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Early post-war development experience
In the mid-1970s, many assessments of development came to the conclusion that a significant change in approach was required if conditions among the poor, largely rural, population of many less-developed countries were to improve Development efforts to date had tended to concentrate on creating infrastructure, introducing new technology (mostly developed in the industrialised nations) and creating the institutions which planners and experts generally felt represented “development” However, while much had been achieved in terms of raising production and diffusing technology, there was general dissatisfaction with the way in which the benefits of these changes seemed to be distributed and the failure of improvements to have any real impact on the living conditions of large sections of the rural poor.

In the agricultural sector on which many of the rural poor depended, “green revolution” technology certainly revolutionised levels of production in some areas, and for some people. The transfer of industrial technologies had set off the process of rapid urbanisation and the social and economic changes which go with it. But many workers in both international, national and non-governmental development agencies were becoming increasingly aware that the fundamental problems of poverty, marginalisation and distributional imbalances which caused “under-development” in rural areas could not be addressed by simply proposing technical improvements to agricultural production or by introducing “modern” institutional structures which were alien to local cultures and social structures.

Practically all the models of development widely applied by agencies in the field, such as technology transfer, community development, extension and training and co-operatives, were seen to end up generally helping those who least required help and excluding from the development process those who most needed assistance. Some benefits inevitably “trickled down” to the poorest sections of society but the majority of the beneficial impacts of development activities continued to be monopolised by urban and rural elites.

Criticisms of development during this period generally focused on three key issues.

  1. Inappropriate development
    The technical solutions in which development agencies had placed so much faith during the post-war period were seen to be inappropriate to the needs and capabilities of many rural communities. Often they were poorly adapted to the local environment and required levels of technological understanding and sophistication which were unrealistic in the context of traditional rural cultures. Frequently, proposed solutions completely “missed” key target groups who were most in need of the benefits they provided. These groups often included women and the poorest and most marginalised groups in society.

    The same was true of institutional forms such as co-operatives which, while successful in the context of industrialised societies with higher levels of education, were often found to be unmanageable for people in rural societies in developing countries.

    The need to seek more appropriate technical and institutional solutions, which were manageable and sustainable by their intended beneficiaries was increasingly recognised.

  2. Poor understanding of the social and cultural context of development
    The debate over the appropriateness of the development models being proposed led to an increasing realisation of the need to understand social and cultural issues better if development planning was to improve. The common perception that problems of “under-development” were due to poor technology and inefficiencies in production was seen to be over-simplified. The importance of social, economic and political structures in many rural societies in determining the distribution and intensity of poverty was increasingly understood.

    This encouraged development workers to spend more time and resources on understanding the social and cultural context of development and on planning interventions which were better adapted to local conditions.

    This created a need for appropriate means of research which would allow development planners to understand the social and cultural setting of development and to address the issues which it raises. Planners required methods that were relatively rapid and would help them open up channels of communication with the supposed “beneficiaries” of their development plans.

  3. Lack of participation
    The lack of effective communication, inappropriate development interventions and poor understanding of the social and cultural factors affecting development processes all stemmed, at least in part, from the failure of planners to involve those affected by proposed developments in the planning process. Development plans were developed by “experts”, usually from very different cultural and social backgrounds, to address problems which they perceived to be important. The priorities and needs of the supposed “beneficiaries”, who were rarely consulted during planning, were often completely different from the urban-oriented, bureaucratic concerns of development professionals. A large proportion of planners and researchers were, and often continue to be, male and this frequently meant that the concerns and priorities of women in target communities were practically excluded from consideration.

    Participation in planning and implementation by “target groups” therefore became a new concern during the 1970s and 80s, creating a demand for adaptable and appropriate methodologies for implementing “participatory development” in the field.

Problems with traditional research tools
In attempting to address these issues, development workers and critics frequently identified the limited usefulness of existing tools for learning about rural conditions as a key problem. Many projects and programmes were planned using information which was extremely limited in its scope, concentrating purely on technical issues which were thought to be of particular importance by experts.

Alternatively, attempts to obtain more in-depth knowledge of local conditions tended to rely on formal, questionnaire-type surveys, which were expensive, labour-intensive, intrusive and extremely slow to implement and process. Such surveys frequently generated large amounts of potentially valuable information but much of this would remain under-utilised. In some cases, the results of large formal surveys were seen to reflect the biases and priorities of those formulating the questionnaires rather than the priorities of the rural communities being investigated.

Traditional forms of social and anthropological research, involving long-term participant observation, would generally provide a far better understanding of the social context of development the value of which was being increasingly understood. But the time-frames involved in carrying out such research and the need to concentrate on relatively limited areas made this approach similarly inappropriate to the needs of development planners.

At the other end of the scale, the formulation of development programmes by outside “experts” based on quick visits and an often superficial knowledge of the features of a particular locality was seen to be equally unsatisfactory. No matter how experienced or skilled the individual, their views and conclusions would tend to be biased by their personal priorities and disciplinary background and by the limitations of time, movement and contact imposed on them during such rapid project appraisals.

Practical participation
During the 1980s development programmes began placing increased emphasis on participation by target groups and beneficiaries, However, the desire to incorporate participation into development planning was often frustrated by a lack of practical tools for doing so. “Participatory” development activities were often found to be difficult both to plan and to fit into organised development programmes. Too many different interest-groups had to be accommodated and the time-scale for activities was frequently long and unpredictable.

Many of these problems were the result of a lack of effective mechanisms for incorporating participatory approaches into existing planning and operational structures of development agencies. The approach of rural communities to planning in terms of time and resources was often very different from that of the agencies and government services which were supposed to be supporting them. The development priorities proposed by rural communities themselves would frequently cut across the disciplinary and administrative boundaries into which development organisations are normally divided.

A demand therefore arose among development workers for tools for participatory development which could be more easily incorporated into the planning procedures of development organisations and agencies.

Alternative tools
Although the appropriateness of development work in the less-developed countries as a whole was being widely questioned in the 1970s and early 1980s, many practitioners in the field had already developed a variety of approaches and techniques to development work, particularly at community level, which seemed to offer valid alternatives to the traditional methodologies.

Experience in farming systems research had led to the development of a wide variety of techniques for collecting information at village-level in ways which both satisfied the needs of planners and allowed rural people scope to express their needs and priorities. The need to understand rural systems encouraged researchers to develop tools which linked together features of the resource, technology and farming practices with local social and economic structures and the beliefs, knowledge and customs of local people. The most effective of these methods tended to involve rural people themselves in the collection and analysis of information, to be relatively quick to produce results so that findings and recommendations could be rapidly acted upon, and to provide an in-depth picture of conditions in an easily digestible format.

In addition, the many NGOs working in development had an enormous store of experience in working closely with communities, paying close attention to their needs and priorities and the ways in which they are communicated. Generally, each NGO would develop their “tools” according to their own needs and by a long process of trial and error.

What was lacking was a systematic approach to the use of the various tools available and their combination into a methodology which would be readily accessible to a wider range of development workers.

Rapid Rural Appraisal
During the 1970s and early 1980s, efforts were being carried out in numerous parts of the world, with the encouragement of a variety of organisations, to create such a methodology. Rapid Rural Appraisal (RRA) represents one particular combination of techniques for information collection and approaches to learning about rural conditions which was collected during this period. It needs to be emphasised that, at least initially, what came to be called RRA was a collection of techniques, most of which were already being used by development workers and NGOs in many parts of the world. The development of RRA consisted in putting these techniques together into a more systematic framework which was then tested, added to and refined in order to make it usable and accessible to a wider range of operators.

Mainly due to the institutional support which it has received in a few key locations, particularly the International Institute of Environment and Development (IIED) in London, and the Universities of Khon Kaen in Thailand and Sussex in the UK, and at several of international agricultural research institutes around the world, Rapid Rural Appraisal came to be the most widely accepted title for these alternative methodologies during the 1980s.

However, a range of other terms are used for broadly similar techniques. Box 1 lists some of the principal types of research and planning tool which are similar or related to RRA.

Rapid Diagnostic Tools (RDT)Used to describe the various research and learning tools used in RRA when used discretely or not during a “formal” RRAIIED, London
Agro-Ecosystem AnalysisThe process of analysis of farming systems and their environment to which RRA can make an important contributionIIED, London
Participatory Learning and Action (PLA)A relatively recent synthesis of RRA, PRA and other participatory research techniquesIIED, London
Diagnosis and DesignA system of diagnostic surveys and planning discussions for the analysis of community and agro-forestry issues and planning of community forestry activitiesICRAF, Nairobi
Participatory Assessment, Monitoring and Evaluation (PAME)A collection of ideas, methods and tools for participatory planning of community forestryFAO/SIDA/ Forest, Trees and People Programme, Rome
Participatory Learning Methods (PALM)Essentially similar to PRA with emphasis on participatory planningMYRADA, Bangalore
Action ResearchAn approach to research which encourages active participation by the subjects of the research and participatory planning of action as a result of researchWide range of national and international NGOs

Some of these terms, notably Rapid Diagnostic Tools (RDT), refer to techniques which are “part” of RRA. Others, such as Agro-Ecosystem Analysis (AEA), refer to approaches to analysis of rural systems which employ RRA as part of their research and planning methodology. In the planning methods, such as Diagnosis and Design, RRA is used as a tool for collection information and analysing it. In the participatory approaches, such as PALM and PAME, the approaches used might be more appropriately referred to as “PRA” as the participatory elements are given more importance. However, within these approaches, RRA tools are widely used as well.

Participatory Rural Appraisal
The new approaches and techniques which make up Rapid Rural Appraisal focus on the relationship between development workers and their “clients”, the intended beneficiaries of development. The general perception has been that development proposals were often inappropriate because planners did not know enough about local communities. The emphasis in RRA is therefore on improving communications between “outsiders” and “insiders”, generally so that “outsiders” can make better plans and proposals. In this respect, RRA has been conceived as a tool for development workers which will help them in their work with communities.

However, one of the concerns which has led to the development of RRA is that the priorities and concerns of development workers, the “outsiders” in the rural development process, are always likely to be different from those of rural people, the “insiders” in the process. As long as “outsiders” continued to take the leading role in planning on behalf of “insiders”, there will always be a some distortion in the process. Understanding and communication can be improved by using appropriate tools, as in RRA, but the best solutions are those which are generated by the intended beneficiaries themselves, with outsiders simply helping and supporting the process, as opposed to leading it.

Experience with participatory development programmes, particularly in the non-governmental sector, has developed many techniques to encourage this kind of planning. Some of these were incorporated early on into RRA methodologies and all RRAs were regarded as being “participatory”, at least relative to “traditional” development approaches. But RRA generally remained a process for extracting information the use of which continued to be controlled by “outsiders”.

The combination of communication tools developed for RRA and the desire among some development agencies to achieve a more fundamental change in the relationship between “planners” and the people they plan for has given rise, in more recent years, to what is generally known as Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA).

PRA and RRA are frequently mentioned in the same breath and the same organisations are often involved in both approaches. PRAs were originally envisaged as being a “type” of RRA. However, with the increasing diffusion of both sets of approaches, differences in the way the two activities are understood are becoming clearer and the two terms can be used effectively to define quite different approaches.

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