Posted May 1997
Participatory action research and people's participation:
Introduction and case studies
by Gerrit Huizer
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ONE OF THE MORE SUCCSSFUL and, relatively speaking, large-scale PPP projects in Africa with which I became familiar was that carried out by the Ministry of Social Welfare and Rural Development (MSWRD) in Sierra Leone from 1982 onward. This project showed to have considerable potential to be replicated and/or integrated in a larger regional development scheme, supported by the German Development Cooperation, covering much of the two provinces of Bo and Pujehun. This came out during the project's final evaluation in 1986.
In the Plan of Operations the overall objective and the specific objectives of this PPP project was formulated as follows:
"The project would help to initiate a suitable sub-village development approach for and with lowest income rural people by involving subsistence farmers actively in development through the promotion of self-created self-help groupings to engage inter alia in income-generating and other need-fulfilling economic and social activities".This overall objective will be accomplished by:
It could be observed that conditions for the setting up of PPP projects in Sierra Leone are quite different from those of S.E. Asian countries where the PPP approach originated. This is not only so as regards the methodology and approach but also as regards its intended beneficiaries. In most S.E. Asian countries in the rural areas in every corner of the countries concerned a sharp class differentiation has emerged between exploiters and exploited with a number of intermediary layers. There it can also often be observed that the gap between the better-off and poor is widening as a result of modernization and that a large part of the poorer sectors are suffering an acute deterioration, visible in increasing percentages of landlessness and indebtedness. Though in African countries the same trend has been noted in many cases, this trend is not yet general and in many areas all or most of the farm population has access to land. This is certainly the case in Sierra Leone, which is not densely populated.
In Pujehun district farmers in all villages visited appeared to have easy access to land for private (household) use. Some people, e.g. the chiefs to whom the holding of land in a specific area is entrusted, have more easily access to land than others, but all can get it according to their needs. This is traditionally established and a main determinant for a certain homogeneity within the villages in spite of existing differentiation. In this respect it is more difficult but at the same time easier to determine potential PPP beneficiaries. It is easier because of the relative homogeneity. It is difficult because criteria used elsewhere cannot be applied. In all the villages visited enquiries were made about social stratification and access to land and from the answers everywhere (without any exception) it could be concluded that social differentiation of some kind does exist, but that it is not as acute and antagonistic as it is in other (e.g. S.E. Asian) societies, so that it is difficult to determine its exact nature and implications.
This observation is confirmed by the few anthropological studies made about the area under consideration. As Kenneth Little's classical study of the Mende, to which most of the inhabitants of Pujehun and surrounding areas belong, observed, "secrecy" is of institutional significance in Mende life . A large part of their culture is controlled by societies and cults whose most important rites are intentionally concealed from the wider community. There is also a special political and economic value attached to information of certain kinds. One of the greatest sins a Mende man can commit is to "give away the secrets of the country". Though these observations were made many years ago, the Mende agree that in many fields such as economics and politics they are still valid. This explains why it has in the PPP project in Pujehun been even more difficult than elsewhere to get precise, quantifiable and correct data on differences in wealth (or poverty) and social status within and between villages. This was to some extent highlighted in the first baseline study carried out in 1983 by Harry Turay of Njala University when he observed:
"Questions of wealth and poverty, abilities to save and spend, are difficult to translate from traditional to modern terms. Social status tends to increase the potential for personal wealth through various types of social interaction. It also determines varying levels at which people take advantage of services rendered by development institutions. The dilemma is that most of the socially disadvantaged cannot easily thrive as an independent force without the help of those that are of better social standing in the community. The rural family in Sierra Leone is so closely knit that the only seeming break is at the secret society level where males are separated from females. At that level, all other aspects of social status tend to be subject to society dictates. There is a coherence and group unity overriding all other concerns. It is therefore difficult for now to have a set of socio-economically depressed people in a given community to emerge and function independent of a less depressed set who may be bound by strict traditional laws of community solidarity" .Field observations and interviews during the visits to villages, do confirm the difficulty to locally discuss social contradictions, and a certain closeness towards outside observers. This does not mean, however, that at the same time there are no strong rivalries, discrepancies, disunities. In almost all villages visited it was expressed that a unity between the (extended) households has on the whole been lacking and that rivalries and jealousies between sections of villages had often prevented people from undertaking common projects. Thus some groups formed were an easy victim of exploitative practices of some individuals who had managed to accrue some wealth and status as traders. These were often alhadjis, persons who have made a pilgrimage to Mecca (Islam is the predominant religion in Pujehun district). Such individuals were powerful in a non-traditional fashion through shrewd trading, monopolizing certain facilities, and money lending. (Traditional local town chiefs appeared on the whole not to be much wealthier than others in their villages). In over half of the villages visited problems with such individuals were brought up either spontaneously or after some questioning. This problem was also observed by Turay:
"Indebtedness continues to be a matter of concern, mainly because this is the least documented phenomena. If the local moneylender continues to have an overwhelming control of income expenditure pattern, it is not easy for groups to abandon this vital service. Groups should therefore be directed in some subtle way towards considering advantages of groupsavings, storage for the hungry season and the development of a creditsystem within the village community" .Turay did not specify the measure of indebtedness which is, indeed, hard to determine. The next surveys carried out by other scholars have not given significantly more precise insights into the social differentiation in the Mende villages so as to determine with some measure of exactness which are the poorer villages and/or who are the poorest people in those villages. Thus there were considerable constraints in Mende society regarding investigating what PPP considers one of its crucial issues. As noted above this is related to the fact that "today these peoples are entering rapidly into the world community and they naturally expect the same regard for their susceptibilities that Western nations extend to each other" . Such susceptibilities exist particularly in the field of the exercise of power. Political authority traditionally has been supported by the poor societies, secret societies which "instilled general awe of a religious kind and derived its power entirely through the intercourse its senior officials claimed to have with the world of the spirits" . That also these societies today play a crucial role in the Pujehun area is a recognized fact that could easily be observed.
How this exactly happens is, by its nature, difficult to assess. But as a more recent anthropological study noted "knowing one's place and respecting traditional hierarchies is strongly embedded in Mende society" . To what extent the traditional hierarchies are more important (or less) than modern political and administrative institutions is difficult to assess. The role of e.g. Members of Parliament of the ruling party in determining PPP project sites may have been important. In one area where the opposition party had a strong following in Eastern Pujehun district during 1983, and in some cases up to recently, political violence had caused whole villages to be abandoned temporarily. Some extremely low returns of investments in some PPP villages was said to be related to such problems. One village was said to be chosen because it had been victimized by the turmoil, though precisely in this village there was a predominant, though possibly rather benevolent, well-to-do family owning a small rubber plantation and factory (now out of order because of the troubles).
During the working-visits to villages to become acquainted with the PPP groups it could be observed that many of the Mende traditions still prevailed including secret/sacred activities and places and a great respect for elders and particularly chiefs, always the first to be contacted during field visits. Most important, however, are the paramount chiefs, descendants of the most outstanding warrior leaders who conquered the area and established the Mende society in the last century . It was therefore quite natural that the selection of PPP villages was such that clusters of villages were chosen in each of the chiefdoms (area of influence of a paramount chief) around Pujehun and a group promoter assigned to each cluster.
One of the important criteria for the selection of beneficiaries of PPP projects is landownership. In the Pujehun district the land is traditionally communal and made available by the local chief to any household which requests it . From the few relevant baseline survey data on how much land each household cultivates, it appears that all who want can have land for their sustenance. There is still idle land available in each village for common projects such as PPP groups are undertaking. Social differentiation is hard to determine in many areas in Africa where those who manage to accrue some wealth have the obligation to let a large extended family benefit from this, one way to ensure some measure of redistribution. There is considerable differentiation even within such an extended family where some (wives and her children e.g.) get less than others and some maybe rather poor though belonging to a household which is relatively well-to-do.
Another complicating factor in determining measures of differentiation is the concept household, called mawe in Mende, consisting - if large - of one or two older men and his wives, some or all of their sons and daughters, wives and husbands of the latter and a number of grandchildren . It may include also more distant relatives or dependents who are unrelated. There are, however, also small households consisting of a man and his wives and their children and some close relatives such as mother or sister. Villages of over a hundred people may thus contain e.g. only four households, extended families. If intermarriage between households and the presence of affinal and non-relatives are taken into account one can see that aggregates of households which constitute localities or compounds can be relatively heterogeneous. Baseline sample surveys to detect "poor families" are not easy to design under such conditions. Therefore one cannot blame the various efforts to conduct such surveys too much for being rather inadequate.
In view of the non-availability of an adequate baseline-sample survey or any other survey in its implementation phase PPP Sierra Leone has used a rather unorthodox approach in member selection as was observed already in 1983:
"Members were not selected by the beneficiaries themselves. Instead they were hand-picked by the group promoters and the national project coordinator. Each group did not select its chairman and secretary-treasurer even though the project is one year old. Secondly proper criteria for identification of target groups have not been well developed, and head of families as well as dependents have been selected as legitimate members of groups instead of a single individual, presumably the head of a household" .This observation should, in view of the above stated constraints in applying precise criteria in Mende society, be placed in its proper context. While undoubtedly at the initial stage groups have been formed haphazardly and without careful procedures just because there were certain inputs to obtain, a basis thus had been laid from which to go on with a corrective and/or consolidating process.
During the final evaluation it could be assessed that in practically all the 19 villages visited and the 45 groups contacted the beneficiaries were the kind of poor farmers and women for which PPP has been designed. The few villages where rich individuals (alhajis) had tried to introduce and dominate PPP groups were later abandoned when the problems of domination became too obvious. In some villages such persons tried in vain to manipulate the process but, because of the united opposition they thus provoked, they contributed, in a dialectical fashion, to group strength.
The overall impression of the baseline-survey could be confirmed by field visits showing, that in fact all PPP villages could be considered poor. Some villages were poorer than others, some were homogeneously poor while in others there were a few better-off (visible in relatively fancy type of housing). In some villages it was not difficult to discuss contradictions between poor and rich, in others this topic was not feasible or not relevant. In some villages local differentiation between poor and better-off appeared overshadowed by threats from outside (due to political turmoil which had affected some parts of the project after elections in 1983). In villages where people had successfully achieved collective facilities (e.g. a cassava grater), which made them independent of a monopoly by a big man/trader (alhadji), people liked to talk about underlying contradictions. Elsewhere, where some better-off leaders or chiefs had a paternalistic or traditional hold on village life, contradictions could hardly be brought up in public.
In addition to the rich-poor dilemma another issue related to beneficiary participation was the role of women in the group formation. As regards the role of women in Mende society it was observed that it "is complementary rather than subordinate to that of the men, and in performing it, they obtain political as well as social compensations which are substantial enough to offset most of the nominal disadvantages. At the same time, it has to be admitted that their influence operates, in the main, indirectly and beneath the surface" . In Mende society where people generally adhere to Islam, polygamy is prevailing and it seems not uncommon that men when they get older gradually extend their number of wives.
This explains the large size of many of the local households. (In fact there was one case where a man and his seven wives together tried to form a PPP group - which was not accepted as such). While men do the heavy tasks of bush cleaning, the women do a great deal of the other agricultural tasks; they are the main labour force of the household. In the discussions and interviews in most of the villages the complementary role of men and women in households and also in PPP groups and group activities was emphasized or highlighted. While women's participation in groups has been strong from the outset, about half of the membership being female, this was mainly because no agricultural activity can be undertaken without their participation.
Income distribution is difficult to assess in the Pujehun area not only because people are - as almost everywhere in the world - not eager to discuss such affairs with strangers, be they researchers or government officials, but also because of the difficulty to determine the most crucial economic unit. A household in Mende society can contain from 8 to 50 persons or even more, all interrelated and mutually dependent. How e.g. the income of a plot of land worked by a man and his various wives is divided among those wives and their children is already difficult to assess, and this relatively simple case becomes even more complicated, as these persons often are all integrated into the household of the man's father including brothers, sisters and other relatives.
While it is difficult to determine income distribution within a household and its components, it is virtually impossible to make comparisons between households in a village, though everybody is probably aware which households (or components) are among the poorest and who are somewhat better-off or relatively well-to-do. The obvious cases of rich exploiting the poor, however, are mostly known and not too difficult to discover. They are the traders, those who "pay other to work for them", and who monopolize certain productive assets such as mills or cassava graters. PPP groups are not infrequently formed to counteract their influence, though in a few cases without success. Such powerful persons have at times tried to disturb the group formation or -consolidation process. The income derived from the acquirement of a cassava grater through PPP is considered considerable by group members in all villages where such an enterprise has been undertaken.
The input through FAO-PPP of improved seeds (credit in kind) the past years, which have at times doubled the yield, has given villages the opportunity to build up a stock of seeds of this kind for the next years. Individual households have been able to obtain these seeds for their own cultivation from the common stock in several cases. Villages which had not yet started with this have been enabled by other villages to do this in cases where input scarcity of seeds at the national market became a problem.
Notable in the project was the relatively good recovery rate of credits that had been supplied. The few problems which caused failure of repayment were due to lack of regular control by the agricultural technicians as well as the credit officer. If it was known what the main causes were, such as carelessness on the side of group (lack of fencing or bird scaring) no new loan was given unless the old loan was fully repaid. Quarrels were settled with help of the group promoter if possible. Although the repayment rate was certainly a considerable achievement, loans made up altogether only 5% of the project inputs.
In view of the modesty of this overall financial impact there was a need to carefully review the non-quantifiable benefits which a PPP project should bring according is its objectives. In the Final Evaluation Workshop in Bo the beneficiaries made understood that they initially accepted the project on trial as a risk but that to their feeling the PPP project had accomplished much better than other even more ambitious schemes which they had experienced in earlier years, such as the Integrated Agricultural Development Programme (IADP) promoted by the World Bank in Sierra Leone. At the Final Evaluation Workshop the increased ability to organize and plan together and to develop leadership was emphasized by the beneficiary representatives as the main achievement of the project, before the more tangible items such as access to credit, which were also highly appreciated. Intervillage contacts, workshops, getting to know a different world (some visited Bo for the first time) and the fact that important government officials now had come to their village, were mentioned as achievements in the sphere of social welfare and organization.
As main accomplishment of the project was highlighted: bringing new types of group formation to enable a traditional society to better cope with the potentially disruptive processes of modernization, politics and the market-economy. The MOE system, introduced by P. Oakley gives some indications regarding the measure of group strength achieved in the project . It can be seen that all functioning groups after ups and downs have at least passed the first stage and reached a certain unity. During the field visits this was confirmed in all cases visited (i.e. more than half of all existing groups), and in a few cases groups had gone far beyond this first stage of group strength. This is a considerable achievement. While it is only partially quantifiable it is quite obvious to the participant observer and one of the few items on which information or opinions gathered were consistent and practically unanimous among those well familiar with the local situation.
The Pujehun project seems to show not only that getting much qualifiable data on such rather intangible objectives as participation is not easy, but also is rather 'relative' and not always needed. It could also be self-defeating to some extent. The fact that in the initial stage of the project group promoters were inclined to form as many groups as possible in a short time, letting quantity prevail over quality, though as such a useful learning process, has also caused setbacks and disappointments in some cases. Careful introduction and monitoring in a participatory manner of the MOE methods became highly desirable. Avoiding prevalence of quantity over quality looking for better ways to measure quality, training group promoters in qualitative forms of assessment, such as making good case descriptions, were given emphasis in PPP and have resulted in some very useful material, that came available. Thus it is understandable that the MSWRD itself is enthusiastic enough about the results of the PPP that it was willing to take it upon itself to continue (and possibly extend) its activities. It was clear from interviews at all levels at the MSWRD that the potential and impact of the PPP approach for Sierra Leone rural development had been well understood and appreciated after the four years of FAO supported pilot projects.
A favourable aspect of PPP's location in Pujehun district was that more or less at the same time in that area a new integrated rural development scheme was set up, which has contributed to the work of PPP and vice versa. This was the Bo-Pujehun Rural Development Project (B/PRDP) with its headquarters in Bo. The B/PRDP, with an input of 40 million DM over 8 years since 1980 was initially conceived for the districts of Bo and Pujehun during a Project Finding Mission of the German Society for Technical Cooperation (GTZ) in July 1979. "Rural poverty was viewed within the wider context of the weaknesses of malfunctioning governmental services" (B/PRDP, Plan of Operations, 07.85-08.86, p. 4). "The overall objective of the project is to improve living conditions for the rural population in the two districts through a two-pronged approach of strengthening existing institutions and responding to community initiatives directly by providing material and technical support" (ibid).
A pre-investment phase (Jan '81-June '82) and a pilot-investment phase (July' 82 - June '84) were implemented before a main-investment phase (July '84 - June '88) was started in which sector programmes (i.e. Fishery, Health, Women's and Community Development) could be carried out in a integrated and coordinated manner. Important emphasis was given to "participation of target groups in problem identification, planning, implementation and control of sectoral development activities" (ibid, p. 6). "Thus the central focus is not on the delivery of inputs per se but on the underlying processes which guarantee sustainability in the past project period" (ibid).
The major instrument for encouraging participation was the Community Action Fund (CAF) which provides assistance to village based projects. "Participation is seen as a process in which all interest groups exercise initiative stimulated by their own thinking and over which they have specific control". (ibid).
The activities of all ministry-agencies working in the districts of Bo and Pujehun were integrated into the B/PRDP, through the Ministry of Development and Economic Planning (MDEP) and its Central Planning Unit which operates through a specially created Planning and Coordination Office (PCO) in Bo. This Office supports the line ministries in their planning and coordination of activities. The Ministry of Social Welfare and Rural Development (MSWRD) is responsible for the Women's Programme and the Community Development Programme within the overall context of B/PRDP and thus forms an integral part of its set-up. The B/PRDP Women's Programme reported over the year 1985 the activities of 87 women's groups with about 1,300 members mostly in agriculture related fields (B/PRDP, Progress Report 01.12.85, Jan. '86).
"An internal evaluation of the programme, conducted on request of Project Management reveal a number of unsolved problems connected with programme implementation. The evaluation concludes that consolidation of existing groups should have priority over the creation of new ones and that supervision of existing groups was not optimal" (ibid, p. 16). The Community Development Programme reported "little visible progress on mobilization of communities apart from initial contacts on village and chiefdom level of management and some field workers". (ibid, p. 17). Limited personnel and improved supervision were mentioned as problems to be tackled. It was therefore logical that the MSWRD after taking upon itself the full responsibility for the PPP project in Pujehun tried to integrate this valuable component into its joint programme with B/PRDP.
During the field visits and in talks with PPP/MSWRD and B/PRDP personnel it became clear that both sides felt that in the social field PPP is doing precisely those things which according to the various evaluations of B/PRDP, are yet somewhat underdeveloped in the more technically oriented approaches of B/PRDP. The latest evaluations undertaken by the Bo/Pujehun Rural Development Project also gave to understand that is was precisely in the field of assessing villagers' needs and stimulating village bottom-up planning for activities to be undertaken that the Bo/Pujehun Rural Development Project has not yet fully developed its capacities. It is precisely here that the PPP experience was going to serve.
47. Harry Turay, "Baseline Survey, Pujehun", 1983, p. 3-4.
48. Ibid., p. 50.
49. K. Little, op. cit., p. 12.
50. Ibid., p. 183.
51. W.T. Harris and A. Sawyer, "The Origins of Mende Belief and Conduct", Freetown, University of Sierra Leone Press, 1968, p. 116.
52. K. Little, op. cit., p. 28 ff.
53. Ibid., p. 82 ff.
54. Ibid., p. 96.
55. H. Getahun, Back to Office Report 15.12.83, FAO/ESH.
56. K. Little, op. cit., p. 164.
57. Peter Oakley, "Manual for the Monitoring and Evaluation of a People's Participation Project", University of Reading, Mimeo, Jan. 1985.