Communication for development Knowledge

Updated April 1999

Special: The first mile of connectivity

Participatory rural communication appraisal (PRCA) methodology

by Chike Anyaegbunam, Paolo Mefalopulos and Titus Moetsabi
Centre of Communication for Development
Southern African Development Community (SADC), Zimbabwe

1. Introduction

  • Why the first mile?
  • Telecommunication services and stakeholders
    2. Lessons learned
  • Communication for sustainable development
  • Eyes see; ears hear
  • Participatory rural communications appraisal
  • Radio and video
  • State media for democratic development
    3. Technologies
  • Telecommunications for sustainable development
  • Rural telecommunications in Africa
  • Integrated rural development through telecommunications
    4. Applications
  • Internet and rural development
  • Participatory approaches to rural connectivity
  • Empowering communities
  • Rural telecentres
  • Training community animators
  • Video conferencing
  • Connecting with the unconnected
    5. Policies
  • Global information infrastructure
  • Rural networking cooperatives
  • Public and private interests
    Editors, contributors

  • Human development is the process of enlarging the capabilities, choices and opportunities of people - especially the rural and the poor - to lead a long, healthy and fulfilling life. This process includes the expansion of people's capacity and skills to gain access and control over factors that affect their basic needs. To this end, development concentrates on how to lessen poverty, guarantee food security and ensure availability of safe drinking water and improved sanitation. In the same vein, development efforts with communities focus on increasing their members' income and skills, provision of primary health care and basic education as well as expanding people's ability to participate effectively in economic and political affairs of their societies and nations.

    Human development can only be achieved when people are empowered to become critically conscious of their social, economic and physical circumstances and to use their creativity to improve the quality of their lives in a sustainable manner. To become empowered, people need relevant skills, information and knowledge in addition to physical resources and technologies to enable them to improve their circumstances. Participation of people in the decision-making processes that lead to the generation and dissemination of the above is crucial. People's participation in these processes ensures that such decisions are relevant to their circumstances and capabilities. This means that the people must be involved in the joint identification and analysis of their needs, problems and the causes, and contribute actively to the development of policies and strategies to solve the problems or provide for the needs.

    In this process, people participate in drawing up action plans and in the strengthening of existing community institutions or the formation of new structures to implement, monitor and evaluate the plans. The outcome is often successful and sustainable because people see the decisions and plans as theirs and strive to ensure their effective implementation. This brand of participation increases people's ability to define their own problems and to mobilize themselves for collective action.

    When this level of development is achieved, people become empowered. On their own, they seek additional skills, knowledge and outside assistance when they encounter problems beyond their existing capabilities and resources. They also become more aware of the various external political and socio-economic factors that obstruct the achievement of their goals and often use their newly acquired skills of self-mobilization to tackle these obstacles. Development field staff and extension workers who assist people to learn new ways of thinking and interacting with the complex and changing circumstances in which they live become facilitators of sustainable human development.

    The problem, however, is that the rural poor who need to benefit from human development efforts are often beyond easy reach. They are frequently illiterate and have ideas, knowledge and practices shaped by deep-rooted cultural norms, traditions, experiences and values different from the those of development workers. These differences render the task of planning and implementing human development projects and programmes difficult.

    Communication for development

    Communication for development is an innovative way of reaching and interacting with people more effectively wherever they may be. It is a process of using communication research, approaches, methods, traditional and modern media and materials to facilitate the exchange of information, ideas and knowledge among all the people involved in a development effort. The aim is to facilitate mutual understanding and consensus for action among all stakeholders during every step of the process to ensure the success and sustainability of the development effort.

    Communication for development seeks to integrate people's culture, attitudes, knowledge, practices, perceptions, needs and problems in the planning and implementation of development projects and programmes to guarantee that they are effective and relevant. It ensures that information from development agencies is useful and relevant and packaged in ways people will find attractive and understandable. In the same way, people's perceptions and knowledge are rendered in ways that will be comprehensible to development agencies.

    What is "participatory rural communication appraisal" (PRCA)?

    Participatory communication research is the beginning of any successful development process aimed at assisting in the improvement of people's livelihood. To this end, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Centre of Communication for Development, with the support of FAO [1], has developed an effective method for starting development efforts with the people: "participatory rural communication appraisal" (PRCA).

    PRCA is a methodology designed for development field workers and extension staff to enable them to conduct multidisciplinary and participatory communication research as the first step to prepare a communication programme. The principles, visual tools and techniques of PRCA facilitate the participation of people in identifying problems and appropriate solutions. They also allow people and development workers to reach consensus on actions to be taken within the community. PRCA identifies factors that will help people learn about new ideas, in ways that are easy for them to absorb and that are relevant and attractive.

    PRCA is a careful mix of elements from such social investigation traditions as participatory approaches, qualitative and quantitative research, as well as ethnography. It also incorporates ideas and techniques from the logical framework approach, advertising and marketing research. Through PRCA, rural people's perceptions, interests, needs, problems, aspirations, traditional communication networks and information requirements can be rapidly discovered. Results of PRCA are used to formulate participatory communication programmes for implementation with rural communities.

    PRCA has been developed to ensure that communication programmes are firmly rooted in the realities of the rural community in order to encourage the success and sustainability of the development effort. These realities are unearthed through sound research that actively involves the people concerned. This methodology emerged as an answer to the challenge to develop a communication research approach that involves people as equal partners in studies about their lives and aspirations as opposed to treating them as mere objects of research. PRCA, therefore, provides an opportunity for the sharing of knowledge and experiences between rural communities and development workers until mutual understanding and a plan of action is reached.

    PRCA is built on the definition of communication that explains it as an interactive process characterised by the exchange of ideas, information, points of view and experiences between persons and groups. In PRCA, communication is a two-way process in which the receiver is also a source with information and ideas to transmit. Passiveness is non-existent in this process because it is a process in which an individual or a group enters into dialogue and mental cooperation with another individual or group until they come to a common awareness and understanding. It is a process in which the two decide on a course of action together. In the context of development work, communication therefore presupposes that all actors are equal.

    As of July 1997, PRCA has been successfully used in ten countries of the Southern Africa region and in 20 development projects and programmes covering agriculture, food security, family planning, poverty alleviation, water and sanitation, health and adult literacy. The methodology has been used for the design of communication programmes for new and ongoing projects. Since it was conceptualised in 1994, PRCA has continued to evolve in response to field realities. Comments and suggestions from international experts, field workers and rural people have helped to shape the approach.

    PRCA - the basis of communication programme planning

    An effective communication programme is based on good research conducted with the people involved in a particular programme. Research methods that are not participatory will not do; hence the development of PRCA. PRCA provides an opportunity for the joint identification and analysis of problems, needs and possible solutions by the development workers and the community. Results of PRCA make it possible to formulate objectives, plan problem-solving communication strategies, select communication approaches, design messages and discussion themes, select media and develop materials. For these to be done properly, a first hand knowledge of the important issues and communication systems of the community is essential.

    PRCA is most effective if carried out at the same time the development project is being designed with the community. However, PRCA can be designed and used at any point of the project cycle to formulate a communication programme that will initiate or improve dialogue between development workers and the people involved, ensuring that project aims and activities are relevant to people's needs, problems and capabilities.

    What can PRCA accomplish?

    PRCA enables the community, with facilitation from development workers or extension staff, to identify and analyse their problems, needs and possible solutions. PRCA tools also assist in the generation and analysis of several other categories of information, materials and issues for the purpose of designing an effective problem-solving communication strategy. The list below is only a guideline and should be expanded or shortened depending on prior experiences with participatory approaches and the objectives of the specific appraisal.

    PRCA enables the development worker to discover the following information:

    How people perceive and define their world

    In addition to any data obtained from secondary sources, PRCA provides the opportunity for a first hand interaction between the people and the development worker. PRCA enables the development worker, the extension staff and the people to arrive at a mutually acceptable interpretation of the community's problems, needs and solutions as well as its socio-economic and physical characteristics. This is necessary because quite often the way outsiders see the community or the descriptions given about them in books - their norms, values, actions and aspirations - might not correspond to the way the people see themselves and vice versa. Knowledge of the people's situation provides the background and context for the other categories of information that will be revealed by PRCA, including those issues concerning communication. To obtain this knowledge, PRCA must create mutual understanding between the development worker and the people in the community in order to reveal how the people perceive and define their world and reality. PRCA can accomplish this because the tools and techniques of the process can break through the suspicion and conspiracies of silence, diplomacy and courtesy often associated with rural communities.

    For instance, during a PRCA in a Zambian village, the team of extension workers and communication specialists continually referred to the people as farmers. Towards the end of the appraisal, when the people were now feeling comfortable with the team, the people revealed that they did not perceive themselves as farmers. The people at this juncture gave the team their own definition of a farmer: a person with a title deed to his land. Since the people tilled their land under the traditional land tenure system, in which all ownership is invested in the chief, they did not see themselves as farmers. The implication was that most recommendations that had been presented to these people were not implemented in the village because they were meant for farmers and the people did not see themselves as farmers.

    Even within the community, various groups might have different perceptions of problems and needs as well as the environmental and socio-economic situation of the community. It is therefore essential that different groups in the community are interacted with separately during the PRCA in order to hear their own perceptions of the conditions in the community. This separate interaction becomes even more important in communities where some groups, such as women, are traditionally not allowed to voice their opinions in the presence of other groups, such as men.

    Profile of the community

    PRCA enables development workers and the people to develop a profile of the community as seen by the different groups in the community. This is possible because the people themselves can use various PRCA visual tools and techniques to describe, map or diagram the information essential for the design of an effective communication strategy.

    Information and communication networks and systems of the community

    PRCA reveals traditional and modern information and communication networks and systems within a community and between a community and other communities, external organizations and institutions. The nature of the information transmitted through each network and potential uses can also be identified with PRCA. The attributes of the specific networks and systems preferred by the community can be determined using PRCA tools. It is necessary to map the networks and systems because they are the potential channels for communicating with the community in mass, group or interpersonal modes.

    Community needs, opportunities, problems and solutions

    Apart from identifying the communication systems and general socio-economic and environmental situation of the community, PRCA also reveals the people's needs, opportunities, problems and likely solutions as perceived by various groups in the community. These are the most essential building blocks of an effective communication programme. While needs represent the lack of material or human resources the community sees as essential for their welfare, opportunities are skills, knowledge, persons, situations or resources that exist in the community and can be exploited in efforts to improve the people's living conditions. Similarly, problems are the negative undesired factors that constrain or stop communities from achieving their basic needs, and solutions are ways of removing or decreasing the problems.

    As each of the PRCA tools is used, questions regarding these fundamental issues are identified by the community. Focus group discussions, brainstorming and semi-structured interviews are especially useful in drawing out and articulating the needs, opportunities, problems and solutions. Since many of these will be revealed in the course of a PRCA, such tools as pair-wise ranking and closed or open scoring are used to prioritize them. Problem trees are then developed to analyse the causes of the priority problems.

    Perceptions play a major role in defining needs and problems. Ideally, community needs, opportunities, problems and solutions should be identified at the beginning of the project with the participation of the people. A multisectoral and -disciplinary team should do this so that the people will join in the selection of priorities. However, in reality, the development agency, government ministry or NGO often defines the limits of project formulation research and efforts, prescribing the issues to be paid attention to and their subsequent priorities. For ongoing projects, therefore, the analysis starts from the project's problem statement, mission, and objectives before field PRCA is conducted. This analysis will produce a problem tree based on the project's perceptions of the problems and the causes. During PRCA in the community, the people are also asked to develop their own problem tree on the issue the project is concerned with. The project problem tree is then compared with the peoples' problem tree to find out whether there is mutual understanding or not.

    Interaction groups

    The term "interaction group", unlike "target group" or "public", presupposes that the people involved are not passive receivers of information, but that they have valuable knowledge, opinions and perceptions. Interaction groups are seen as sources of information, initiators of action, and decision-makers. They can be individuals, associations, agencies, institutions or cooperatives in and outside the community whose activities, needs, problems affect the people in a positive or negative manner.

    All communities are made up of different groups: men, women, the literate, the illiterate, etc. Some groups in the community such as the very poor, the outcasts or the sick might be invisible. If the issues under discussion concern such "missing" groups, PRCA seeks them out for dialogue.

    PRCA enables the development worker to segment the community in order to select and define the key interaction groups. Segmentation is the art of grouping together people and institutions within and without the community on the basis of their relationship to the identified community needs, opportunities, problems and solutions. Who has the problem or need? Who knows about the problem or need? Who is interested in the problem and need? Who is causing the problem? Who knows about solutions and opportunities? Who has skills and resources to solve the problems or provide for the need? Through segmentation, internal and external interaction groups are identified.

    Internal interaction groups are groups of people in the community who share a certain problem or need and people who are potentially in a position to assist in some way in the solution of the problem or provide for the need.

    External interaction groups are groups of people or institutions outside the community that have skills, resources, influence or knowledge to assist in the solution of the problems or provision of the needs. These are often development project staff: managers, technical experts, extension workers and policy-makers.

    During PRCA, the divisions within the community in relation to the needs, opportunities, problems and solutions become more obvious. This helps to divide the people into more meaningful groups, define their characteristics and design communication strategies that are relevant to them. Information collected provides the basis for identifying the groups who are most seriously affected by the current status of the community or variability in the people's circumstances. The list below can be a starting point for segmentation. Depending on the type of interaction group, internal or external, the list can be modified to suit them:

    Communication profile of the key interaction group(s)

    As PRCA defines the general community needs, opportunities, problems and solutions with the people, it also distinguishes between structural and communication needs and problems. Communication alone cannot solve structural needs and problems which often must have material inputs for their solution. Communication problems, on the other hand, can be caused by factors related to either the development agency or the interaction group.

    PRCA is therefore used to define the communication issues as they relate to the key interaction groups. By seeking answers to the questions below from the key interaction groups, a better picture of the groups' communication needs begins to appear. Such tools and techniques as the problem tree and focus group discussion are suggested for this exercise.

    Is the group aware of the problems and solutions? Lack of or low awareness of the problem and possible solution may be due to poor or too little use of communication by the development agencies to raise awareness of the problem in ways people relate to. Solutions, in the same manner, may not have been packaged in ways that bring out their attributes in a persuasive manner to show their relevance to the removal of the problem. Focus group discussions with the various groups will determine their level of awareness of the problems and solutions.

    How does the group perceive and define the problems, solutions and needs? Does the group and the development agency have the same or different perceptions of the issues? The lack of common understanding of the needs, problems, possible solutions and opportunities between the community and the development agencies is one of the most common communication challenges in projects. For any meaningful progress to be made, the causes and effects of the problems as perceived by the group must be ascertained. This can usually be accomplished by having the group develop a problem tree and then compare it with the one from the project.

    What is the level of the groups' interest and attitude towards the problem and solution? Lack of commitment and motivation to tackle a problem can be a communication problem. The people in the community might not see the problem as a priority and in some cases, peer pressure or community norms might discourage people from recognizing the situation as problematic.

    The mental position or attitude that people have about a problem will often determine how they behave towards it. Some people in the group might decide not to use a technique for solving some problem despite the fact that they have knowledge of it because they do not have a positive attitude towards that technique. It is therefore important to find out people's attitude towards issues under discussion. With such information a communication strategy can be developed to change a negative attitude in order to solve a problem.

    Lack of interest or a negative attitude towards an issue is often a result of the inability of the group to try out alternatives in a non-threatening situation. When there are no opportunities for trial of new technologies for instance, people will not be able to judge such technologies in order to decide whether to use them or not.

    Communities often develop a negative attitude towards an issue as a result of the manner in which the development field workers or extension officers treat the people. Many development workers do not have respect for the people for whom they work. They see the people as inferior and ignorant and the people often sense this. A communication barrier can be created between the two parties when this happens.

    Groups can get demoralized by the lack of appropriate policy support from government or development agencies. When issues of concern to the people are neglected at the policy level, there is a tendency for people to neglect such issues unless communication approaches are used to mobilize the community to action. The groups' attitude and level of interest in a particular issue can also be determined through a focus group discussion and the ranking they ascribe to the issue through various PRCA tools, especially the problem tree.

    What are the groups' beliefs, knowledge, skills and practices in relation to the problems and solutions? Insufficient information, skills and knowledge to deal with a problem is a common communication problem in many communities. Cultural beliefs and practices can also become barriers to tackling problems even when the knowledge and other requirements for a solution are in place. PRCA will reveal the beliefs of the community in relation to the issues under discussion. Although some of these beliefs might appear as nothing more than superstition, making positive reference to them in the communication materials may determine the success or failure of the communication programme. Knowing the groups' beliefs will provide answers to the question: Why do people make decisions to act in certain ways and on what basis?

    Lack of skills and knowledge can also manifest itself if the development agency is producing instructional materials that are difficult for the people to understand or that do not appear relevant to them. To ensure relevance of communication materials, it is essential to identify and utilise local knowledge as an entry point for the new practices. The local knowledge of the community consists of those techniques and practices which are essentially subsistence-oriented, distinct to a particular social group and culture and have been developed and handed down from generation to generation. These are usually built up on centuries of experience and adaptation. Local knowledge is expressed in local languages. They may have been influenced by innovations emerging from within the community or from other systems, but they essentially originated locally. Such knowledge can provide insight into how people normally solved their problems and provided for their needs.

    On the other hand, adopted knowledge consists of techniques, processes and practices that were originally introduced into the community from outside. It is essential to assess how much of this knowledge the community actually has. Increasing such knowledge might become an objective of the communication strategy if the level is found to be low. Focus group discussions, in-depth interviews and observation are the suggested tools for studying this aspect of the groups' characteristics.

    While finding out all the above information, it is also important to identify with the groups the additional information, knowledge, skills and resources they need in order to solve the problem.

    Communication and information networks, systems, channels and influential sources of information and advice of the key interaction group(s)

    With PRCA tools - such as communication resource maps, linkage diagrams, pair-wise preference ranking, direct matrix ranking, scoring, focus group discussions and chapati diagrams - the communication and information networks, systems and channels of the key interaction group(s) can be defined. These tools can be used to reveal the groups' preferred modern and traditional information sources both within and from outside the community. These can range from cultural/religious events, rituals, art, drawings, story telling, dances, songs, role-play, drama, to audio-visual and print media. These tools can also help to identify influential people and institutions the groups see as credible (e.g., role models, leaders, trendsetters). PRCA helps to identify the idioms, vocabulary, cultural norms and associations, symbols and stories the groups use in discussing the development issues.

    Quantitative measurement

    Finally, PRCA provides the indicators for the design of a baseline study. PRCA is a participatory and qualitative methodology that can only provide information on what people are doing and thinking, but cannot always quantify how many people in the community are doing or thinking about the same things. Apart from revealing how many people are doing what in the community, the baseline study builds upon the findings of the PRCA to sharpen the objectives of the communication programme and make them measurable during the evaluation that comes at the end of the communication programme.

    The Action Programme for Communication Skills Development

    Skills of PRCA are learnt by participants in The Action Programme for Communication Skills Development, a service of the Southern Africa Development Community's Centre of Communication for Development. It is an integrated and systematic approach to improve the skills of national personnel to plan, implement and manage communication programmes to assist field staff and extension workers for various development purposes.

    The Action Programme gives participants the ability and confidence to design and utilise various communication strategies, approaches and media to increase people's participation in new and on-going development projects. The aim is to achieve specific development goals.

    The Action Programme imparts skills that enable the participants to define clear and realistic objectives for communication programmes, through participatory appraisal of rural people's problems, needs, opportunities, perceptions, attitudes, knowledge and aspirations.

    Participants also learn to design an effective communication strategy that is above all affordable, using local resources, activities, media materials and channels appropriate in rural areas.

    The Action Programme enables participants to advise development field staff and extension workers who will help to carry out the planned communication programme on the appropriate utilization of participatory techniques as well as selected communication activities, media materials and channels.

    For more information, please contact the Centre of Communication for Development, Box. 3730 Harare, Zimbabwe; e-mail; tel: (263) 4 722723, 722734; Fax: (263) 4 795345


    1. PRCA was first conceptualized by a team of FAO communication field experts (Jonathan Villet, Chike Anyaegbunan, Paolo Metalopoulos, Osvaldo Lingua) working at the Department of Adult Education, University of Zimbabwe, under an Italian-funded FAO Regional Communication Project covering SADC. In 1996, the project transferred to the premises of the SADC Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Sector Coordination Unit in Harare where it established what is today the Centre of Communications for Development.

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