Listening to Community: An Intro to Participatory Rural Appraisal
We strengthen communities in sub-Saharan Africa by supporting community members themselves to own and address the change they wish to see. One of the most important principles that our grantee partners integrate in their work is community participation. Creating strong participation approaches raises questions like how can one involve the community to achieve their long term goals? Who should be heard? And in what ways can members of the community provide useful feedback?
Many hope to gain full participation from community members, only to find that the predominant voices heard are those that seem to be the loudest. Our more exuberant voices in a community speak louder possibly because they are passionate about an issue, or because they have strong opinions that they want to share. These more verbose community members may be people who find enjoyment and gratification from participation too.
But what about the quieter voices in the community? What about the people who have yet to form a strong opinion? Or who don't feel like their voice will be heard or appreciated?
One widely used tool that helps foster full community involvement is called Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA). PRA goes above and beyond merely seeking input from key community members.
Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) seeks full participation, personally oriented conversations seeking out depth and variety of perspective. The involvement of community members is critical to the entire process, even in honing in on the problem itself. Community members themselves discuss the challenges they perceive and prioritize their needs. Community members are also highly involved in developing plans to collectively combat the problems that they have self-identified. In this way, PRA values community involvement throughout the entire programmatic cycle, and ensures that the program addresses needs as they are perceived by the community, establishes a solution that works in the eyes of the community, and asks the community itself to be a part of the implementation process. This strategy hopes to foster more sustainable change in communities, through collaborative involvement which leads to a community-appropriate solution and a stronger commitment to that solution as a whole.
Originally used in rural settings, PRA has expanded its scope to address efforts of community involvement in many contexts. The core foundation of this method is its focus on empowering local community members to identify and plan community-specific programs themselves. While the facilitator might play a larger role in the initial stages to engage members (explaining the How's and Why's of PRA, training community members, asking key questions, etc.), as the process is underway he/she minimizes input and allows for more community initiative (encouraging community members to make decisions, link with external resources, and spend less time on site, etc.).
In order to encourage full participation, the PRA process must be delicately adapted to the community it serves. For example, planned activities and exercises that allow participants to share, analyze, and develop action plans, must be easily accessible. Scheduling may influence participation, and this addresses timing concerns that may affect the time of year that the PRA occurs or the time of day when activities are planned. Also, attention must be given to the pace of the program. Would community members prefer to meet on weekends over several months? Or every day for two weeks? In order to garner full participation, these considerations must be made to ensure that 1) people are available to participate, and 2) the momentum of the project is maintained and participants are seeing results in a timely way.
The means of practicing PRA is to engage the community to share and analyze information to ultimately create an action plan. The action plan is then implemented as a resolution from the community, for the community. The action plan is never final but an evolving document that specifies the tasks that must be accomplished (the “Actions”), how long each of these tasks should take, the person responsible for overseeing the completion of the task, and any necessary material or resources needed. Consultants or experts may be called upon to help with this action plan, especially in its earlier phases. Ultimately, PRA becomes an action script, or collective solution, for the community.
What we love most about PRA is its determination to hear multiple voices in the community and allow a plethora of perspectives to blend into a unified voice of action and change for the better.
If you're interested in learning more about PRA, check out these resources:
Here's a 5 minute video about the myths and realities of PRA:
Here's a lecture from India Institute of Technology's Professor A. K. Sharma (Department of Humanities and Social Sciences) on PRA: httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uTdb3Zws_eo