Exploration of the perception and practice of participation, particularly in evaluation, elicited a range of values expressed by respondents along the aid chains of three bilateral donors with programmes in Ethiopia. The paper is developed from doctoral fieldwork, which sought to understand the mechanisms that constrain or enable participation. It raises three issues arising from analysis using a ‘shared mental models’ framework: differential values, ability to access and utilise information and conceptual (and physical) proximity/distance. During the research period (2004–2005), Ethiopia was a pilot country for aid harmonisation and these findings have implications for the congruence agenda (harmonisation and alignment) of the New Aid Architecture. The paper calls for a deeper understanding of the role that values and contextual information play in development management practice. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.