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Posted May 1997

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

by Gerrit Huizer

2. People's participation as an alternative development strategy

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IN ORDER TO SHOW the need for and effectiveness of the people's participation approach it is necessary to make a few observations about the context in which this approach as a rural development strategy emerged. This context is reflected in (a) the theoretical debates in circles of development agencies about advantages and disadvantages of certain strategies and (b) the concrete historical situations in which certain strategies have been more or less effectively applied. Since many years there has been considerable debate in rural development circles about the most appropriate strategy to achieve active participation of peasants, men and women, in large scale rural development efforts.

On the one hand there is the current which advocates the "betting on the strong" approach, sponsoring projects or programmes involving mostly the farmers which have a certain minimum of resources (land, know-how), supporting them with credit and agricultural extension in the hope of a "trickle down" of improvements and benefits to the poor. This approach has in not a few cases led to considerable results, rapidly spreading new agricultural technologies and crop varieties leading to higher yields - the so-called Green Revolution.

A disadvantage of this approach which has been recognised, and carefully evaluated by UNRISD [12] was that an important minority sector of the peasantry could gain benefits but that large and often majority sectors were not enabled to share in this process and remained behind. Growing contradictions between rich and poor led to social discrepancies and enhanced unrest in many rural areas.

On the other hand, and as a reaction to the former approach, there are strong advocates of a grassroots oriented bottom-up approach, appealing to the hidden potentials and creativity of the poor peasants and women, stimulating and supporting them in the creation of interest groups on their own behalf to bargain for better access to resources such as land and credit.

The concept of participation has been defined many times in different ways. Solon Barraclough, in a recent UNRISD overview of many studies regarding this topic in relation with food policy and hunger, indicated that UNRISD researchers identified over a dozen senses in which the concept participation was employed in the development literature. These concepts were to some extent overlapping and sometimes contradictory. Particularly with the participation of the poor in mind the UNRISD researchers accepted the following working definition for popular participation: "the organized efforts to increase the control over resources and regulative institutions in given social situations, on the part of groups and movements of those hitherto excluded from such control". [13] This is the people's participation approach. As Barraclough also indicated the most determinant factor for one development approach or the other is the "political will" and this depends on the institutional set-up prevailing in a country or region and the measure in which this set-up gives a certain influence to underprivileged groups.

The idea, widely cherished among development workers that underprivileged groups such as peasants and rural women, do not participate in development because of their apathy and resistance to change has been seriously challenged. [14] The main issue is not whether people can participate or not but rather how, in what form, they will participate. The main question is: will people effectively participate in (and share in the results of) development projects or will they participate in resistance or revolt against developments which frustrate their expectations or are disadvantageous to them. In the latter case, they may change the institutional set-up of rural or overall development through a radical reform programme or a revolution. The radical agrarian reforms in the fifties of China, Japan and Taiwan (and later South-Korea) are examples of people's participation on behalf of radical structural change, either through revolution (China) or through a more or less imposed reform (Japan, Taiwan) [15]. In all those countries networks of peasants associations and federations played a crucial role in effective rural development. This has not only benefited the majorities of the peasant population in those countries but could also create the internal market and other favourable conditions for rapid and sustained industrial development. This is well-known for the "newly industrializing countries" Taiwan and South-Korea, but less so for China. The World Bank, in a careful evaluation of China's "socialist economic development", sees its mobilization of popular participation in radical land redistribution and egalitarian rural development as contributing to a sustained average industrial growth rate of 10% per year between 1950 and 1980. Throughout this World Bank report comparisons are made with much slower developments in India and some other Asian countries [16].

In India the approach of (expected) participation through a "trickle-down" process was practised on a large scale through a National Community Development Programme and the Green Revolution. As part of this strategy community development and agricultural extension workers generally accepted that communicating new ideas and inputs through the established leaders in the villages would automatically benefit the whole community. This "communication" strategy, followed in most countries, has been called the "oil stain approach" or the "trickle down process". Information about improved technology, better seeds or fertilizers was given to the more advanced farmers, the "opinion leaders" who were prepared to adopt the new practices. The expectation was then that the other farmers would eventually follow their example. This approach completely ignored the uneven distribution of land and other resources; it strengthened the economic position of those who were already better-off in the villages and thus contributed to widening the contrast between poor and rich at the village level [17].

This community development strategy in fact enhanced and sharpened the contradictions and the potential for social conflict in the villages. Based on a number of evaluation studies of community development in India and Indonesia, Wertheim has called this approach "betting on the strong" [18]. Many observers of the rural scene in India have noticed this polarization and growing awareness among the rural poor of the increasing discrepancies. This gradually developing polarization was strongly accelerated by the Green Revolution and soon acquired alarming proportions. Hari P. Sharma has supplied statistical data indicating that the percentage of rural households living below the extreme poverty line rose from 38 percent in 1960 to 53 percent in 1968 [19]. Landlessness among the Indian peasants increased from 20 to 50% between 1950 and 1980 according to World Bank figures. Increasing frustration and deprivation enhanced the participation of more and more of the underprivileged in forms of resistance or rebellion leading to what an official enquiry report of 1969 called "agrarian unrest". This report of the Ministry of Home Affairs concluded:

"The problem, in other words, has to be tackled on a wide front effectively and imaginatively. Failure to do so may lead to a situation where the discontented elements are compelled to organize themselves and the extreme tensions building up within the `complex molecule' that is the Indian village end in an explosion" [20].
The build-up of tension in the rural areas has not been reversed in the meantime and may even have accelerated. Intensive field visits which I made as member of an ILO mission in 1977 confirmed these alarming observations. As only about 50 of the 550,000 villages in India were visited, in Madhya Pradesh, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Bihar, only general impressions can be given. However, some observations were so strong in practically all cases (and are confirmed by the literature) that it seems worthwhile to note them, albeit with reservations. Official statistics which indicate a gradual increase of agricultural labourers, a decrease in the number of small farmers, tenants and sharecroppers, and a decreasing level of living, were amply confirmed by many dramatic life histories, told by the peasants concerned and by the women in the villages.

One sign of increasing frustration was that in several villages people bluntly told us that they did not see much use in answering questions. Their sense of grievance was so strong, however, that despite the interview situation they spoke quite frankly about their problems and, when they realized that they were attentively listened to, with considerable insight as well as bitterness [21]. The situation of considerable "agrarian unrest" continues to prevail until today in the Indian countryside, often consisting of atrocities committed by the wealthy against the restless poor [22]. India is not the only country where development without people's participation led to tensions and violence. As director of the World Bank Robert McNamara aptly summarized situations in many countries when observing in 1973:

"The data suggest that the decade of rapid growth has been accompanied by greater maldistribution of income in many developing countries and that the problem is most severe in the countryside", and ... "an increasingly inequitable situation will pose a growing threat to political stability" [23].
This statement of McNamara echoes some of the things he had already said in "The Essence of Security. Reflections in Office" a few years earlier, in 1968, when he still was US Secretary of Defense. After mentioning in these reflections on national security that the World Bank had divided the world's nations into four categories, rich, middle-income, poor and very poor, McNamara observed that particularly in the latter categories a great deal of violence was occurring related to increasing poverty. He then suggested to achieve people's peaceful participation in development :
"Only the developing nations themselves can take the fundamental measures that make outside assistance meaningful. These measures are often unpalatable and frequently call for political courage and decisiveness. But to fail to undertake painful but essential reform inevitably leads to far more painful revolutionary violence" [24].
Unfortunately the World Bank has, in spite of such repeated recommendations and statements, done very little to help governments to stimulate effective and peaceful participation of people in development. Not to speak of "painful but essential reform". Most of its projects continued to adopt the "trickle-down" approach, such as the T and V (Training and Visit) programme. According to Uphoff T&V "seeks to ensure and standardize the performance of extension cadre through fortnightly training sessions. Simple standard messages are given to extension agents to take to a series of 'contact farmers', whom they are to meet fortnightly and who in turn are supposed to carry the messages to other farmers" [25]. Based on field studies of T&V in Thailand and Sri Lanka Uphoff concludes that it lacks effectiveness because the contact farmers mostly do not represent a group and therefore the messages given to them do not reach much farther. Uphoff does not appear to be aware of the fact that the T&V method, like most other forms of supposedly "trickle down" communication methodologies, is mostly anti-participatory and tends to benefit almost exclusively the better-off, thus strengthening directly or indirectly the contradictions between them and disadvantaged in the villages. T and V has formed part of the development policies of various countries where later, probably after some problems had become visible, FAO helped to introduce its PPP approach as an alternative.

PPP was developed during the 197Os in Southeast Asia, where the problems created by the "betting on the strong" approach were most strongly felt. A brief review of the most essential characteristics will be given below. This implies that attention will have to be given to an adequate classification of the various categories of the rural population affected in a particular project area, utilizing e.g. Uphoff's categories and properly quantifying them, like: rich, middle class, subsistence, very poor and destitute [26].

This composition of the rural population should be inventarized for each specific area, which can often be done from available statistics but not always. It is precisely in inventarizing locally existing social stratification that participatory research as described above has proved useful to ensure that a correct picture comes forward. In informal and particularly in group discussions data about differences in wealth and poverty can be checked and become a topic of concern as a basis for possible action. This has been shown on many occasions. Terms as "very poor" or "destitute" should not be used in such research as they are offensive to the people concerned. More objective criteria that have been effectively used are:

Access to land is considered a crucial indicator for well-being and social status in almost all rural societies. It is also the issue that has most readily provoked forms of popular participation through emerging peasant organizations in past and present. Forms of participatory action research have been fruitful in several such cases [27].

In addition to a proper inventory and classification of the rural population the cultural and historical context has to be taken into account, since it has an influence in participation and leadership patterns. The cultural-historical context in many cases includes happenings of intergroup conflicts of class-, tribal- or other nature in past en present. Such influences or incidents have played a role in most PPP areas in one way or another, as can be seen from some of the presently on-going PPP projects with which I have become familiar in the course of the last few years. These are:

  1. the PPP projects in Thailand, presently intended to be spread as a nation-wide programme;
  2. in Sri Lanka, where the PPP example has influenced planning in a large scale Integrated Rural Development Project;
  3. in Zambia where PPP was serving as an example for a broader effort to organize the poor cooperatively through the Zambian Cooperative Federation;
  4. Sierra Leone where PPP has influenced, and upon its completion was more or less integrated in the large-scale Bo-Pujehun Rural Development Programme.
Before describing these cases the overall strategy of PPP will be briefly discussed.


12. Ingrid Palmer, "The New Rice in Asia: Conclusion from Four Country studies", Geneva, UNRISD, 1976.

13. Solon Barraclough, "Social Origins of Food Policy and Hunger", UNRISD, Sept. '89, mimeo, p. 279-280.

14. G. Huizer, "Peasant Rebellion in Latin America", Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1973; Carla Risseeuw, "The Fish Don't Talk about the Water"; "Gender Transformation, Power and Resistance among Women in Sri Lanka", Leiden: Brill, 1988.

15. Ronald Dore, "Land Reform in Japan", Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959; Gerrit Huizer, "Peasant Movements and their Counterforces in S.E. Asia", New Delhi: Marwah Publ., 1985.

16. World Bank, China: "Socialist Economic Development", 3 vols., Washington D.C., 1983.

17. United Nations, "Report of a Community Development Evaluation Mission in India" (23 November 1958 - 3 April 1959; prepared for the Government of India by M.J. Coldwell, R. Dumont and M. Read, TAO/IND/31, New York, 1959), 41.

18. W.F. Wertheim, "Betting on the Strong", in his East-West Parallels (The Hague, Van Hoeve, 1964). See also A.R. Desai: "Community Development Projects: A Sociological Analysis", in A.R. Desai (ed), Rural Sociology in India (Fourth Revised Edition, Bombay, Popular Prakashan, 1969), 615, and 617-188.

19. Hari P. Sharma, "The Green Revolution in India" in Kathleen Gough and Hari P. Sharma (ed): "Imperialism and Revolution in South Asia" (New York; Monthly Review Press, 1973), 94.

20. Ministry of Home Affairs, Research and Policy Division, "The Causes and Nature of Current Agrarian Unrest" (New Delhi, Mimeo, 1969).

21. For a complete report on the mission see Gerrit Huizer, "The Rural Training Camps of NLI", National Labour Institute Bulletin. New Delhi, 3, 8 (August 1977), 336-48.

22. Such atrocities are regulary described and denounced in pages of the Economic and Political Weekly (Bombay). See e.g. Arvind Das, "Revolutionary movement in Bihar", epw, XXII, 22, May 30, 1987; T. Prabhakar Reddy. "Tribal land alienation in Andhra Pradesh", epw, XXIV, 28, July 15, 1989.

23. Robert McNamara, Address to the Board of Governors of the World Bank, Nairobi, Sept. 24, 1973.

24. Robert McNamara, "The Essence of Security. Reflections in Office", London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1968, 152.

25. Norman Uphoff, "Local Institutional Development: An Analytical Servicebook with Cases", West-Hartfort, Conn., Kumarian Press, 1986, p. 121-122; "About the T and V system"; see also: Daniel Benor and James Harrison, "Agricultural Extension: the Training and Visit System", Washington D.C., World Bank, 1977 and Michael Cernea, John Coulter and F.A. Russell, "Agricultural Extension by Training and Visit", Washington D.C., World Bank, 1983.

26. Norman Uphoff, "Collective Self-Help: A Strategy for Rural Development in Ghana", FAO/PPP Report, Accra, 1987.

27. Gerrit Huizer, "Research-through-action: some practical experiences with peasant organisations", in Gerrit Huizer and Bruce Mannheim, ed., "The Politics of Anthropology: From Colonialism and Sexism toward a view from below", The Hague-Paris, Mouton (World Anthropology Series), 1979.

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