Background In 2008, the World Health Organization issued a callback to the principles of primary health care, which renewed interests in social participation in health. In Guatemala, social participation has been the main policy for the decentralization process since the late 1990s and the social development council scheme has been the main means for participation for the country’s population since 2002.
Aim The aim of this study was to explore the process of social participation at a municipal-level health commission in the municipality of Palencia, Guatemala.
Methods Analysis of legal and policy documents and in-depth interviews with institutional and community-level stakeholders of the commission.
Results The lack of clear guidelines and regulations means that the stakeholders own motivations, agendas and power resources play an important part in defining the roles of the participants. Institutional stakeholders have the human and financial power to make policies. The community-level stakeholders are token participants with little power resources. Their main role is to identify the needs of their communities and seek help from the authorities. Satisfaction and the perceived benefits that the stakeholders obtain from the process play an important part in maintaining the commission’s dynamic, which is unlikely to change unless the stakeholders perceive that the benefit they obtain does not outweigh the effort their role entails.
Conclusion Without more uniformed mechanisms and incentives for municipalities to work towards the national goal of equitable involvement in the development process, the achievements will be fragmented and will depend on the individual stakeholder’s good will.