Posted May 1997
Participatory action research and people's participation:
Introduction and case studies
by Gerrit Huizer
BOTH PEOPLE'S PARTICIPATION and participatory action research cannot be judged or evaluated in a uniform manner. Based on former experiences in this field I propose that such activities have to be placed in their broader context which can vary from one of harmony and consensus on the one hand and conflict or antagonism at the other extreme. This appears implied in studies, made in the sixties by UN on the effects of community development and people's participation, which came to the conclusion:
"An emphasis on general community interest may lead to the establishment of community consensus; individuals and groups which present a threat to this consensus are generally viewed as selfish or disruptive who place self-interest over community needs. This approach, while at times correct, is not always valid in all places or at all times. Consensus should not be viewed as a positive quality regardless of the goals around which it is formed, nor should conflict be necessarily viewed as undesirable. For instance, a consensus built around traditional goals and secured through traditional means may have greater development-impeding rather than development-promoting consequences. An over-emphasis on consensus may hinder innovation; it may also serve as a pretext for the dominant groups in the community to control individuals and groups challenging consensually-determined goals and means. A more effective strategy than that of community consensus could take the form of identifying creatively deviant individuals, helping them to cultivate leadership qualities, and creating new groups and organisations around them. Such a strategy could weaken the established consensus; however, when the process of development is sufficiently advanced a new consensus may emerge around individuals or groups whose values are more oriented towards development" .As the case-studies presented above show, in some societies harmony still prevails to some extent, while in others conflict between classes or ethnic groups has come to be predominant or is rapidly emerging. Both the manner of people's participation and participatory action research depend on where between the extremes of harmony and open conflict a society finds itself.
From the case-studies presented it may also be clear, in both contexts and the many varieties in between, that participatory action research can contribute, if systematically applied, to support and enhance people's participation in rural development. It can also be concluded that there can be no uniform approach for all cases. On the contrary, only a flexible application of the participatory approach can result in effective improvement and empowerment of the disadvantaged. Its application requires considerable creativity and a willingness to go beyond trodden paths and orthodox methodologies. A lot depends on the political and social context prevailing in each country or region, particularly the emergence or not of sharp contradictions between better-off and disadvantaged, and the ways this is taking shape.
In a country like Sri Lanka, where such contradictions are in an advanced stage participatory action research can only be fruitfully undertaken by those willing to side with the various categories of underdogs, helping them to find ways to organize, often against many odds. In Thailand where such contradictions are emerging but apparently not yet in an acutely felt stage, the taking of sides can be more moderate. Participatory action research can possibly fulfil a more or less mediating role, depending on the local situation of prevailing contradictions and traditions. This approach may demand even more inventiveness than the taking of sides where contradictions are clear cut. If, however, implemented in a sufficiently dynamic manner, the organization of the disadvantaged for their best interests can probably keep pace with the developments that the better-off village sectors are enjoying. A lot depends on the attitudes of these latter: to either advance rapidly at the cost of the majority, or to tolerate or even stimulate a simultaneous progress for the lower echelon community members. Careful assessment of trends and the interplay of interest-articulation of the various social strata is an essential component of participatory action research in such cases.
In many African countries where access to means of production to the majority is not yet a great problem, participatory action research will have to be oriented towards understanding of local cultural and traditional constraints or assets. Real participation in the life of the peasants - and in Africa this often means mostly women - can reveal that traditional survival strategies are very valuable and should not be abolished too easily to be replaced with modern Western technologies, not necessarily suited for the local situation.
Local people's own observations expressed at PPP workshops, e.g. the one in Sierra Leone, or encountered during the field visits there, appear to confirm that there exists considerable creativity and age-old wisdom in dealing with local resources through traditional approaches or adaptation of those. This was also found by scholars in that country's Agricultural University not far from the site of the PPP projects. After analysing the failure in that area of too many cases of the Green Revolution and the World Bank's "scientific" approach to rural development, Richards made a plea for "informal R&D", "participatory research" and even "people's science". His view was based on experience with seriously taking into account the experiential knowledge of African cultivators regarding their own environment as a base for new developments rather than outside technology. He did himself extensive and experimental research into - and with - local African agricultural methods in Eastern Sierra Leone and found that the rationality of indigenous practices is often seriously underestimated by people who themselves live of "scholarship":
"It is not hard to locate examples of research initiatives undertaken more in response to debates in the literature than to the practical problem of farming in the communities adjacent to the research station. The opposite side of this coin is the evident surprise of many agricultural researchers at the idea that small-holder farmers in Africa are active experimenters" .Similar observations have been made in other African countries where innovative rural development efforts have emerged as part of grassroots movements with some support from change agents who were sensitive to local needs and potentials. A good example is the emergence of the organization of Rural Associations for Progress (ORAP) as a strong peasant development organization in Western Zimbabwe in the years after Independence . Unfortunately, the Development Establishment, as Edwards  noted, had not yet taken much into account what peasants and rural women have accomplished on their own behalf outside the official institutional set-up.
Such accomplishments are, on the whole, not very spectacular beyond the local level for which they are intended unless local initiatives merge into larger movements or organizations such as ch accomplishments are, on the whole, not very spectacular beyond the local level for which they are intended unless local initiatives merge into larger movements or organizations such as ORAP. The potential for such autonomous development efforts is often ignored or viewed in terms which do not value them in a positive manner. Thus Goran Hyden's "uncaptured peasantry" (in Tanzania) rather than be viewed as an obstacle to development, could be seen as a potential source of creativity.ox, basically top-down type and not "from within and from below". Some recent efforts at "participatory action research" of some sort have come to more positive conclusions about those potentialities. Examples are the six years of action-cum-research by Vera Gianotten and Ton de Wit among peasants in the Ayacucho province in Peru highlighting their indigenous organizational capacities . Carla Risseeuw through active participation in the course of several years in the formation of a women choir-workers cooperative in Southern Sri Lanka showed that such women can accomplish such organizational achievements against tremendous odds of monopolizing merchants and gender oppression . Joke Schrijvers participated in the formation of a cooperative of peasant women elsewhere in Sri Lanka and showed the possibility for autonomous development .
Jos Kronenburg analyzed, in a research-after-action, his twelve years experience with both the top-down and the bottom-up approach in rural development among the Maasai and other groups in Kenya and shows the excellent possibilities for "empowerment" present among the peasants and women there . Claudia von Werlhof made a careful analysis of an experience of autonomous peasant development in Venezuela . Particularly in women studies the debate on autonomous development versus integration into the overall development has gained importance in part as a result of such participatory action research inputs.
Most authors on the topic of people's participation or non-participation in development take the prevailing institutional status quo for granted and study possibilities within that context and seem to view alternatives with doubts or hesitation. Thus Uphoff recognized that where social stratification is "serious", it may be useful to create what he calls "alternative organizations" with a membership restricted to the "less advantaged" to complement the regular institutional set-up. This is particularly so where land tenure is a problem, as he notes:
"Unfortunately in agriculture relations between landless and landed are more likely to be zero-sum and competitive than in other areas of rural development activity" .Uphoff points out that local institutional development though not completely dependent on the "political will" of governments to come about, does need support from the centre . He does not reflect upon the possibility that people sometimes create their own local institutions and bargaining organizations without support and - if needed - against the "will" of governments. Many cases of small and large scale peasant organizations testify to this capacity . In spite of strong recommendations of UN agencies like FAO and ILO to that effect in the mid-sixties, most development agencies and literature do not take into account such forms of authentic peasant interest articulation. Historical developments in many countries show that while one should not assume that elites will always use local institutions to pursue their own interests to the exclusion of other's advantage, as Uphoff suggested  in reality they mostly do so, as has been amply documented . Peasants then have to create their own institutions.
Land reform as an effective redistribution of assets, among the disadvantaged, in spite of its successful implementation in China, Japan, Taiwan and S. Korea, appears to be mostly ignored as a form of "local institutional development", in spite of the fact that in many countries (like Brazil, El Salvador, Guatemala, Philippines and India) peasants or peasant leaders, organizing for such reforms, are persecuted or even assassinated with a certain regularity because their emancipatory activities endanger the status quo.
It should be clear by now that participatory action research is a delicate and in many countries highly controversial affair. Only rarely can such research be undertaken by expatriates of the country where it is being implemented. Persons getting involved should be highly familiar with the local intricacies of economic and political power. The group organizers used in PPP were all nationals, although at the national coordination level in some countries certain forms of technical assistance has been given by expatriate advisors from international (UN) agencies. Undoubtedly there is ample scope for participatory action research contributing to people's participation at all levels.
59. Paul Richards, "Indigenous Agricultural Revolution, Ecology and Food Production in West-Africa", London: Hutchinson, 1985, p. 156.
60. D. Chavunduka, G. Huizer a.o., Khuluma Usenza: "The Story of the Organization of Rural Associations for Progress in Zimbabwe's Rural Development", Bulawayo: ORAP, 1985; also Dharam Ghai, "Participatory Development: Some Perspectives from Grassroots Experiences", Geneva: UNRISD, Discussion Paper no. 5, p. 12.
61. P. Edwards, op. cit.
62. G. Hyden, op. cit.
63. V. Gianotten and T. de Wit, op. cit.
64. C. Risseeuw, op. cit.
65. Joke Schrijvers, "Mothers for Life", Delft: Eburon, 1985.
66. J. Kronenburg, op. cit.
67. Claudia von Werlhof, Wenn die Bauer wiederkommen. "Frauen, Arbeit und Agribusiness in Venezuela", Bremen: Herodot, 1985.
68. N. Uphoff, op. cit., p. 156.
69. Ibid., p. 219.
70. G. Huizer, "Peasant Movements and their Counterforces in S.E. Asia", op. cit.
71. N. Uphoff, op. cit., p. 157.
72. See particularly Solon Barraclough, "Social Origins of Food Policy and Hunger", an UNRISD Report, Sept. 1989 (Geneva).