Critiques of Participatory Rural Appraisal

Criticism of PRA abounds because so many problems surround its practices in the large development agencies. The development establishment, at least on the surface, has welcomed it as a panacea for getting quick input for the design and evaluation of development programs, but it is by no means clear that these agencies much care about its participatory dimensions other than wishing to take advantage of the euphonic sound the word participation has. PRAs are now often mandated by agency fiat, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. But the larger conditions in the agencies that mandate PRAs can directly contaminate the processes, causing the practitioners to prejudge the outcome of the work and to carry forward projects that were already defined without the use of PRA.

Like any AR approach, PRA, in the hands of incompetent or malevolent practitioners, can become an empty formalism, a set of ritualized steps to go through rather than a set of tools to be deployed differently as the complexities of local situations become better understood. Of course, this co-optation of terms and practices is not unique to PRA.

PRA, often sponsored by powerful external agencies, is caught in a con­tradiction between espousing participatory methods while working within a coercive institutional environment. Feminists have pointed out that many PRAs fail because they do not get to the voiceless members of the community and thus create a false impression of the dynamics of local situations, especially when the outside agents are male and are dealing with male local leaders. Some of the best PRA practitioners have taken these criticisms seriously and struggle with these problems.

David Mosse ( 1993) points not to the failure of PRA but to its weaknesses in practice and why it should not be viewed as a panacea. He shows how PRA can unintentionally structure local knowledge to reflect existing social rela­tionships by failing to develop the long-term and subtle sensitivity to local power relationships that an AR project would necessarily develop.

When a PRA team arrives in a community and begins a rapid process of data collection and analysis, it usually does not have the time or inclination to become aware in a detailed, subtle, ethnographic way about the nuances of local power. As a result, the coercion and collusion that dictate the public face of many communities are quite likely to be expressed in the outcomes. PRA is not immune to gender bias for these same reasons because formal representa­tions of knowledge can inhibit women’s contribution to its formulation.

At its worst, PRA is an extractive approach to information in which data are gathered for the purposes of the development agency rather than for meet­ing the espoused intention of having the agency’s programs built to suit the needs of the community. Thus, a PRA team may come in, organize a major data-gathering effort, organize the data, and leave, designing the intervention in the local community on the basis of this rapid overview and calling the process “participatory.”

Mosse (1993) points out that the participatory language of PRA also can be experienced as oppressive in some situations. When local people ask PRA teams about what should be done and the answer is that “the community should decide/’ local people can easily experience this as an unwiUingness of powerful outsiders to reveal to the local people what their true agenda is. This creates additional insecurity and distrust, whereas in the minds of the PRA team members, they are being open and participatory.

The most sustained critique of participatory approaches to development published so far is Cooke and Kothari’s Participation: A New Tyranny? (2001). In this book, the various contributors question the transportability ofWestern notions of participation to non-Western contexts. They assert that often par­ticipation is used to weaken opposition to schemes imposed from the outside, a common theme also in labor union reactions to participatory processes initiated by management. Most of all, they counsel skepticism in the face of the exaggerated claims made for participatory approaches as a panacea for problems of poverty.

Source: Greenwood Davydd J., Levin Morten (2006), Introduction to Action Research: Social Research for Social Change, SAGE Publications, Inc; 2nd edition.

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