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Posted May 1996

FAO People's Participation Programme

Introduction | Selecting project participants | Forming groups | Group activities | Savings and credit | Group promoters | Costs and benefits | Further information


Unless the rural poor are given the means to participate fully in development, they will continue to be excluded from its benefits. The FAO People's Participation Programme (PPP) has demonstrated that participation is possible when the poor form small self-help groups that allow them to pool resources in pursuit of their own objectives. PPP projects have been implemented in 12 countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Some 13,200 people have actively participated in PPP, while beneficiaries total 80,000. The principal elements of the PPP approach are:

Selecting project participants

Participatory rural development projects seek to improve the economic, social and political conditions and capacities of the rural poor. The project planner's first task, therefore, is to identify impoverished areas and poor inhabitants who wish to participate in the project. Planners can delineate impoverished areas through discussions with rural administrators and a rapid analysis of existing data.

In selecting areas suitable for participatory development projects, preference goes to those with potential for development of viable economic activities, availability of development services and some market outlets. The next step is to select village clusters where project activities will begin. To identify these clusters, project planners conduct socio-economic surveys in cooperation with group promoters. Villages selected should have development potential and a low degree of social stratification.

The rural poor live at or below subsistence level, depending for their livelihoods on employment in agriculture and related occupations. Levels of deprivation also exist among the poor. Small farmers are sometimes considered "marginally poor" because they have some access to assets and income. Usually worse off are sharecroppers, landless labourers and hawkers (the "very poor"). The most deprived people in rural areas are destitutes who have no economic base whatsoever. To assess the numbers, proportion and main characteristics of the poor and non-poor in the project area, project staff gather existing data on population, land tenure, economic activities and income distribution. For a more accurate assessment, it is sometimes necessary to develop area-specific poverty criteria, such as level of access to productive resources, ethnic and caste characteristics and nutritional status.

Typically, project participants will be people whose main source of income is agriculture or related activities, whose main source of labour is their family, and whose income is below the average in the area. They have little access to inputs, credit, markets, training, extension and other services. A participatory project need not start with the poorest. Some projects seek to involve first marginally poor small farmers who can afford to risk some of their assets in group activities. The very poor may be involved only in later phases of the project.

To identify the poor's priority needs, project staff carry out rapid social and economic studies, consulting a representative cross-section of local people - in particular the poor - as well as key members of local people's organizations and traditional leaders. The team's inquiries cover existing development efforts, felt needs, aspirations and constraints. The information collected is regarded as preliminary and, in part, suspect. More reliable in-depth data is gathered as field staff gain the poor's confidence during project implementation.

Forming groups

The central element in PPP is the formation of self-help groups of the rural poor as the first step in a long-term institution building process. Group membership offers the poor several advantages: PPP projects follow four guidelines in group formation: The project then organizes informal meetings with prospective group members to discuss the purpose, methods of operation and benefits of groups, as well as possible enterprises. Group promoters make a list of potential group members and leaders, possible group activities and required inputs. Once the participants have identified viable income-raising activities, they decide on criteria for group membership: for example, whether members should belong to a specific category such as small-holders, tenants or landless. They assess their productive resources, including capital, skills and experience. Group members then elect a chairperson, secretary and treasurer. Project staff encourage rotation of leadership positions among group members in order to give all members leadership experience.

The formation of viable and stable groups requires patience and, in most cases, a period of two to six months. Both overly rapid formation and overly long delays, which may dampen the interest of potential group members, are avoided. The process of group formation may face formidable obstacles. In most cases, the rural poor are economically dependent on landowners, traders and middlemen and may fear intimidation if they become involved in independent peasant organizations. Other constraints are posed by local power-holders who may see the groups as a threat to patron-client relationships. At local level, project staff can help overcome this antagonism by calling meetings to sensitize leaders to the objectives of the project and, above all, to illustrate the benefits of its activities to the area as a whole.

Once groups have established a sound economic base, PPP promotes their consolidation into local-level inter-group federations. These federations promote solidarity and economies of scale both in group activities and delivery of development services. Development of local - and, eventually, regional and national - structures also stimulates the formation of more groups. An inter-group federation must be accountable to all group members. It has a facilitating, coordinating and educational role is a source of technical assistance, economies of scale and guidance. For instance, a federation can offer training to new groups, help finance their activities from savings and perform some of the functions of group promoters.

Group activities

Participatory groups are formed around activities that meet the identified priority needs and aspirations of those who wish to become members. The purpose of these activities is primarily economic and developmental: to increase members' production and income, reduce their costs, promote financial self-reliance and contribute to community welfare. Although group activities vary widely, four general types can be distinguished: PPP emphasizes income-generating or cost-saving activities based on local experience and low-cost technology. These undertakings do not replace but are meant to supplement members' normal production. Activities of this type are most likely to broaden the groups' economic base, mobilize savings, strengthen group cohesion and develop their enterprise management skills. Groups are encouraged to undertake social or community improvement activities only at a later stage. It is important that - as far as possible - each group identifies, plans, carries out and evaluates its own activities. This is essential for group development and, eventually, self-reliance. While group promoters have an important role in encouraging group activities, especially in the initial stages, theirs is a facilitating role that will be reduced gradually as the groups develop.

Since the main objective of any enterprise is to produce something that people will buy, the group is taught how to conduct simple market surveys in their community in order to identify a product or service needed and how much customers are prepared to pay for it. The group then decides whether members have the resources and skills to supply it. The group is encouraged to choose a product or service it can produce economically and well, avoiding complex production processes. Next, the group calculates what is required to establish the enterprise, i.e. what skills and other resources each member can contribute. The final, and most important step, is to calculate expected profit.

Each group prepares a simple group business plan dealing with the socio-economic conditions, resources and problems of the participating households. They also prepare a schedule of operations and plans for future subsidiary on- or off-farm income-raising activities of individual members that may strengthen their economic base. Small-scale feasibility studies may be needed in order to produce workable proposals for group activities. These studies consider existing income-generating and other activities promoted by government or NGO agencies in the area. The identification of viable group activities also forms part of on-going action research - for example, a number of proposals may emerge from household survey data.

The first hurdle faced by most groups is that of financing the activity. While the project may envisage the provision of credit for the groups, experience indicates that initial activities should be funded by group members through their own savings. This ensures that the scope of the activity is within the group's existing capacity and resources, builds commitment to the group and reduces debt dependency. Another common problem in developing activities is the groups' need for training. Members often have low literacy and numeracy skills, both of which handicap sound management. The project may need to develop training materials tailored to their learning capacities. Unfortunately, there is a great lack of such materials in developing countries.

As a group develops its activities and sees the rewards they bring, it usually begins to undertake additional, more complex enterprises. The risk here is that groups may "bite off more than they can chew". Group promoters help their groups examine objectively the feasibility of proposed new activities by assessing the availability of group resources, funding and local markets. Finally, the groups need to examine very carefully the feasibility of undertaking collective production activities. Experience with PPP has shown that while group members obtain better returns by sharing production inputs and experience, many have learnt - the hard way - that actual production is often best conducted on an individual basis.

Many attempts to farm communal plots have failed owing to disputes over the allocation of labour and the division of income. Project staff generally advise those groups wishing to use communal plots to plan the activity together, but divide the land into individual plots for production. Collective efforts are better suited to the sharing of newly acquired technical skills, or expensive or laborious tasks such as transporting inputs and produce.

Savings and credit

FAO has developed a set of financial strategies designed to reduce the cost to banks of delivering savings and credit services to small farmers and to lower the cost to project participants of gaining access to these services. Although PPP financial approaches vary according to local conditions, all of them share five basic elements:

Group promoters

The group promoter (or GP) is a key agent in the success of any participatory project. He or she works with the poor, building up their confidence in their own abilities and promoting their self-reliance. As this work must be done without creating dependency, the GP's task is essentially that of an intermediary, with three basic roles: In FAO's experience, one group promoter can help to organize an average of 15 groups in three years. Thus, each GP can reach directly over three years some 150 households, or at least 900 people. GPs must have experience in working with people and local organizations in rural areas, and familiarity with the problems of the poor. It is essential that candidates have a strong commitment to live with, work with and assist the rural poor for at least two years. Capable group promoters may be recruited from government agencies or local NGOs. In some casees, preference has gone to government agencies willing to second their staff to the project. Several PPP projects found excellent group promoters among government extension staff, who later returned to their agencies to propagate the participatory approach.

GPs promote self-reliance by involving the group members in activities that allow them to develop leadership and recordkeeping skills. They encourage group-to-group exchanges, and ensure the presence of one or more group members whenever they deal with supporting institutions such as banks and delivery agencies. When and how should GPs withdraw from their groups? Experience in the implementation of PPP projects indicates that it takes from three to five years for groups to achieve complete self-reliance.

Costs and benefits

Total external aid costs of PPP projects average $63 per year per group member and less than $11 per beneficiary (i.e. the group member's dependants). While average cost per participant and beneficiary is high at the start of the project, it declines rapidly as project staff are trained and groups become more self-reliant. Thanks to economies of scale, the incremental cost per beneficiary of including a participatory component in a large-scale project would be even lower. Incorporating participatory elements involves the following extra costs: The cost of adding these elements would be balanced by the improved design of the project and, in the long run, by its increased social and economic benefits.

PPP's benefits can be measured from two perspectives, that of individual participants and that of society in general. Benefits to participants include:

Benefits for society include:
For further information on the FAO People's Participation Programme, contact:
John Rouse
Viale delle Terme di Caracalla
00100 Rome, Italy

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