Any sensible government must learn to unleash the energy of its people and get them to perform instead of trying to get a bureaucracy to perform

―Verghese Kurien, I Too Had a Dream

Tackling poverty requires an approach that must start with the people themselves and encourages the initiative, creativity and drive from below. The strategy must be at the core of any transformative exercise if the results are to be lasting and enduring.

Participatory development attempts to move away from externally led interventions. It aims to facilitate action and social change that is led and shaped by the so-called ‘beneficiaries’ themselves. It emerged as an alternative to the top-down development approaches of the1950s and 60’s. However, as participatory development gained importance so did the critiques from other scholars. At the turn of this century, Participation: the New Tyranny? challenged the assumption that participatory development represents a shift in power relations from development experts to the local communities. The main critique is that development practitioners and organisations are not passive facilitators. They own the tools, choose the topics and ultimately shape and direct the processes. So, instead of a shift in power relations, participatory development was seen as a mask perpetuating the dominance of Western actors over the recipients of Indian aid.

Participatory development has now adopted a more pragmatic approach, which results in a wide spectrum of methods used. Most of them are less idealistic than their original Freirean roots. Participatory projects can also differ from one another in their nature and objectives. There is no easy single answer on how to implement them. However, looking at the pitfalls to be avoided can be a place to start.

The early nineties of the last century saw the introduction of a sound participatory paradigm initiated by Robert Chambers, known as Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA). It was designed to involve all the stakeholders of a development programme in the entire decision-making process. It caught on when microfinance gained vogue. It was meant to involve the villagers themselves in identifying prospective borrowers, loan activities and loan amounts.

The new participatory programme  is now widely known in development discourse as ‘bottom up’ approach .The ‘bottom up’ approach is about living and working with the poor, listening to them with humility to gain their confidence and trust. Their trust cannot be bought outright or manipulated with money, or by grafting urban assumptions of development onto existing rural practices, which in fact may destroy existing workable structures. We must first understand their economy at a granular level and, most important, thoroughly understand their local culture. That approach is a welcome contrast to the grandiose foreign-aid schemes that do more harm than good. Experiences show that governments too often derail the money intended to help the poor to pad the pockets of civil servants instead. Mired in bureaucracy and corruption, the benefits rarely reach those who needed them the most.

The bottom-up approach means that local actors participate in decision-making about the strategy and in the selection of the priorities to be pursued in their local area. Experience has shown that the bottom-up approach should not be considered as alternative or opposed to top down approaches from national and/or regional authorities, but rather as combining and interacting with them, in order to achieve better overall results.

When poor communities think at the human level, all their goals are interconnected. But under the top-down model, in the absence of a global grass-roots movement partnering with the communities, the goals have been compartmentalized to suit donors and governments. In fact, rural development involves integration of its subsystems into an organic whole.

Participatory Rural Appraisal is an approach to the analysis of local problems and the formulation of tentative solutions with local stakeholders. It makes use of a wide range of visualisation methods for group-based analysis to deal with spatial and temporal aspects of social and environmental problems. It mainly deals with a community-level scale of analysis but is increasingly being used to help deal with higher-level systemic problems.

The techniques are typically used in the field to gather qualitative data, often to complement quantitative data derived from traffic counts and origin and destination data. This begins with the people who know the most about their own livelihood systems. This approach must value and develop the recipients’ knowledge and skills, and put into their hands the means to achieve self-development. This will require a reshaping of current practices and thinking associated with development assistance. In short, it will require the adoption of a new paradigm.

This emerging participatory development paradigm suggests two perspectives. Firstly, it involves local people in the selection, design, planning and implementation of programmes and projects that will affect them. Thus, it ensures that local perception, attitudes, values and knowledge are taken into account as fully as possible. The second is to make more continuous and comprehensive feedback an integral part of all development activities.

More an eclectic situational style than a method, the Participatory Rural Appraisal is distinguished at its best by the use of local graphic representations. These are created by the community that legitimises local knowledge and promotes empowerment.

Poverty cannot be measured by income alone. Hence, there is a need to identify categories of wealth relevant to the specific village or localities like animal ownership, type of house, size of family, farm size and other criteria. Wealth ranking enables villagers to rank households in the community according to economic and other ‘well-being’ categories. This helps identify target group members for projects, specifically the poorest sections of a society. It also subdivides larger groups for further PRA discussions.

Differences in wealth and well-being affect people’s perceptions and coping strategies. It is important to understand this prior to further appraisal or planning. This type of ranking not only discusses relative positions of households in a community but also points to local indicators of wealth and well-being.

It is possible to distinguish three distinct objectives of self-education: development, local governance, and empowerment. The first enables beneficiaries to identify their survival needs, map available resources to address those needs, decide upon an appropriate strategy through participatory planning, acquire requisite skills, mobilise community resources and act in a collective manner. The second concerns skills required for local governance, the possession of which allows for greater and more fruitful interaction with the local political structures and ultimately, a more inclusive vision of social development. The third is about the strength that women derive from being members of collectives, which allows them to be more assertive in dealing with issues and also have an expanded coverage.

True development should not translate into development as seen by the elite. It must be development as seen by those whose lives are to be transformed.

Moin Qazi is the author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker .He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades .He can be reached at moinqazi123@gmail.com

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One Comment

  1. K SHESHU BABU says:

    When the fruits of growth are shared by poorest of the poor , that is development but just putting statistics of industrial growth of a few corporates or over all growth figures without really giving details of the rise of income of the bottom of society is not ‘ development ‘