Communication for development Knowledge

Posted July 1998

Participatory Rural Communication Appraisal (PRCA)

A new approach for research and the design of communication for development strategies and programmes

Prepared by Philippe Van der Stichele
Communication for Development Officer
Extension, Education and Communication Service (SDRE)
FAO Research, Extension and Training Division

The editor of this article wishes to acknowledge the authors of the articles and the "Handbook on Participatory Rural Communication Appraisal", Messrs Chike Anyaegbunam, Paolo Mefalopoulos and Titus Moetsabi, from which the contents of the article are extensively derived. The editor also acknowledges the authors of various project reports, Christopher Kamlongera, Jonathan Villet and Osvaldo Lingua, whose work has contributed to this article

The Action programme for Communication Skills Development

The Action Programme for Communication Skills Development is at the heart of the SADC Communication Centre's services. It is a package of communication advice, hands-on training and technical follow-up integrated into either on-going or planned development projects.

It contains an Action Workshop (AP Workshop) which:

  • Imparts skills in the application of PRCA research techniques that allow participating client project teams (preferably a selection of three field staff per client project) and rural communities to identify, analyse and develop effective communication strategies;
  • Identifies and employs those culturally appropriate communication tools that are truly useful to project personnel and rural communities to reach mutual understanding for action;
  • Enables people implementing rural development projects to plan and undertake multi-media communication programmes that promote ideas and practices effectively;
  • Assists participants to transfer the participatory approach to other project staff in the field; and
  • Assists participants to monitor and evaluate impact.

The duration of the course is 10 weeks spread over a three month period and consists of:

  • A first 3-weeks workshop in Harare during which the participants learn the PRCA methodology and undergo hands-on PRCA exercises with local communities in Zimbabwe;
  • A one month practical application of the techniques they have learned in situ, at their own project site with their respective concerned rural communities;
  • A further 3-weeks workshop back in Harare where they analyse their research results and are trained to use the results to design a participatory communication strategy that best responds to the community needs and decisions.

The results are two-fold. First, projects, which enrol their staff as a team, gain a professionally designed Communication Campaign for immediate implementation. Second, all participants acquire permanent skills re-usable for future campaigns. After the Action Workshop, participants return to their project sites to implement the Pilot Communication Campaign designed and planned during the Action Workshop. Follow-up technical advice and field visits by communication experts are provided by the Centre.

Starting with the people

The SADC Regional Centre of Communication for Development based in Harare, Zimbabwe has pioneered a people-oriented alternative to traditional communication research approaches. This alternative, called Participatory Rural Communication Appraisal (PRCA), is being implemented with considerable success by SADC in its field training courses for rural development project practitioners - its Action Programme for Communication Skills Development. PRCA is a participatory communication research methodology used to involve rural people in the identification of the essential elements for the design of effective communication strategies and programmes for development. It utilises field-based visualisation techniques, interviews and group work to generate information for the design of communication strategies, materials, media and messages to ensure relevance and ownership by the people involved. PRCA facilitates dialogue among rural people themselves and between them and development workers in order that all stakeholders reach mutual understandings and plans for action. PRCA is therefore an essential and innovative tool to promote the involvement of rural people in decision-making that affects their livelihood.

PRCA draws from such participatory approaches as Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) and Participatory Learning and Action (PLA). It borrows from qualitative and quantitative research as well as ethnography. It also incorporates ideas and techniques from the Logical Framework Approach (LFA), Objective Oriented Project Planning (OOPP), advertising and social marketing.

PRCA is built on a definition of communication that views it as an interactive process characterised by the exchange of ideas, information, points of view and experiences between persons and groups. In PRCA, communication is a two-way process in which all the people involved are seen as important sources of and ideas worth listening to. Passiveness is non-existent in this process because the methodology requires the active mental cooperation of all involved people until a common awareness and understanding is reached. It is a process in which all participants decide on a course of action together. This view of communication treats all participants or stakeholders as equal partners.

PRCA is used for creating dialogue with groups in rural communities in order to identify and analyse their problems and needs; their existing knowledge and practices; their feelings and attitudes; as well as their perceptions of the development issues under investigation. It is also used to ascertain the characteristics of the different groups in a community and to map their existing patterns and networks of communication.

Perceptions and communication

Perceptions play a key role in communication. Thus, there is a need for a communication research approach that ensures that the project and the community do not have different perceptions of the issues or problems to be resolved. PRCA has been developed to ensure that communication programmes for rural development are firmly rooted in the realities of the rural community. However, the problem with 'unearthing' rural people's perceptions and local knowledge lies in the fact that many communities have developed ways of hiding their true feelings and information from outsiders, especially when outsiders cannot interact within rural people's frame of reference. Ascroft (1978) calls this ability of rural people to treat outsiders nicely without revealing themselves the conspiracy of courtesy. To overcome this, PRCA uses visual methods and community facilitation techniques for generating, analysing and presenting information, thus breaking through the conspiracy and removing the need for literacy. In this way, the research can reveal the perceptions of community members and ensure that development efforts are firmly rooted in their realities and respond to their perceived needs, abilities and local knowledge.

Differences between PRCA and traditional communication research

PRCA is different from traditional communication research because it is fully participatory and enables people to genuinely contribute to development decisions and actions that directly affect their lives. Rural people who are involved in PRCA share knowledge and experiences with the researchers from the start to the end of the process. They participate in everything from information collection and analysis, problem identification and prioritisation to decision-making about how best to tackle the issues revealed by PRCA.

Unlike traditional communication research, PRCA does not only identify the best ways of designing messages for rural audiences. It also helps to identify strategies and communication materials to enable rural people to articulate their own perceptions of community needs, local knowledge, opportunities, problems and solutions which can be integrated into development efforts. In this way, PRCA puts people in the centre of their own development as owners of the development process rather than mere beneficiaries who receive education and training about solutions to their problems brought in from outside. PRCA is more than a methodology for investigation. In addition to its research characteristics, PRCA is also a training and empowerment process for a community. As PRCA is carried out, people learn new ways of thinking and interacting with the complex and changing circumstances in which they live. After participating in PRCA, people become trained and empowered to identify and analyse their problems, needs and capabilities. On their own, they seek additional skills, knowledge and outside assistance when they encounter problems beyond their existing capabilities and resources. At this stage, people also become more aware of the various external political and socio-economic factors that obstruct the achievement of their goals, and often use their newly acquired skills of self-mobilisation to tackle these obstacles.

Difference between PRCA and other participatory research methods

PRCA belongs to the same family as RRA, PRA, PLA and the other participatory methods. However, it is unique because it focuses specifically on the study of both traditional and modern communication systems in a community and assists in the development of communication strategies and materials to improve information and knowledge sharing among the various stakeholders. The following table explains the differences between PRCA, PRA and traditional communication research.

How PRCA is unique and different
Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) Participatory Rural Communication Appraisal (PRCA) Traditional Communication Research
Not holistic - researches only community needs, opportunities, problems and solutions without attending to communication issues Holistic - researches community needs opportunities, problems and solutions as well as Communication issues, networks and systems Not holistic - researches only communication issues
Participatory: The researcher is a facilitator who enables the people undertake and share their own investigation and analysis leading to sustainable local action Participatory: The researcher is a facilitator who enables the people undertake and share their own investigation and analysis leading to sustainable local action and improved communication Not Participatory: The researcher is an investigator who is interested in learning as much information as possible for her own use
Empowers and builds capacity of communities Empowers and builds capacity of communities Extractive and does not empower or build capacity of Communities
Leads to joint planning of development action with community Leads to joint planning of both development action and communication programme with community Professionals plan communication intervention without the community
Deals with communities differentiated by local values only. People are active participants in the process of generating and analysing information Deals with interaction groups identified on the basis of sharing a common problem and segmented according to criteria identified by the people themselves. People are active participants in the process of generating and analysing information Deals with audiences segmented according to criteria determined by investigator. People are seen as only passive recipients of messages and not as active sources
Results of appraisal are presented by community Results of appraisal are presented by community Results of research are not shared with community. Investigator analyses and presents results to outsiders.
Community own and keeps the results Community owns and keeps the results Results are owned and kept by researchers.
Emphasis on the use of visual methods for generating, analysing and presenting data Emphasis on the use of visual methods for generating, analysing and presenting data Emphasis on verbal mode of questioning and gathering data
Emphasis on change of attitude and behaviour among facilitators Emphasis on change of attitude and behaviour among facilitators Emphasis on finding out ways of changing of attitude and behaviour of audience
Emphasis on local peopleís knowledge, skills and capabilities for problem solving Seeks means of creating mutual understanding between local people and development workers in order to marry local capabilities with outsidersí knowledge and skills for more effective problem-solving. Emphasis on how best to effect transfer of outside expertise to local people

The historical background of PRCA

The origins of PRCA can be traced to the participatory methods that started to emerge in the 1970s. Development workers began to abandon the research questionnaire methods which tended to be lengthy to administer, were rigid in their format, did not often take into account the local reality and were complex to process and analyse. Looking for more effective methods, development practitioners learned that most illiterate or semi-literate people can communicate issues that affect them effectively through the help of visual presentations.

These factors gave rise to Rapid Rural Appraisal (RRA) which was a significant improvement from standard questionnaire methods. RRA also addressed the needs of the people better. However, researchers, after having collected data in the villages, still took the information away in order to analyse it with their own sets of assumptions. That is why RRA has been known to be extractive. Outsiders would go to rural areas, obtain information from rural people, and then take it away for processing and analysis, thereby controlling the process.

As RRA began to be applied in more situations, the emphasis on participation began to grow almost naturally. It became clear that communities needed to be involved not only in data collection, but also in the prioritisation and analysis of their problems and needs. Out of this process Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) and later Participatory Learning and Action (PLA) methods emerged. PRA and PLA recognised that there were many things that researchers and subject-matter specialists do not know and that the only way to learn them was by listening to the rural people. Similarly, rural people were lacking some of the technical knowledge that experts had which could solve some of their problems. Thus, knowledge sharing became an essential component of PRA. It has been used extensively in agriculture, forestry and a number of other areas. However, it has never been specifically used in the communication field, even though most of its techniques and tools derive from communication. PRCA was created to address this oversight.

PRCA was first conceptualised in 1995 by a team of FAO communication field experts [1] working at the Department of Adult Education of the University of Zimbabwe under an Italian-funded FAO Regional Communication Project covering the SADC Region. In 1996, the project transferred to the premises of the SADC Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Sector Co-ordination Unit in Harare where it assisted in establishing what is known today as the SADC Centre of Communication for Development. Over the last two years, the staff of the Training Unit of the Centre [2] have refined the PRCA methodology which has undergone and is still undergoing, changes to adapt it to the field reality and to take into account the comments and suggestions of international experts, national officers, field extensionists and of course, of the many rural people, they have been working with. Without the active contribution of all these people PRCA would not have become what it is now: an innovative methodology for participatory communication research and planning.

The state of PRCA today

PRCA has become a flexible process that can be used both for defining needs and priorities for starting a development project, and as a corrective tool for improving the situation of an on-going project. In any of the two instances, PRCA sets the basis upon which to build an effective communication strategy. Training in its methodology and field application has been provided through the Communication Centre's Action Programme for Communication Skills Development Workshops. To-date, six Action Programme workshops of 10-weeks duration each have been held for a total of 123 middle-level management field staff of over 20 rural development projects from nine countries from the Southern Africa region and beyond (Egypt, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Namibia, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe). Since the training is experiential and includes a one-month in-situ application of the PRCA methodology at clients' project sites, each workshop has enabled the PRCA training team to thoroughly field-test the process based on the experiences of the trainees.

A PRCA Training Package field-tested during workshops is currently being finalised and will be published before the end of the year. It will consist of:

For further information please link to:
SADC Regional Centre of Communication for Development -

or contact:

SADC Centre of Communication for Development
Merchant House
P.O. Box 4046
Robson Manyika Avenue
Harare, Zimbabwe Tel: (263-4) 722723/722734
Fax: (263-4) 722713

Communication for Development Group
Extension, Education and Communication Service (SDRE)
Via delle Terme di Caracalla
00100 Rome, Italy
Tel: (39-06) 57054588/57054099/57054051
Fax: (39-06) 57053152
E-mail: or


1. Jonathan Villet, Chike Anyaegbunam, Paolo Mefalopoulos, Osvaldo Lingua

2. Chike Anyaegbunam - FAO Senior Training Advisor, Paolo Mefalopoulos - FAO Training Advisor, Titus Moetsabi - SADC Centre Senior Trainer

SD Homepage Back to Top FAO Homepage