As explained earlier, participatory projects include one or more components or elements of group formation and action but not exclusively: many development activities will continue to emerge from individual initiatives and incentives, in the areas of such projects. Group formation/action is thus not the exclusive solution or panacea for achieving certain development objectives. Groups can be instruments to (better) meet certain but not all needs and/or to (better) perform certain functions. Group formation should of course never be compulsory or a sine-qua-non condition, but spontaneous and voluntary. Freely formed, well-performing groups are "contagious" and have a beneficial spread effect.
In sum, "individualistic" types of involvement in project formulation and implementation can work satisfactorily in various instances. However, it is by now well realized, that only through group approaches the large numbers of marginalized rural people can be "reached" effectively by government and other organizations. There is also overwhelming evidence that the predominantly "individualistic" approaches largely applied by conventional development agencies, bring benefits mostly to the better-off-people. For the types of projects supported by FAO, ILO, WHO and (pre-) investment agencies, group approaches are normally also more cost-effective.
A problem occasionally raised is how "individualistic" people and societies can be motivated for group-wise development efforts. It is erroneously observed that the propensity for group action amongst disadvantaged rural people is significant for social but not for economic development purposes, unless there is a strong and evident incentive (e.g. group credit, irrigation or marketing). However, firstly the economic and social actions of the rural poor are mostly still very much interwoven and less compartmentalized as in modern societies. Secondly, the participatory approach builds wherever possible, upon numerous traditional and other forms of cooperation and groupings found amongst the rural poor including those living in so-called "individualistic" societies. For example, individual profit making makes less sense in traditional societies where profits are to be shared by larger kinship groups. Finally, the activities of group members can take the form of group or individual production or a combination of these: individual operation but sharing of common facilities, joint input-purchasing and/or marketing.
Although the participatory approach has certainly not a narrow focus, it is specifically meant for the economic and social development of the rural poor and thus does not cover in a strict sense wider forms of people's participation such as community participation. The latter refer to the involvement of the entire population of a village or community in the planning and implementation of a project and is thus not target-group specific. Such "holistic" forms of people's participation are certainly required for area-based operations which affect all inhabitants like environmental protection, soil and water conservation, provision of physical, economic and social infrastructures (civil works) and irrigation, sanitation and health schemes. It is also clear that the groups formed under the participatory project approach can considerably facilitate and widen community participation.
Various foregoing points highlight that the participatory approach gives advantages to the rural poor as well as to the agencies which implement or support a project. The main reasons are the following:
1) Coverage: to reach and involve on a wider scale the disadvantaged rural people through institution building, that is the creation of adequate "receiving" systems at grassroot level as well as of corresponding "delivery" systems (see Section 5.1);
2) Efficiency: to obtain a cost-efficient design and implementation of a project. The beneficiaries will contribute more in project planning and implementation by providing ideas, manpower, labour and/or other resources (cost-sharing). Consequently project resources are used more efficiently;
3) Effectiveness: the people involved obtain a say in the determination of objectives and actions, and assist in various operations like project administration, monitoring and evaluation. They obtain also more opportunities to contribute their indigenous knowledge of the local conditions to the project and thus facilitate the diagnosis of environmental, social and institutional constraints as well as the search for viable solutions;
4) Adoption of innovations; the beneficiaries can develop greater responsiveness to new methods of production, technologies as well as services offered;
5) Production: higher production levels can be achieved while ensuring more equitable distribution of benefits;
6) Successful results: more and better outputs and impact are obtained in a project and thus longer-term viability and more solid sustainability. By stressing decentralization, democratic processes of decision-making and self-help, various key problems can be better solved, including recurrent costs, cost-sharing with beneficiaries as well as operation and maintenance;
7) Self-reliance: this broad, ultimate objective embraces all the positive effects of genuine participation by rural people. Self-reliance demolishes their over-dependency attitudes, enhances awareness, confidence and self-initiative. It also increases people's control over resources and development efforts, enables them to plan and implement and also to participate in development efforts at levels beyond their community;
8) Supporting institutions like UN agencies and NGOs can fulfil better their mandates: e.g. for FAO the WCARRD mandate.
These are mainly the following:
1) The political conditions/power structures of the country and project area. These may vary in different forms and degrees from a decentralized, laissez-faire and/or free enterprise system to a fully centralized, strongly planned and/or controlled one. They may vary furthermore in regard to their degree of stability. Accordingly, widely differing situations can be found ranging from full support of the central and/or local government to participation of the poor to indifference and hostility versus this approach.
In fact, in a number of countries the urban and rural elites, particularly the latifundists and landlords, influence the political and administrative structures to such an extent that any policy to encourage genuine participation of rural people is either inexistent, or strongly opposed, and/or by various means neutralized or strained. For example, by prohibitive legislation, exasperating government control, alleged unavailability of funds and/or personnel and so on (see also Sections 6.5 and 6.6).
2) Legislative obstacles. In various countries freedom of association either does not exist or only formally; in other ones where the right of association, including of small farmers, labourers, etc., is recognized in the laws, the labour legislation is inadequate and/or scarcely applied in practice. Under the influence of vested interest groups the laws might further be interpreted and/or applied in such ways that (part of) the rural poor are prevented from organizing themselves.
3) Administrative obstacles. Centralized public administrative systems that control decision-making, resource allocation and information, may ostracize participation. The staff in such structures frequently disdain people's involvement. Also complex, bureaucratic procedures impede genuine participation as well as one-way, top-down planning performed solely by professionals; the same can be said of rural development planning done in urban centres and hardly based on need assessments in the field.
4) Socio-cultural impediments. A serious obstacle is the widespread mentality of dependence, sense of frustration as well as distrust in officials among low income rural people. The latter are frequently dominated by local elites to whom they have to leave key decision-making. All this forms part of the "culture of poverty" of the silent, excluded majority for whom survival is the sole aspiration. Furthermore, the poor form a heterogeneous "group": there are various categories with class, caste, tribal and religious differences and also with different interests, needs, access to resources as well as potentials. Accordingly, also participation must be planned and promoted according to different local contexts and factions.
5) Other impediments are: the isolation and scattered habitat of the poor, their low levels of living and heavy workloads especially of the women. Furthermore, their weak health conditions, low level of education and of exposure to non-local information, ignorance of their rights to self-organize groups and lack of leaders and know-how to move in this direction in order to promote their interests.
Some constraints of implementing and supporting agencies are the following:
1) There is often pressure from the side of implementing institutions and/or of supporting government or donor agencies to produce visible results quickly: quantity of funding and results prevails over quality. Unlike tangible physical infrastructure works and production outputs, most of the arduous participation efforts remain less visible and measurable as they have to focus - prior to concrete productive actions - principally on training, changes of attitudes and fostering of awareness of local needs and potentials.
2) Many implementing agencies are designed for centralized planning, decision-making and implementation; such set-ups do not favour participation.
3) There is usually lack of skilled staff to promote participation. It is indeed often problematical to find well-motivated and capable animators for group formation and action. And yet the latter are the key women and men to make a project successful as they live and work directly with the intended beneficiaries. Most participatory projects obtained, however, eventually well-performing group promoters (in various instances from the extension field staff), also through effective training (see Section 10).
Most of the above listed possible obstacles can gradually be overcome as evidenced by practice in many areas. However, the list indicates that for determining the form and degree of beneficiary participation the environmental, economic and social context of a project must be fully taken into account: participation is a site-and project-specific process. Moreover, starting such a process may provoke various predictable but also unanticipated reactions on the side of the intended beneficiaries and also of the local officials and better-off who may see it as threatening their vested interests (see Sections 6.5 and 6.6).