Abstract It has been widely accepted by policy makers and commentators, funding bodies and NGOs that the key to performance in low-cost housing projects in developing countries lies in community participation. This paper proposes that this premise (extensively discussed in the theory and emphasized in grant applications) is not clearly reflected in the realities of reconstruction practice. In fact, there are many ways in which users/beneficiaries can participate in post-disaster reconstruction projects but not all types of participation ensure the best deployment of their capabilities. The systems approach shows that there is a continuum of possibilities for participation; at one extreme, users are involved in the projects only as the labour force, whereas at the other, they play an active role in decision-making and project management. Four case studies of post-disaster housing reconstruction projects (one each in Colombia and in El Salvador, and two in Turkey) illustrate this continuum. A comparative analysis of the organisational designs of these projects highlights the different ways in which users can be and were involved. We show the impact of the different approaches to the “where”, the “when” and the “how”, regarding incorporating the users into the organisational and technical design processes. This study shows that the participation of users in up-front decision-making (within the project design and planning phases, including the capacity to make meaningful choices among a series of options offered to them) leads to positive results in terms of building process and outcomes. However, despite often-good intentions, this level of participation is rarely obtained and the capabilities of the users are often significantly wasted.