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Posted May 1997

Participatory action research and people's participation:
Introduction and case studies

by Gerrit Huizer

3. Brief history and main principles of PPP approach

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SINCE 1973, FAO has been engaged in an innovative programme in the Asian and Pacific Region aimed at helping the poorest of the poor in rural areas to participate in and benefit from on-going rural development programmes. This Small Farmers Development Programme (SFDP), as it became widely known, was the outgrowth of the FAO/UNDP Regional Project "Asian Survey of Agrarian Reform and Rural Development" (ASARRD) which terminated in June 1976.

From this process of multi-level and multi-disciplinary consultation the following six 'essential elements' were identified as necessary for any project to reach and benefit the rural poor:

To test the validity of these 'essential elements' eight Field Action Projects (FAPs) were then initiated: three in Bangladesh, two in Nepal and three in the Philippines. Two group organizers/promoters were assigned to each project with the task of assisting about 500 families of small farmers, small fishermen, tenants and landless agricultural labourers to organize themselves into income-generating groups called Small Farmers Development Groups (SFD Groups) [28]. This programme has operated from 1976-1979 with strong national and international backing and is continuing in some of the countries concerned with broader national or international support.

The basic strategy of SFDP until to-day is to help the rural poor organize themselves into small (10-15 persons), informal, socially and economically homogeneous groups around common income-generating activities so that they can benefit from the larger scale of operations. By exerting group influence in the community they will gain better access to production resources and so receive a more equitable share of development benefits which hitherto had escaped them as individuals. Group liability is a common feature of group membership. Through the process of group formation, group planning, group self-study, shared-leadership, decision-making by consensus, satisfactory completion of income-earning activities and group savings, group members learn at first hand the costs and benefits of group action. Successful cooperation amongst members of a small group leads eventually to inter-group cooperation and the desire to federate into an association of groups for increased social and economic benefits.

The central figure crucial to the success of the Programme is the group promoter. He or she is the agent of change. The group promoter is responsible for identifying eligible participants through participatory action research, assisting them to organize themselves into small groups around some nucleus supplementary income-generating activity, helping them to secure institutional credit and supplies and services from government agencies and institutions and in general guiding 20 to 25 groups towards self reliance over a period of two to three years. The group promoter is also responsible for monitoring, analysing and documenting the performance of the groups together with the group members (participatory monitoring and on-going evaluation).

Another essential feature of the Programme is the need for government agencies and institutions to reserve a portion of their supplies and services for the exclusive use of the disadvantaged rural poor. For properly channelling inputs projects are initiated with a system of planning from below. Participation of the group members and field staff of government departments and agencies in a two-way planning process is an essential element in FAO's approach a to Small Farmers Development. Local plans are eventually matched with those plans coming from the top national level so that the needs of the rural poor are accommodated within national plans. A communication and coordination network for all levels from central government to the farmer was established.

The 1979 FAO's World Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development (WCARRD) in Rome strongly endorsed the bottom-up approach as described above. WCARRD adopted a Declaration of Principles and a Programme of Action which constituted a basic set of principles for the direction of rural development policy. It designated FAO as the lead agency in rural development within the UN system and gave the organization a mandate to implement the Programme of Action. Adopted by virtually all the countries of the world, this is a unique document outlining an anti-poverty approach which constitutes a platform on the basis of which FAO can assist countries and orient its own activities.

The main thrust of the Programme of Action can be formulated as growth with equity and people's participation. It aims at integrating the objective of growth with equity through people's participation and it stipulates that the beneficiaries of any programme or field project should primarily be the rural poor - small farmers, landless, rural women and other rural groups belonging to the disadvantaged majority. The traditional focus on growth thus remains but it is underlined that small farmers' participation is essential, both to achieve sustainable growth and equity. The WCARRD Programme of Action sees participation both as an end and as a means in rural development. It is also an indispensable means because rural development can only realize its potential through the motivation, involvement and organization of the rural poor. Women should be involved on an equal basis with men in the social, economic and political processes of rural development. Existing initiatives were integrated into "People's Participation in Rural Development through Promotion of Self-Help Organizations" (PPP) which is implementing village-level pilot projects in an increasing number of countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America since 1980. As emphasized by WCARRD the programme works closely with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as implementors of the pilot projects whenever feasible.

In order to optimally benefit from the S.E. Asian experience, I was asked in 1981 to summarize the most important lessons from that experience and produce guidelines for the monitoring of the projects which were initiated in African countries. I was given a chance to familiarize myself sufficiently with SFDP in its 3 pilot countries, but not with the situation in the African countries envisaged for PPP. Thus preliminary guidelines were drafted only on the basis of Asian case studies [29]. Already during a first review of these guidelines in an introductory seminar on African PPP held in Berlin in 1982, doubt about the usefulness for Africa of the rather sophisticated Asian SFDP approach arose in the discussions with participants from the countries concerned, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Zambia, Kenya, Lesotho, Swaziland and Zimbabwe. In the course of the following years several efforts have been undertaken to evaluate and systematize those PPP experiences in order to enhance the effectiveness of the methods and strategies applied in a participatory manner and adjusted to the local situation. The same was done in a few S.E. Asian and Latin American countries where PPP (or SFDP) projects were more recently initiated (Thailand, Sri Lanka and Nicaragua). I participated in several of these efforts and could assess that participatory action research can successfully be utilized under many circumstances, if flexibly applied, taking into account the locally prevailing political context and cultural traditions. Some comparative observations will be made in the next section on crucial issues such as selection of group organizers and of beneficiaries of the group formation projects, their monitoring and evaluation and the problem of the rich-poor distinction. After that a few case studies will be presented.


28. FAO, "Small Farmers Development Manual", Vol. I and II, FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Far East, Bangkok, 1978/79.

29. See e.g. Gerrit Huizer, "Guiding Principles for People's Participation Projects", FAO, Rome, 1983; Bernard van Heck, "Draft Guidelines for Beneficiaries Participation in Agricultural and Rural Development", FAO, Rome, 1989.

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