Posted May 1997
Participatory action research and people's participation:
Introduction and case studies
by Gerrit Huizer
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THAILAND is a country where the World Bank supported T&V (Training and Visit) or "trickle-down" approach has been widely and systematically applied but where at present the Government feels the need to complement or replace this strategy with the PPP approach. This after ample experimentation, since 1984, with PPP in 4 different regions: Khon Kaen (the North), Chiang Mai (North-East), Songh Kla (the South) and Nakon-sowan (the Centre). The PPP projects were under the direction of the Department of Agricultural Extension (DOAE). They were funded by the Netherlands, and still uses the old name SFDP.
Areas were chosen which were relatively close to agricultural universities, which could help the existing DOAE extension staff to work with the PPP approach. Some of these universities, as NGOs, had already gained experience with non-orthodox and bottom-up rural development efforts and were willing to help DOAE . In addition to 25 carefully selected regular agricultural extension workers who showed a willingness to try out the bottom-up approach on a part-time basis besides their normal Training and Visit activities, the universities recruited with funds from the PPP programme six full-time group promoters to participate in the experimental projects. University staff specialized in agricultural extension helped to supervise and monitor both these six NGO workers and the 25 regular extension workers.
The selection of specific field project areas, districts and villages was further carried out on the base of statistical data on relative poverty already available through the overall surveys (1981) of the National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB).
Once starting their activities the group promoters collected more profound benchmark data through (a) a community statistics survey, relying mainly on data supplied by local key informants and leaders, to get an overall picture of the villages concerned. Main topics of this survey were
As regards the various types of surveys which have been conducted it could be observed that a great deal of useful data were available and had been summarized at the community level, and to some extent also at the provincial level. In each province the university gave assistance to this process of data collection. While such elaborate data collection has on the one hand helped the choice of sectors of villages where the project would operate, on the other hand it may have delayed the effective formation of groups to some extent. Though more slowly than in other PPP projects elsewhere, group formation did come off the ground during the first year.
When evaluating and monitoring the methodology for drafting of group plans it could be observed that, as most of the GOs were trained as extension workers, for them the learning of participatory approaches was much needed and had to be accompanied by some measure of "unlearning" of the top-down, "convincing", approaches which most of them had been taught and practised before. There was, however, a great willingness to try out the participatory method although even the trainers initially didn't seem completely familiar with it. Some assistance was given in this field by FAO Regional Office for S.E. Asia.
It could be observed that as regards the surveys used for the group formation as well as the strategy for the group formation and formulation of group plans the participatory implications were recognized, discussed, and endorsed, but were not always fully appreciated. This was understandable as local DOAE agricultural extension staff including the 25 GOs, continued also using the World Bank promoted T and V System, which is a typical form of top-down rural extension management. Thus participatory action research, as envisaged by PPP did not easily take roots.
The main problem encountered and amply discussed at staff meetings and workshops was the poor-rich relationship. Reckoning with the local conditions and the existing relationships between rich and poor which vary considerably from village to village, the GOs were trying to focus on group formation of small farmers (SF) without too explicitly excluding the big farmers (BF). This way is in agreement with local Thai Buddhist traditions of harmony. It was considered essential to avoid social conflicts. (In one village the name Small Farmer Development Programme could therefore not be utilized). The risks of involving some big farmers in groups of small farmers were amply discussed but it appeared not realistic in the present Thai conditions to form only groups exclusively of small farmers.
To openly discuss survey data in public meetings with the farm people concerned was also against local custom of maintaining harmony. Participatory research under such conditions is more difficult than in most other countries where such customs do not prevail so strongly. It was emphasized by all GOs, however, that they did keep the target group, small farmers, strongly in mind and that cautiously they could accomplish to form groups of more or less homogeneously poor farmers, without using the term poor.
Considering these delicate problems which GOs had to face in their SFDP activities it was necessary to carefully assess the successes and failures in group formation in qualitative terms. In view of the inclusion of the SFDP approach in the next Thailand Five Year Plan on a nationwide scale, the experiences of the first pilot efforts in the 4 provinces were carefully reported, discussed and analysed. This was somewhat facilitated by the establishment of a participatory monitoring and ongoing evaluation (PMOE) system but this did not always result in a clear and systematic recording and analysis of successes and failures. However, it was helpful that regular workshops, envisaged as part of PMOE have been held in all provinces. There was unfortunately very little participation of group members and leaders in these workshops, though the need to include a good number of them for feedback has been recognized.
During short field visits in the course of the years it could be observed and verified in discussions with local people that the tradition of harmony is still cherished in the rural areas, but also that there is definitely taking place an erosion of this tradition. In several places poor peasants, particularly women were not afraid to speak up freely and express their grievances more or less openly. This makes the situation of the GOs altogether more delicate. Involving the existing official village committees in approving projects for group of (mostly) small farmers was taken as a way to avoid difficulties.
The influence of the predominant Thai-Buddhist worldview of harmony in the rural communities on the socio-economic context was discussed with a number of Thai specialists in universities in Bangkok and Chiang-Mai, formerly attached to UNRISD's research project on participation, and also with national and local SFDP personnel and consultants. It became clear that PPP/SFDP cannot be applied in Thailand according to a rigidly fixed model developed elsewhere. In the history of Thailand the impact of colonialism and a rapid advance of capitalist agriculture has been less strongly felt than in most other S.E. Asian countries. Though there occurred a polarization between poor and rich, it probably has been less strongly felt than elsewhere. The idea of harmony in rural communities has continued to prevail to some extent, enforced by the traditional Buddhist view that a position of being rich or poor depends on Karma, e.g. merit accrued during former lives, something that is difficult to challenge. This view is, however, being eroded by the fact that increasingly the rich are becoming richer at the cost of the poor as a result of modern developments. This is not necessarily in agreement with Buddhist traditions. Official policies could either foster this trend (as the T and V approach appears to be doing to some extent) or correct it, as PPP/SFDP is trying.
Evaluating the Thai PPP project, as presented in official reports or at the workshops, on its own merits, just comparing accomplishments of group formation with objectives, could easily lead to erroneous conclusions if not viewed in the context of the constraints which are specific to Thai society and which make SFDP there different from PPP projects elsewhere. A sociological "baseline" perspective for judging overall PPP/SFDP impact in Thailand can be obtained from the recent UNRISD report "Production, Power and Participation in Rural Thailand: Experiences of Poor Farmers' Groups" (Geneva: UNRISD, 1987) . This report and some of its background material is based on intensive field studies by 23 well-known Thai scholars and experts, and was published with FAO backing.
This UNRISD report carefully observed how the social climate in most of the rural areas implies certain disadvantages for promoting PPP projects as envisaged for most other countries. The Report indicated as a main constraint for people's participation:
"First, we must note Thailand's relatively high degree of religious, linguistic and ethnic homogeneity; the absence of popular anti-colonial or successful revolutionary struggles; the historical continuity of ruling institutions; and the degree of geographical and political coordination and centralization. We must also note the absence of an established political party system with enduring local forms of organization and participation, and the existence of laws and authoritarian practices which expressly forbid the formation of rural organizations of a trade union type, and which suppress forms of political organization and dissent" .
Taking into account e.g. the shortlived history in some areas of the Peasant Federation of Thailand (PFT) in the early seventies, amply described by the UNRISD Report, one can imagine the hesitation of the government agencies concerned with agricultural extension to help organize poor peasants on their own behalf. Though initially small scale and local, such organizations, especially if helped by sympathetic outsiders such as students (as happened with the "Propagation of Democracy" programme in 1974), have a potential to become more vocal and express demands which could challenge the locally existing uneven access to resources. On the other hand, just leaving the situation of the poor peasants gradually deteriorate, as compared to that of the better-off, as it actually does in many areas, could lead to the growing of discontent into a socially disruptive force.
Between these two possibilities there remains the dilemma for those agencies which effectively try to promote local participation and group formation, of how far to go. Ideals and standards set by outside institutions, such as WCARRD, though officially endorsed by the Government, may not be in the interest, or even against that, of the local elites with which government agents generally have to have good relations to be able to accomplish something.
As has been experienced with PPP projects in other countries, to have a programme designed to benefit exclusively the poor and small farmers needs to be accompanied by a special effort to convince the better-off and big farmers that they should not interfere with such a programme. It can be shown to government officials, big farmers (BF) and middle farmers (MF) that to specially support the SF is to the benefit of a stable rural society and can help to stop the increasing discrepancies between rich and poor. In addition to using such arguments at the top bureaucratic level, they should be brought to the rural areas to enhance the collaboration or at least the acquiescence of the local elites. Such an effort also seems to be in agreement with fundamental teachings of Buddhism, as practised in Thailand and possibly the religious spokesmen (monks) could be helpful in efforts in this respect. Such efforts proved also quite feasible within DOAE strategy since all agricultural extension workers were already accustomed to work, through the T and V system, with the better-off farmers and had acquired goodwill in those circles. Thus the fact that most agricultural extension workers have a heritage of working with the top-down approach could be turned into an advantage if their re-training and conscientization is undertaken carefully.
No doubt the decision of the Government to spread SFDP nationwide implies a tremendous challenge to all those involved until now through DOAE, FAO, UNRISD or other efforts (e.g. by NGOs) in the field of people's participation in Thailand.
At the SFDP Replication Workshop (13-15 Dec. '87) SFDP programme director, Mr. Anant Dalodom (also Deputy Director General in the Ministry of Agriculture), indicated in his introductory statement as a main problem that now at the end of the 4th National Development Plan in Thailand 11,000,000 people were living in poverty and had not benefited from development. The seriously growing discrepancies between incomes of rich and poor in Thailand were exposed as the rationale for the Government's decision to embark upon a nationwide (in 73 provinces) SFDP programme, following the principles tried out in the FAO supported SFDP pilot projects in 4 provinces and the Netherlands bilaterally supported Small Farmer Participation Project (SFPP) in North-Eastern Thailand.
As compared to the Pattaya PPP Evaluation workshop 2 years earlier it was striking to see the considerable frankness with which politically sensitive issues such as the growing rich-poor contradiction and the need for empowerment of the poor were brought up. Alarming figures about that widening gap between rich and poor were presented, showing that the relationship of average rural income and average urban income (Bangkok) had deteriorated rapidly, now being about 1:8.
Against that background the Thai government had decided to embark upon a nation-wide programme of a "Planning and Farmer participation Development Project", covering 6.018 tambons (subdistricts) of 720 districts in 73 (almost all) provinces of the country over the years:
For the training (of the trainers first and then of the extension workers of the existing network) 15.5 million Baht had been assigned in the Government's 1988 budget. The personnel and experience accrued of the present SFDP and (bilaterally Netherlands supported) SFDP in the North-East, would be utilized optimally.
To switch from a top-down to a bottom-up approach is not an easy process and should be guided and monitored with great prudence and insight in social relations and contradictions as they exist in different forms in the various regions of Thailand, each with its own characteristics, history and problems. These latter have to be taken into account and carefully studied and the results of this channelled into the training and the monitoring and on-going evaluation of the nation-wide programme, and the sensitizing of local and provincial supervisory staff.
The fact that the government, in spite of the initially not very spectacular results of the SFDP projects (compared to other countries and expectations raised initially), is embarking upon a nation-wide replication, shows the urgency of the need for widely applying the PPP approach in Thailand, as well as the feasibility of the approach under the present circumstances.
33. UNRISD, "Production, Power and Participation in Rural Thailand" (Andrew Turton, editor), Geneva: UNRISD Participation Programme, 1987.
34. Ibid., p. 31