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Posted March 1996

Why People's Participation?

Based on Chapter 1 of "Participation in practice: Lessons from the FAO People's Participation Programme" (FAO, 1992)


Rural development efforts have failed to deliver on their promises. A recent evaluation found that half of rural development projects funded by the World Bank in Africa were outright failures. A review of assistance to agricultural cooperatives reported similar results. A study by the International Labour Organisation of "poverty-oriented" projects worldwide showed that the poorest were excluded from activities and benefits.

What has gone wrong? Recent years have seen growing criticism of rural development strategies followed, with only minor adjustments, for the past three decades. These conventional strategies have seen development primarily as a series of technical transfers aimed at boosting production and generating wealth. In practice, conventional projects usually target medium to large scale "progressive" producers, supporting them with technology, credit and extension advice in the hope that improvements will gradually extend to more "backward" strata of rural society. In many cases, however, the channelling of development assistance to the better-off has led to concentration of land and capital, marginalization of small farmers and alarming growth in the number of landless labourers.

The basic fault in the conventional approach is that the rural poor are rarely consulted in development planning and usually have no active role in development activities. This is because the vast majority of the poor have no organizational structure to represent their interests. Isolated, under-educated and often dependent on rural elites, they lack the means to win greater access to resources and markets, and to prevent the imposition of unworkable programmes or technologies.

A classic example comes from Nigeria, where a large scale agricultural development project channelled assistance to "progressive" farmers and chose to work through the existing socio-economic structure, assuming that this would win local cooperation. Result: subsidized credit to buy tractors and pay for labour and fertilizer helped to create a small class of "overnight farmers", mainly wealthy city dwellers. Most inputs went to richer landowners, while subsidized fertilizer encouraged farmers to abandon traditional manuring practices. And none of this led to production increases: per hectare yields of staple crops was the same for project participants and non-participants.

A recent study by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) of 40 "poverty-oriented" rural development projects revealed that the poorest of the poor are frequently excluded from project activities and benefits. In Mali, a project used village development associations to channel inputs to small farmers. However, these associations existed only in better-off villages. Result: the project did not reach poor villages that had no associations and no prospect of forming them. A dairy development programme in India supplied credit mainly to larger farmers who had enough land to keep more than one animal; the poor had resources for no more than one buffalo. In Nepal, prosperous farmers exerted pressure to participate in a project intended to benefit the poor. The ILO study concluded: "Until important changes are introduced in the way poverty-oriented projects are conceived and set up, the claim that they will necessarily alleviate poverty - or, at least, improve equity - remains questionable."

The lesson is clear: unless the rural poor are given the means to participate fully in development, they will continue to be excluded from its benefits. This realization is provoking new interest in an alternative rural development strategy, that of people's participation through organizations controlled and financed by the poor.

The WCARRD concept of rural development

People's participation in rural development is by no means a new concept. It was formulated in the mid-1970s, amid growing awareness that development efforts were having little impact on poverty. At the World Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development (WCARRD), held in Rome in 1979, the international community identified the reason for this failure - the lack of active participation of the poor in programmes designed, supposedly, to assist them.

WCARRD declared that participation by rural people in the institutions that govern their lives is a basic human right. If rural development was to realize its potential, the Conference said, disadvantaged rural people had to be organized and actively involved in designing policies and programmes and in controlling social and economic institutions. WCARRD saw a close link between participation and voluntary, autonomous and democratic organizations representing the poor. It called on development agencies to work in close cooperation with organizations of intended beneficiaries, and proposed that assistance be channelled through small farmer and peasant groups.

Since WCARRD, developing countries have suffered economic set-backs unforeseen in 1979. With their economic survival at stake, many countries have been forced to cut back on rural development, giving priority to growth ahead of WCARRD's concern for participation and equity. During this same period, however, great progress has been made in the elaboration of participatory principles and methodologies. Spurred by WCARRD, the Food and Agricultural Organization launched the People's Participation Programme, or PPP, in 1980. Since then, PPP has implemented pilot projects throughout the developing world in an attempt to test and develop an operational method of people's participation for incorporation in larger rural development schemes.

The advantages of participatory development

The experience of PPP has demonstrated that true participation is possible only when the rural poor are able to pool their efforts and resources in pursuit of objectives they set for themselves. The most efficient means for achieving this objective, FAO has found, are small, democratic and informal groups composed of eight to 15 like-minded farmers. For governments and development agencies, people's participation through small groups offers distinct advantages: Many governments appreciate the need for a participatory development approach to overcome the persistence of poverty in rural areas and to avoid the threat of social instability. At a workshop in Thailand, top level policy makers said that, at the close of the country's latest development plan, 11 million Thais were still living in poverty and had not benefited from development. Figures presented showed a widening gap between city and countryside: the ratio of average urban income to average rural income stood at more than 8:1. This troubling discrepancy had prompted the Government's decision to embark on a nationwide farmer participation programme based on experience with FAO and Netherlands-funded participatory projects. The programme calls for people's participation in planning development projects, and the channelling of extension and other services to the poor through small farmers' groups.

A strategy for the 1990s

The pivotal role of people's participation in development is now re-emerging in economic and social development thinking. One striking example of this trend comes from the World Bank. In its strategy for sustainable development in Africa, the Bank calls for a "people-centred" approach that will improve the poor's access to productive assets, allow them to participate in designing and implementing development programmes, and foster their involvement in institutions from village to national level. UNICEF has proposed similar measures in its strategy for structural adjustment "with a human face", stressing people's participation in the formulation of development policy, and efforts to make full use of local potential.

FAO believes that the participatory approach described in the following pages will be an essential part of any strategy to meet the challenges of the 1990s.

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