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Voices from the village.

Agricultural scientists experiment in research stations under controlled conditions to produce seeds that eventually prove to be inappropriate for the needs of poor, rural farmers. Education officials pump millions of dollars into rural schools that poor children are never able to attend because their families depend on their labor to survive.

Failures of this kind plague development efforts throughout the world. They stem from a misguided "top-down" roach. Planners typically work in cities far removed from the rural communities they are trying to help. At best, they make brief visits to well-off, accessible, roadside villages or rely on standard questionnaires that intimidate and alienate the usually illiterate rural poor. The result is that planners develop programs using incomplete, inaccurate information, and end up squandering huge sums of money on projects that don't work.

In the face of these failures, some development professionals began searching a decade ago for a better way to design rural development projects. One of the most promising approaches they turned up is "Participatory Rural Appraisal." It may sound complex, but PRA basically means asking local people what they need rather than telling them what they need.

Unlike conventional appraisal methods, the participatory approach emphasizes seeking out remote villages and using group activities that enable villagers to communicate their problems through visual means. While there are still glitches to iron out in the participatory philosophy, much of the development community-from large groups like the United States Agency for International Development to small grassroots groups - has shown support for it.

PRA emerged in Kenya in 1988, when a team from the country's environmental protection agency and Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, put the theory to the test in addressing soil erosion and water shortages in the village of Mbusyani.

The team had villagers draw a map of the area on the ground using items like chalk, stones, tin cans, and sticks. Not only was the exercise more engaging than a formal, sit-down interview, it was more informative. The mapping session and the discussion that followed gave a precise picture of the area - including rainfall, location of the community's most degraded areas, its water sources, and social stratification. Through the discussion, the development workers discovered, for instance, that farmers were having soil problems because they were trying to cultivate land that had deteriorated after livestock grazed on it for years.

Mapping and other exercises also provoked spirited debates among villagers about how to regenerate the land, giving them a chance to share their own ideas rather than waiting for "experts" to tell them what to do.

The 10 days of exercises concluded with a community discussion about Mbusyani's priorities. Villagers, with technical assistance from the team, then developed a "community action plan." The team did not, however, give the community money for projects outright. Instead, since participatory development aims to make the community its own agent of change, the appraisal team helped villagers find resources.

And Mbusyani's residents have tracked down funds for several projects. Using material they requested from the Ministry of Water, villagers dug and installed a well that serves 100 households. Women rehabilitated a reservoir previously infested with parasites. The women dug drains and terraces to reduce siltation, planted trees and grasses to hold soil in place and retard water runoff, and, with funds from a local non-governmental organization (NGO) built a fence to keep livestock out of the reservoir.

The concepts behind participatory appraisal, popularized a decade ago by Robert Chambers and Gordon Conway of the University of Sussex, have actually been used for many years by NGOs in developing countries. "It's old wine in a new bottle," says P. Sumangala of the Ganghingram Rural Institute, founded nearly 50 years ago, in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Like many grassroots groups, Ganghingham has been using participatory methods for years.

Over the past five years, development groups like the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development, MYRADA in Bangalore, India, and the Washington, D.C.-based World Resources Institute have combined ancient community planning traditions, which harken back to village councils that strove for consensus, with modern research methods to produce the participatory rural appraisal model. These groups have also held training workshops and produced manuals to get the word out about PRA.

And the approach is catching on. In India, grassroots groups have conducted close to 200 PRA exercises; community workers use it to do everything from involving farmers in agricultural research to determining the health and social needs of villages. Kenya's Egerton University has developed a training component for government extension workers, and even large agencies like UNICEF and the Peace Corps arc beginning to train their staffers and volunteers in participatory strategies.

As PRA's use picks up, groups are adapting and adding to its original repertoire of activities. In one exercise, for instance, villagers use circles to represent people, groups, and institutions, and arrange them according to the overlap or the strength of the relationships.

Participatory appraisal, however, is not perfect. Although it does reach the rural poor, it sometimes neglects other groups. Because men and upper classes are traditionally the most vocal at village gatherings, women, children, lower classes, lower castes, and ethnic minorities arc often overlooked. Clark University's Barbara Thomas-Slayter, who researches how planners can reach marginalized groups, notes that focusing PRA on women is especially important. Women frequently manage the household and natural resources, since men usually leave the village to look for employment.

Development experts are also studying how villagers' ideas could somehow percolate up to influence district and national policies. This will be difficult, however, because government ministries separate development into water-tight compartments, while participatory appraisal emphasizes an integrated approach. This organizational structure, coupled with the common perception that rural villagers are ignorant, make the prospects dim for winning over government agencies.

There has been some progress in changing perceptions, though. In the Indian state of Karnataka, the director of the Drylands Development Board, which is the government agency responsible for regenerating arid lands, trained his staff in participatory appraisal in 1990. Drylands officials used to make, at best, brief field visits, wheeling into village squares in jeeps and expecting villagers to come to them. Today they spend days in villages, seeking out and talking informally with a wide range of villagers. "In one year, our bureaucracy has become sensitive.... PRA has totally changed our attitudes toward the planning process," said the board's director.

But participatory appraisal's new-found popularity also has some development planners worried. They fear that it may be heralded as the latest technical fix and turned into a rigid, structured method rather than remain a technique that builds on the creativity and experience of grassroots activists. "It may be becoming the new orthodoxy of rural development," warns G. Biksham of the Deccan Development Society in India, one of the groups that pioneered participatory techniques.

There are ways to head off such problems. "Users need to remember that PRA is only a tool, an analytic tool, that will be as effective as the skill and experience of the person or agency using it," notes Richard Ford, director of the International Development Program at Clark University. They should also keep in mind that participatory appraisal methodswere developed in the field, not in a research center.

If Ford's advice is heeded, then participatory appraisal could indeed be the catalyst for a sustainable development that truly emerges from the ground up.
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Title Annotation:useful developmental programs in villages
Author:Akula, Vikram
Publication:World Watch
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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