougou and the Institute of Pedagogy, Paula joined the national committee of Burkinabe researchers, teachers, and community workers committed to changing their existing post-colonial school system into an institution that corresponded to the values and aspirations of the country’s people as a newly independent nation. This was an intense in vivo introduction to the participatory process and its critical interactions with indigenous institutions.

After receiving her Ph.D. at the University of Colorado, Paula taught the basic concepts of community development at the University of Maryland. But this was not what she wanted to do. She wanted to return to Africa and apply the field based theories that had been developed over the years. So once again, her supportive family was off—this time to Somalia. This three year assignment initiated a ten year period in which Paula worked as a participation practitioner in communities across the African continent. She had the historically unique opportunity of working in diverse, small communities undergoing intense social and economic change. Every so often enduring friendships were established. But always the work itself was fascinating in that specific historical period spanning the decades of the 80’s and 90’s. Paula found that working in the communities of a variety of countries and cultures, and being able to be a participant observer as those groups themselves sorted out the direction in which they wanted to change, was an extraordinary privilege available to few people. Sometimes successful, sometimes failing—the interaction within the communities allowed for an appreciation of human character as well as an understanding of the mechanisms of social change.

Several years later, Paula capped this ten year period by starting her own consulting firm in the U.S. Understanding the inside-out dynamics of participation in diverse African cultures and societies, she offered new strategies for community specific development. For traditional development organizations the downside of these strategies, of course, was that they take longer and cost more. However, her timing was right. Paula offered a methodology that people in various organizations were beginning to recognize were essential to sustainable development—substantive participatory processes, based on local traditional values, that would take root and endure after the development agencies had left. As a result, she undertook numerous consulting assignments with diverse United Nations, NGOs, and bilateral aid organizations. Her field experiences were so successful that Paula was invited to make presentations to numerous regional and international conferences—thus assisting in moving substantive participation to a more prominent place in international development.

But as the intense social change in Africa that Paula had identified and studied for so many years magnified and was impossible to ignore, organizations that previously had not been particularly interested began to take note. As a result, new positions were created and the skills of applied social science were now in demand to identify new and more effective policies. Paula thus worked in positions and organizations for the next 15 years that she had not originally contemplated. She brought a new approach to the development strategies of these institutions.

usaAs Director of Research and Evaluation at the African Development Foundation she established participatory programs in research and evaluation that fostered greater self-determined community development processes in 14 countries. She later moved to the World Bank as a Senior Social Analyst for the Environmental and Social Department where she held the position of NGO coordinator for the Africa Region and was a Social team leader in a number of large programs in various countries. Her responsibilities focused on setting up accountable structures linking rural communities with their national governments. Assignments with the British aid organization in African post conflict countries further expanded her understanding of the local social change patterns as they interact with national and international structures. In developing her expertise, Paula lived for 11 years in three African countries, later worked extensively in 22 other African countries, and took assignments in the Middle East, Asia, and North America.

Research undertaken on local level institutions during these years informed her book Social Justice and Deep Participation: Theory and Practice for the 21st Century, recently published by Palgrave Macmillan Publishers. In writing the book, however, she discovered a large gap in the discourse on participatory social theory and social change. She is now at work on a second book, bringing attention to the historical evolution of this discourse and its implications. Paula also devotes substantial time to invited lectures and presentations.