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Posted May 1997

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

by Gerrit Huizer

4. Similarities and variety in application of PPP

< 3. PPP principles5. PPP-Thailand >

a. Selection and training of group promoters or organizers

Selection of group promoters is crucial. There is a variety of experiences with different kinds of group promoters. While in some projects group promoters are local people with leadership qualities with a minimum of formal education who are selected by extension or other agency personnel to form groups in their own village (as happened in Zambia), elsewhere the group promoters are precisely those agricultural extension or similar agency personnel themselves (Thailand, Zimbabwe). Most projects have an intermediate position: non-local special staff, generally of the educational level of government agents or even higher, was recruited to work as group organizers, coordinating their work with local officials and promoting local leadership (Ghana). It is as yet not possible to assess which of the various forms is the best. There are indications that for the stability and consistency of the project the Zambian method is more risky (a great turn-over of group promoters). But in countries with a great lack of qualified personnel this method may still be preferred.

There is also considerable variation in the ways group promoters are integrated into a working and training programme broader than an FAO/PPP project as such. In Zambia they are chosen and supported by local extension staff of the Ministry of Agriculture and Water Development, with whom they have regular training workshops together, sponsored by PPP. In Swaziland they work side by side with the local credit advisors of the Swazi Development and Savings Bank, who also participate in PPP training activities. In Thailand most group promoters are local officials of the Department of Agricultural Extension, seconded by a few fulltime FAO/PPP promoters from NGOs. They are trained jointly and work closely together. In Nicaragua the group promoters are additional personnel of the implementing agency UNAG (National Union of Agriculturists and Cattle Holders), and are trained together with the regular staff of this organization [30]. In all those cases it is clear that more people are trained in and working with the PPP approach than the specific PPP group promoters. This guarantees a measure of integration of the PPP approach into the implementing agency and sometimes also collaborating agencies.

b. Selection of beneficiaries to form groups

Another crucial aspect is the selection of the project villages in the overall field project areas that were already selected in the preparation phase. In some cases villages have been selected because of the availability of local supporting extension personnel and group promoters, as in Zambia. In other cases the implementing agency had a certain preference for an area because there were already groups operating (as in Kenya) or their formation would not be too difficult (Lesotho). In no instance villages or groups were selected on the basis of previously undertaken survey research of some kind. Only in Thailand and Sri Lanka available statistics of the Ministry of Agriculture about poverty levels and a certain homogeneity or lack of acute contradictions were taken into account.

For the selection of beneficiaries of initially small-scale projects one can doubt the usefulness of special large-scale sample surveys undertaken as part of the initiation phase of PPP, except for very simple household benchmark surveys carried out by group promoters.

It is customary in large-scale FAO projects to conduct a thorough baseline sample survey to get benchmark data from where to judge the impact made by the project. Also regarding PPP projects a great deal of emphasis has been given on the need to conduct a base-line sample survey prior to the initiation of a project. In fact in no country this has been done, and one wonders about the need for such a survey. It generally is a costly (and academic) affair, not contributing to the participatory approach (as a sample survey is per definition top-down) and overall statistics about whole areas can be obtained in most countries from the Government's Statistical Office.

PPP has therefore introduced a simple household benchmark survey at the initiation stage to make a rough assessment of those families who qualify for participation and those who don't. These household survey data also form a rough benchmark for progress, though it should be taken into account that at the scale of the poor peasant economy, improvements made in only two or three years can hardly be measured and are partly intangible (e.g. organizational skill or group cohesion). It has been customary that these household surveys are carried out by the group promoters, partly as a way to become acquainted with the area where they are working.

Becoming familiar with questionnaire and interview techniques can form part of the GP training and can be quite successful, as shown in Thailand. It was less emphasized in Sri Lanka. Thus in Thailand, these household surveys were taken as a basis for member selection, trying to exclude the obviously better-off. In some African countries where social stratification in the villages is much less outspoken and the villages more homogeneous, even such simple house-hold surveys may be less needed, after an overall impression of the poverty level has been obtained.

Most African PPP projects got started without any survey at all. More important could be some initial research by group promoters into local dependency relationships, e.g. with a view on marketing. Apparently in most cases during the initial training little emphasis has been given to such scouting research.

It can be questioned if the considerable amounts spent on consultants from local universities or research institutions on the conducting of certain types of surveys (mostly long after the projects got started) was justified. In most cases the methodology used by these institutions was the orthodox social science approach which is far from participatory, if not "anti-participatory" [31]. Too rarely were simple participatory surveys conducted by the group promoters themselves, with some minor guidance from experienced PPP staff, as an introduction to the villages where they started to work. This did happen in Sri Lanka where the collection of benchmark data was undertaken purposely not as a sample survey but in a participatory manner as part of the action research approach typical for PPP.

PPP projects as well as the earlier SFDP projects are all pilot projects of an experimental nature to demonstrate the feasibility of the grassroots or bottom-up approach to rural development. Their implementation is at the same time an action- and a research effort. It was therefore that in the first SFDP projects in S.E. Asia the group promoters were called GO/ARF, Group Organizer/Action Research Fellow. This implies that they and the whole set-up of a PPP project should enable a systematic recording and analysis of findings and accomplishments. Only this way the experience becomes an experiment which can be replicated and serve as an example to others.

The beneficiaries themselves participate in the research effort as a form of self-evaluation, giving feedback in a dialogue with the group promoters. The National Project Coordinator should be able to guide and supervise this participatory action-research effort, though he may get at times assistance from an outside consultant, specialized in this field.

c. Participatory monitoring and on-going evaluation as a process

One of the most important aspects of such participatory project management is the monitoring and on-going evaluation, so that strategies can be adjusted in the course of the field action to best ensure the achievement of the objectives. Therefore in PPP great value has been attached to develop a way of participatory monitoring and on-going evaluation (PMOE) in which the beneficiaries can themselves influence the project strategy to their best interest. This method of PMOE has been carefully and quite successfully developed in the SFDP projects in S.E. Asia. The main elements of PMOE are:

l. Participatory action research. This research consists of a process through which the group organizers (GOs) or group promoters (GPs) conduct a simple household survey in the area chosen for the project to determine, together with the local people themselves who are the poor which qualify for participation. Beforehand the GP has become somewhat familiar with the area by studying available overall statistics on land tenure, and other socio-economic aspects of the area, including the recent history of developments (or underdevelopments) which have taken place there and the traditional culture(s) prevailing in the areas. This research-for-action is then combined with research-through-action.

Group discussions with the villagers have been a useful tool in familiarizing with the local situation and even of enhancing awareness of certain problems among the villagers themselves. Part of this action research is also a careful and systematic recording of findings by the GPs particularly of steps undertaken together with the participants to come to solutions through the formation of small groups. Learning by doing, trial and error, are the main tools of PMOE. This only requires systematic recording through group record books, kept by the groups themselves, and a logbook with happenings in the different groups kept by the GPs, in most cases supplemented with their personal diaries containing their own observations on problem areas, such as the role of leadership (autocratic or democratic) and group cohesion.

2. Participatory PMOE field workshops. The participatory action research data, all indicative for successes and for failures in the group formation process and further developments are regularly (e.g. 3 monthly) summarized by the GPs and discussed in local meetings with the groups or their representatives and in field workshops together with the other GPs in the project area, the national coordinator, and other directly involved staff, so as to learn from one another. At least once a year a national workshop for PMOE is held, preferably in one of the project areas to review the project as a whole together with the National Coordinating Committee and representatives of government and other agencies involved. The practice in S.E. Asia was, that in all of these workshops about one third of the participants were grassroots people, men and women.

Following the S.E. Asian examples some kind of field workshops have taken place in all projects, either nationally or locally or both. Though the participation of beneficiaries or their representatives was not always adequate, most workshops have tried to be of a participatory nature, and appear to have been a useful tool in the on-going evaluation and monitoring of projects. Learning took place in many fields, e.g. the domination of women's groups by men (the need to limit the number of men in such groups), the kind of income-generating activities which were most profitable and guaranteed the best repayment of loans, the kind of loans people prefer (short-term for crops or middle-term for tools, oxen, etc.),the need for saving to complement the credit programme, the need to spread risks over a variety of activities or crops, the need for feasibility studies in which the people themselves participate.

It should be observed that in most orthodox large-scale development projects monitoring and evaluation takes place with help of baseline sample surveys and nutritional standard surveys, but the kind of data obtained through those give only benchmarks, and no insight in changes which are taking or have taken place due to PPP activity. Though the emphasis on these elements is understandable in view of the desire of donors to get 'visible results', it appears unjustified in the case of the PPP approach. The most important results of PPP are by definition only in a limited sense quantitative, e.g. the number of groups formed. The quality of the groups, their cohesion, their ability to foster their members' best interests cannot, or hardly, be quantified.

It is therefore that in the Guiding Principles for PPP projects strong emphasis was given on the case history form (success-stories or failures) of presenting and evaluating the group work in participatory field workshops. Only at the halfway stage of the development of PPP projects in most countries it was discovered that the technocratic approach to MOE through a baseline sample survey and efforts to quantify income-increases, did not give much real insight. The usefulness of frank discussions of successes as well as failures proved its value in PPP already in its first stage, just as it did in SFDP. PPP officials of all levels have expressed to benefit from the exchanges taking place at the local and national workshops, even though these were not as optimally prepared through an effective recording system as they were in SFDP. At several occasions during PPP workshops highly placed government- or FAO officials have discussed the difficulties of subsistence agriculture or indebtedness with poor farmer women or (semi)landless peasants in a serious manner. The impact of such simple happenings is intangible and difficult to quantify but is due to be significant in the long run. A direct acquaintance at top-policy levels with the fate of the majority of the rural population is an asset.

d. The rich-poor contradictions

A main topic of concern and debate related to almost all presently functioning PPP projects is the issue how exclusively (or not) PPP has to concentrate on the poorest of the poor in the formation of homogeneous groups.

Particularly in Kenya there was considerable discussion on how to understand "poor". The group chosen to work with, which already existed before PPP entered, were farmers which were viewed as "middle class poor". They were settlers on a land reform settlement, created after Independence on land formerly belonging to a white farmer. They had 10-15 acres of land each, were not rich and rather homogeneous in their village. They were, however, considerably better-off compared to the majority of peasants in the surrounding areas, one of the most densely populated areas of Kenya where most peasants own less than 3 acres. These were the areas where many of the settlers in the settlement originated. It could be observed that the use of the term "poor" is leading to considerable confusion.

It was recommended above to introduce more precise terminology such as subsistence farmers, semi-landless and landless. Also more attention should be given to the social stratification in the area as a whole where PPP field projects are being initiated. One of the earliest learning experiences of PPP is that the search for homogeneous groups is a good principle to follow but that it is not to be applied rigidly. In a country like Nicaragua already at the initiating stage it was clear that the UNAG (National Union of Agriculturists and Cattle Holders) the NGO which is the implementing agency of PPP, has as many middle as small farmers in its ranks. Also in Thailand already before the actual implementation of the project, there was considerable discussion as to what extent PPP groups should be only and exclusively for the poor. Non-confrontation and emphasizing harmony in community relations is a deeply embedded value in Thai-Buddhist society (see below).

On the whole PPP has taken a pragmatic approach and has included more variety in its beneficiaries than the SFDP projects. Even the case of Kenya where PPP criteria have been stretched too much in the eagerness to quickly get a project started appears to be a good learning experience which can be replicated by orthodox development programmes "betting on the strong". Particularly a comparative evaluation of the successes and failures of clearly homogeneously poor peasant groups and those groups which do not strictly conform to this PPP standard in the same area or elsewhere, can give useful insights.

The last few years workers in rural development have increasingly discovered that the realities of development practice are in many cases not in agreement with the theoretical models such as either the top-down ("trickle-down") or the bottom-up approach. By trial and error intermediate forms (between one model and the other) have been, or are being tried out from which probably as much can be learned as from the "typical" cases. Thus large-scale projects, operating on the basis of huge investments, have had to come to grips with aspects of people's participation in order not to become too blatant failures. On the other hand, as noted above and below, typical People's Participation Projects have had to adapt themselves to local cultural conditions and traditional power relations in order to get off the ground, thus deviating from the "guiding principles" that were at their origin. In reality the contradiction between one model and the other is in not a few cases not antagonistic and rigid but rather fluid.

A few of the PPP projects with which I have been more or less closely involved in the course of the years and where a pragmatic and flexible application of PPP principles has led to the actual or potential replication on a large-scale basis will be described.


30. About PPP in Nicaragua see Kees Blokland e.a., "Peasant organization in El Rama, Nicaragua", Convergence, XXI, 2/3, 1988, p. 110-122.

31. J. Gabriel Campbell, Ramesh Shrestha and Linda Stone, "The Use and Misuse of Social Research in Nepal", Research Centre for Nepal and Asian Studies, Kathmandu. Tribhuvan University, 1979 gives detailed case studies of the limitations of survey research on sensitive topics in Asia.

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