Paper 13

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This is a summarisation of a paper written by Dr.David Mosse titled Authority,Gender and knowledge : Theoretical reflections on the practice of Participatory Rural Appraisal * . It attempts a critical examination of the ways in which PRA is currently understood and practised. In this summarisation I have not focussed on the gender dimension but on key issues in general, that influence the outcomes of PRA exercises. As often as possible, I have tried to illustrate the points with examples from MYRADA.

The intention of this paper is not to discard PRA but to become aware of its limitations and its (possible/unintended) misuse. This awareness can then serve to make practitioners more careful, more sensitive, and more thoughtful in the choice and use of PRA tools and techniques.

 Vidya Ramachandran

PRA techniques are often used on the basis of several assumptions:
· The assumption that the information generated through the use of PRA techniques is more reliable.
· The assumption that the information generated through the use of PRA techniques is more relevant to community interests.
· The assumption that the information generated through the use of PRA techniques is fairly representative of the complexity and sophistication of people’s technical, social, and practical expertise.

Does experience confirm that these assumptions are valid? Several issues arise:

Issue One : The extent to which the use of PRA depends on the already existing links between an agency and the local communities. Do people talk to us because- being MYRADA – we have worked in the area, they know us well, and we enjoy a certain credibility? Is it possible for PRA to be undertaken in completely ‘new’  reas where the agency is unknown? Can PRA itself be a means of establishing the mutual trust and rapport that is necessary for any participatory development effort?

Issue Two : This concerns participation in PRA. At a simple level, who does and who does not participate in organised PRA sessions? A more complex question is whether the perspectives and knowledge of all sections of the community are equally possible to obtain through PRA, or whether there are features of the PRA methodology which themselves impose a selectivity on the types and sources of information.

Issue Three : This refers to the complicated question of the existence of different kinds of knowledge, and the problems this may pose in generating information for planning. A related question concerns the extent to which PRA remains a set of techniques by which outsiders extract information, rather than a methodology for planning in which local actors actively participate. Is there an assumption, in the practice of PRA, that the community’s knowledge about livelihoods and knowledge for action are the same? Does PRA – in practice – deal with the problem of limits of local knowledge and awareness, and the need for new skills for community analysis and for planning?

PRA and Rapport Building

Rapport is a quality that is difficult to define. In PRA, it defines a relationship between outsiders and the community, and implies trust, agreement, and co-operation necessary for the pursuit of participatory approaches to development. However, this relationship is usually described from only one point of view – that of the outsider’s. ‘Effective Rapport’ in practice often represents the set of assumptions that outsiders have about their relationship with the villagers and the likelihood of effective communication with them. In the absence of clear and mutually agreed criteria and indicators to confirm the establishment of ‘good rapport’, it is likely that different people make different assumptions about what should be taken as the signs of ‘good rapport’. In practice, establishing ‘good rapport’ can be quite a complex process. There can be several problems on the way.

1. When PRA practitioners (outside persons) are new to the area, gaining acceptance of the local people as a basis for undertaking PRA can be a complex process.

Villagers respond to outsiders in the light of what they have experienced at the hands of outsiders. If their experiences with outsiders visiting their village have been good, it is likely that they will respond positively; if their experiences have been bad (land acquisition, etc.), then all outsiders will be viewed with fear and a hesitation to talk openly. (Our early experiences in Kamasamudram Project, for example, created a lot of suspicions in the minds of farmers who thought we were from the Government and were asking questions regarding land holdings, etc. because we wanted to acquire lands for the Kolar Gold Mines.)

2. One might ask, “Don’t the unthreatening situations created by PRA help to establish a good rapport?” (E.g. sitting on the ground, doing village tasks, etc.). Firstly, notions of formality and informality are a matter of perception and interpretation. What staff see as informal may be viewed by people as suspicious behaviour. E.g. of a tribal woman from Madhya Pradesh: “Today you are sitting on the floor. Tomorrow, you will sit on our heads“. Secondly, certain PRA methods, however sensitively employed, may themselves be misconstrued and may not help communication. Paper, charts, markers, coloured powders, etc. may generate a greater sense of mystery than conventional study methods. Further, if people are insecure about land tenure and such matters, then exercises like area mapping, transects, etc., can create more anxieties about the project’s intentions. Since these actions may have some superficial resemblance to the behaviour of professionals like land surveyors, people can get quite alarmed. Under such circumstances, preparatory work becomes important, and PRA methods have to be carefully selected and used.

3. The outsiders’ initial sense of ‘rapport’ with a community may often be derived from their interactions with a limited number of individuals who are perceived as mediators between themselves and the community. Outsiders’ misperceptions of the social position of these ‘community leaders’ can be another source of communication failure. E.g., we may have interacted with Panchayat members but the villagers may place greater value on their school teacher or their caste leaders.

4. Conducting an organised PRA exercise with outsiders staying in the village (with attendant arrangements for lighting, food preparation, etc.) demonstrates a visible commitment on the part of the project to a particular village. But where this commitment is not built up on both sides (i.e. project and village, and this cannot happen at one meeting; it is a gradual process), then the PRA may – in effect – present the village with an artificial choice, “Do they want this initiative or don’t they”, before they are fully aware of the implications of this choice. In such situations, it may be better that organised PRAs occur only after a longer period of working informally with the village communities. In other cases, concrete actions involving committment from both the project and the villagers are necessary before formal PRAs can begin. (For example, in MYRADA we engage in small community action programmes where people also have to contribute small amounts of labour/materials/money. Or we take people to other locations to interact with other groups with whom we have worked. We do this before we take up other major programmes like watershed development)  

5. Experience also shows that effective communication with villagers is not only determined by factors within the village but often also influenced by the wider administrative and political context of development in the area. (Eg. some villages in the Nagarahole area may be cautious is speaking freely with outsiders because even if they have not so far been directly threatened, they may be wary of being evicted and resettled)

In sum, PRAs as organised public events do sometimes provide an effective way of winning support of the people. However, experience suggests that they should be undertaken only after a reasonably good knowledge of the locality and appropriate contacts have been developed. It is also necessary to identify some basic indicators of ‘good rapport’. This preparation usually requires time.

How Participatory is PRA?

Despite efforts to broaden contacts, initial PRAs are unlikely to be equally accessible or open to all sections of the community. Gender, age, education, kinship, and several other factors all influence participation in PRAs. Not only are some sections under-represented, but also some participation is discontinuous over the course of the PRA. In the case of women, there is often a threefold problem: under-representation of all sections of women, limited participation, and discontinuous participation. There are many reasons why people participate (curiosity, interest, mobilised by leaders, anticipation of benefits, desire to use opportunities for development, etc.) There are equally varied reasons for non-participation (time, distance, lack of interest, rivalries,  cautiousness, etc.). Segmented and discontinuous participation can cause critical information gaps and information distortions. Without some means of recording and monitoring participation in PRAs, such distortions can often go unrecognised.

Dominant Views and Community Perspectives

Physical presence or absence of people is only a crude measure of ‘participation’. There are many other ways in which involvement in PRA activities is uneven and discriminates against the recording of certain perspectives while giving priority to other perspectives.

The views of dominant people will tend to dominate. Recorded information will be biased in favour of views which are not as general as they are projected to be. “Indeed (in the words of David Mosse) I want to suggest that PRA, far from providing a neutral vehicle for local knowledge, actually creates a context inwhich the selective presentation of opinion is likely to be exaggerated, and where minority or deviant views are likely to be suppressed”.

The outsider may think that an organised PRA is an informal event. However, in social terms and for the villagers the PRA is often highly formal and public:

· It is a group event involving collective activities
· It involves important and influential outsiders.
· It takes place in public spaces.
· It involves the community presenting itself to outsiders, including strangers.
· The information is discussed publicly.
· The information is recorded and likely to be preserved.

Such activities are far from informal, everyday village life. It is, therefore, highly probable that that such social formality itself impose  a selectivity on he kind of information that is presented and recorded. At the very least, wh re public debate on critical issues is not an established practice, we should av id placing unwarranted confidence on the accountability of publicly processed information. There are several reasons for this:

· As public and collective events, PRAs will result in general information rather than particular information (except for some basic demograp ic informatio on individual family sizes, number of children and adults, and so on)
· Public PRAs tend to project what is acceptable (‘What ought to be’ rather than ‘What is’)
· Public PRAs tend to present a unitary view of interests, underplaying conflicts and differences of opinions

In other words, it is often the community’s ‘Official View’ of itself which gets projected.

Communities often exhibit most solidarity when facing outsiders. People may express their equality and unity through generalised words like “we think”, “we want”, etc. These expressions must not be mistaken for the absence of distinct and perhaps even conflicting interests. The tendency to give ‘acceptable’ and ‘united’ information may also be encouraged by faulty interviewing techniques used by the outsiders. But often, the very structure of the PRA session – group activities leading to plenary presentations – assumes and encourages consensus. As project staff we do need consensus information in order to go ahead with programme planning. However, we also have to find ways to learn of differing or conflicting views of local reality, and handle difficult situations that may arise as a result, rather than suppress them. Conflicts occurring between outsiders and villagers is sometimes addressed in writings on PRA. But PRA tools are not so good at identifying and handling differences within and among the villagers themselves.

Further, the perspectives and interests of the most powerful sections in the community are likely to dominate, usually not through overt confrontation but through this expression of consensus. Their view points thus get ‘Officialised’ by being accepted as the general views of the community as a whole. PRA can therefore, even become (unintentionally) the means through which dominant views get endorsed and legitimised, thus defeating the very purpose of going in for PRA in the first place.

Influence of the outsider

Apart from issues already mentioned above the influence of the outsider may also result in:

· A ‘Conspiracy of Courtesy’ to be shown to outsiders by concealing problematic issues
· Expressing needs in terms of things which the outsider is perceived as being able to deliver

Not all the potential biases in PRA come from the villagers; many come from the investigating team itself. For example, the practice of PRA tends to be technique-led. The techniques somehow become more important than the quality of the results they generate. Even here, techniques such as informal interviewing – which do not generate visible outputs – are under-emphasised in favour of techniques which generate attractive outputs like charts and maps (the KRIBH Team coined a word for this : Aesthetic Bias!) This bias may tend to under-recognise the views of those who cannot produce such outputs (often the views of women, which may not even be possible to put into charts and maps).

Individual interests of the outsiders for particular topics or techniques may also distort information gathering (E.g. the investigator who spent hours trying to complete a tree matrix ranking only to find that the villagers were neither interested in the topic nor knew enough about trees to give valid information). More generally, if viewed only as a particular set of techniques, PRA can limit the boundaries of learning. It can give the wrong impression that relevant planning information comes in the form of a set of completed PRA exercises. This can limit the acquisition of competence in more general skills of participant-observation, narrative-reporting (as against diagrams and maps), and analytical skills.

Lastly, the influence of outsiders is not only on the generation of information. In the process of summarising the information there is also the danger of misinterpretation and misrepresentation. (In a PRA with children in the new area of Kote Project, the children mentioned that streetlights often did not work. Their real problem was an inability to study at night because many did not have home lighting and made use of street lighting. This was recorded as “Panchayat is not functioning properly”)

In a sense, in PRA the outsiders determine the ground rules. Consciously or unconsciously, project workers impose ideas of what is relevant and what is not, what is knowledge and what is not. This in turn influences what is said and what is not said, what is recorded and what is not recorded.

Different Types of Knowledge and Expertise

Information and knowledge in any community is not all of the same type. Neither is all information freely shared. The general assumption in PRA is that knowledge is undifferentiated, easily recognisable and accessible, if the right PRA tools are used (“Just ask, they know, they are your friends, and they will freely tell you everything”) In reality, things are not so simple: facts are mixed with opinions, consensus is mixed with difference, public is mixed with private, general is mixed with specific. If there does not exist some prior knowledge of the local socio-political context, correct interpretations become difficult.

If visual outputs are emphasised, complications increase. PRA assumes that environments exist as a physical worlds “uncontaminated” by social and cultural meanings. Reality is not so simple. On a transect diagram a tree appears simply as a tree; in reality, it may be of tremendous religious significance. There are also many critical pieces of information that cannot be visually represented, e.g. authority, power, gender relations, etc.

Further, what people know may be different from what people say; what people say may be different from what people do.

Even supposing that existing bias in PRA information can be identified and more reliable information generated, is this an adequate basis for participatory planning? If knowledge about livelihoods is equivalent to knowledge for action, then most problems would have been solved long ago (unless the solutions involve money, which the poor may not have. However, often money is not the only missing factor). What is often missing – in the employment of PRA methods – is an assessment of the limits of local knowledge and awareness, and the constraints to existing community systems of problem solving. Having respect for what people know, and having identified and built upon existing knowledge, PRA should not ignore the need to broaden and deepen this knowledge, and enhance local systems of analysis and problem-solving with new skills, resources, and linkages.

The techniques of PRA have contributed significantly to the promotion of participatory development. But the danger is in the promotion of PRA as a short-cut methodology of participation rather than as a set of tools or techniques that have to be used in the context of project-specific strategies with care and responsibility. If not, the greatest advantages of PRA – its speed, the visibility of outputs, and its amenability to use on a large scale – may also turn out to be its greatest disadvantages.

These observations are not intended as bald statements of the limitations of PRA but as a challenge for further innovation to generate methods that will better serve the needs of participatory planning and action.

June 1999

* This paper was published in Development and Change Vol.25(1994), 497-526. An earlier version of this paper was produced as KRIBP Working Paper No.2 and circulated as an ODI Agricultural Administration Network Paper(No.44). It is based on the author’s field work and team discussions with the Kribhco Indo-British Rainfed Farming Project in western India.