Participatory Rural Appraisal in International Development

Linked to a variety of forms of participatory evaluation but occupying a very different institutional position is a collection of approaches that now generally go under the name of “participatory rural appraisal.”1 PRA is an element in overall socioeconomic development programs, mainly in poor countries. These strategies aim to develop more reliable baseline data about problems through involvement of local people in the definition and documentation of those problems. Given the proliferation of worldwide development projects and PRA at present, it is impossible to provide even a partial introduction to the literature. We simply hope to give the reader enough to get started.

The nomenclature itself is very difficult. For example, Jules Pretty and Simplice Vodouhe (n.d.) have laid out the following set of acronyms, all related to PRA2: AEA, BA, DELTA, DPR, FPR, GRAAP, MARP, PALM, PAR, PRM, PRAP, PTD, PUA, PfR, PD, RA, RAAKS, RAP, RAT, RCA, REA, RFSA, RMA, ROA, RRA, SB, SSM, TID, TIT, and VIPP. There can be little doubt when seeing this alphabet soup that we are in the presence of the large international, bureau­cratic agencies and a very active international consulting business in which patenting your own name for a process is a marketing strategy. To make it worse, these are not just different names for the same practices, but a variety of somewhat different practices linked to some common assumptions. Our pur­pose here is only to lay out some of these assumptions, remembering that there are many organizations in which a variety of participatory appraisal strategies are used and that variation in practice and conception is found everywhere.

Preeminent among the institutions promoting the use of these approaches is the Institute for Development Studies at Sussex, and the best-known person and most prolific writer in this field is Robert Chambers. We draw heavily on Chambers here/ but we remind you that related approaches have been devel­oped in many locations—the International Potato Center in Peru, in some components of the Cornell Institute for International Agriculture, Food, and Development at Cornell University, and in a number of other locations world­wide. Nevertheless, Chambers is a key actor and synthesizer of what is being learned because he has been unusually thorough in documenting the work of others and is remarkably assiduous in the practice of self-criticism. We provide some additional bibliographical guidance later in the chapter.

Given the political and value positions we have articulated in this book, it is no surprise that we are not unambiguous supporters of development assistance programs as currently structured and that we are dubious about the degree to which meaningful political participation can be built into them. There are many severe constraints built into the political economy of develop­ment that prevent anything like the self-determining participation that AR seeks from moving beyond very narrow limits. But the imperfections of particular approaches and contexts should not blind us to the reality that more liberationist approaches to development have generally failed and most devel­opment work is done precisely in the kinds of agencies that PRA now is engaged with. Thus, we believe that PRA deserves a serious look from anyone interested in AR. Until workable alternative approaches to the alleviation of international poverty are developed, PRA embodies one of the development practices that has the most in common with AR.

The principal difficulties facing PRA is that the overall framing of inter­national development work sets tight constraints around what can be done and how. International development, mainly an arm of the foreign policy and eco­nomic interests of the industrial nations, has created an immense international bureaucracy, professional societies, international institutes, academic fields, journals, book series, and a huge army of practitioners, not a few who have made nice livings by being experts on the world’s poor. Add to these the world­wide proliferation of NGOs, and it appears that the poor countries of the world are nearly overrun with outsider experts.

This multibillion-dollar “development” activity gained initial momentum in the 1950s, flourished for a time, and then came under increasingly hostile governmental scrutiny from many sides. Among the donor states, governmen­tal oversight groups began to feel that sending money abroad was a waste of resources, that developing the economies of other countries created harmful competition for national industries, and that it would be better to give money only when it was profitable for the donor nation to do so. Although these views never fully prevailed, they gave rise to extremely hierarchical systems for designing and evaluating development programs, and these systems have remained resolutely hierarchical and authoritarian ever since.

In the past IS years or so, many nongovernmental organizations have entered the development scene as major players (Gardner & Lewis, 1996; Lewis, 200 l ). Not constrained by the same nationalist rationales and politics, these organizations have diversified approaches to development considerably. They are free to be more openly ideological about their goals because they are intentionally created to foment certain kinds of social, economic, and ethical practices. As a result, the present international development scene is a complex patchwork of the big international development projects of nation-states and the activities of NGOs. PRA is used in both venues.


To understand why PRA is an important departure from previous prac­tice, it is necessary to have a brief sense of the history of international devel­opment work. There have been two major approaches since the late 1950s—liberal and Marxist—and a number of other more topical emphases that have moved across this landscape as well, including population control, capital formation strategies, feminism, environmentalism, participation, for­eign debt and structural adjustment, and international human rights.

Far and away the dominant approach to development has been based on competitive individualist market theory. These views are based on a diagnosis of problems of development that treat poverty as an unfortunate and improper outcome of the workings of the world economy that can be corrected by well- targeted restructurings of incentives. A host of theories and methods has long supported this generally optimistic view of development.

One variant of this paradigm is modernization theory, in which the prob­lem of poverty is attributed to the unfortunate continuation of a series of so-called traditional and therefore putatively irrational practices that prevent people from doing what is in their best interest. Some theorists have seen this irrationality as a characteristic of uneducated people in general. Others have seen it as the selfish exploitation of the many by a few “traditional” leaders whose positions must be undermined.

Another alternative focused on a wide variety of theories that argued that capital formation was the key to successful economic development. Just what the strategy for economic development was differed from theorist to theorist. Often it meant controlling population growth so that per capita income would become higher, or it meant learning how to use and conserve resources better so that the basic productive infrastructure would improve, or it meant an emphasis on education and communication strategies to make “traditional” people into “modern” thinkers.

Technological approaches to development have always been popular with Western industrialized nations. Building dams, roads, and schools and sending tractors, fertilizers, and other technologies have been the preferred forms of development assistance and were often quite profitable to the donor’s employ­ees. More recently, biological technologies such as the green revolution, new varieties of grain seeds and cultivation systems, and integrated pest manage­ment have become popular. Generally speaking, these technologies have been developed and often manufactured in the West and then are deployed (or occa­sionally imposed) on the rest of the world. They have the feature of treating world poverty as a matter to be solved by production technologies rather than by sociopolitical change and the redistribution of land and capital.

These approaches have been very powerful because governments with lots of money and political clout backed them. National development programs for a whole generation were built on these notions and the ideologies of indi­vidualism built into them, as were the agendas of international development agencies such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the international agricultural research institutes that have been developing new and more productive varieties of basic food crops. Now NGOs have become major players on the scene, adding their particular slant to the development framework.

Counterposed to this development approach has always been a wide vari­ety of political economy theories about the world under development. Many of these are Marxist or neo-Marxist in inspiration and understand widespread poverty as a constitutive principle of capitalism. The modern world system is unequally developed because the rich countries exploit the poor countries as a source of cheap raw materials, labor, and products. From this vantage point, underdevelopment is a product of capitalism, and international development programs are a cover for political coercion and the maintenance or expansion of the existing colonialist order.

This view of the problems leads to very different forms of practice. The principal goal is to break the dependency on the powerful and wealthy nations that master the system. Because this is both an extremely risky process and quite unlikely to succeed under current conditions, it has attracted many people ideologically as a way of explaining persistent poverty, but it has not inspired very many revolts. It has influenced the practices of a considerable number of NGOs around the world whose intervention strategies are informed by Marxist analysis and who understand economic development as requiring an intentional democratization of power structures.


Beginning in the early I970s, other agendas began to find their way into conventional international development thinking. One fact that deserves par­ticular mention is that the urban and rural side of participatory work were not radically independent. William Foote ^inyte and people following the labor relations and urban planning side of participation were doing related work, and Whyte himself crossed over into rural development work for a significant set of works (Whyte & Alberti, 1976, on cooperatives in Peru; and Whyte & Boynton, 1983). However, generally these threads developed independently.

Norman Uphoff, a colleague and professor of political science at Cornell, was at the center of many of these developments as the director of Cornell’s Rural Development Committee. Uphoff (1992, 1996) sorts out the history of these developments in an interesting way that shows how long and complex the path to participatory approaches in development has really been.

As he frames the history, while the developments, including the transition from what was initially called rapid rural appraisal (RRA) to PRA were taking place, other efforts were being made in USAID, mainly at the initiative of Ted Owens, a USAID official who played a major role in getting USAID to mandate participatory approaches. Gathering support from the Society for International Development and people in the U.S. Department of State, they eventually garnered support in Congress for this effort, and Congress instructed USAID to put participation front and center in its program work.

To develop both academic support and credibility, Ted Owens, who had met Uphoff in 1972, provided funding to Cornell for a comparative study of rural local government, and this led to a USAID project led by Uphoff and John Cohen to define the meaning of rural development participation. Owens was interested enough in this to contract for this work after having been dis­appointed by the disengaged academic quality of similar work commissioned at MIT and Harvard. This Cornell project gradually placed Cornell as USAID’s “mentor” on “rural development participation” under a cooperative agree­ment. As a component of this multidimensional and multicountry work, the group began publishing in the mid-1970s the Rural Development Participation Review for 3 years; this review included work of people like Robert Chambers and James Scott. It became, for a time, the central location to go to for infor­mation on rural development participation. However, the whole funding stream dried up with the advent of the administration of Ronald Reagan.

Though, by Uphoff’s reckoning, many of the activities engaged in were rea­sonably conventional ones, they succeeded in making participation a topic that needed to be addressed and debated in development work. Some of the case work, however, moved beyond that, most notably Uphoff’s major project on par­ticipatory management of irrigation systems in Sri Lanka (Uphoff, 1992, 1996).

Part of the point of this narrative is that getting participation onto the agendas of the large development agencies was a complex process involving political and intellectual networks and a long, slow, and patient process of negotiation and work. So even the vogue in the use of the term participation in international development itself is the product of decades of effort and should not be dismissed as cavalierly as often do the high-minded who see important deficiencies in current practices.

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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