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Village Appraisal - Is this a Case of Elegant Power?

Graham Boyd March 2000 Caledonia Centre for Social Development

"... their activities are not actions but a discharge of energy which, like a fireworks spectacle, briefly lights up the skies and then vanishes into the void."
Reveille for Radicals, Saul D. Alinsky, Vintage Books, New York, 1989, p228


bulletThe New Packaging
bulletControlling and Directing Operations
bulletCovert Manipulation
bulletParticipatory Research and the role of the external agent
bulletWhy Bother?
bulletThe Powerless Professionals
bulletFailure to Mobilise Internal Resources
bulletBy-passing Public Meetings and Assemblies
bulletAspects of Concern
bulletWho Benefits?
bulletAn Extractive Industry in the Making
bulletLeave the Documentation to the Community


The failure of the community or village appraisal approach to get beyond a well-intentioned and greatly overused set of rhetorical phrases is little documented in a probing and searching way. The title is attractively misleading and thus open to a wide range of interpretations. Though the approach has been around since the early 1970s it is only within the last ten years that it has attracted wider interest from the mainstream development industry and public sector agencies.

The New Packaging

The community or village appraisal approach is gaining prominence because it has now been packaged and marketed by intermediary non-governmental organisations (NGO), consultancy firms and parts of academia.

The packaged product is advertised using a mantra of participatory development phrases; stocktaking of local resources, community-led, holistic approach, integrated, participatory, comprehensive survey data, community friendly computer software packages, technical assistance with the analysis and report writing.

This language has struck a chord with many of the aid and public funding bodies whose own agencies are rapidly changing under pressure from the international financial institutions – IMF and World Bank. There has been a global shift away from the state engaging in social welfare delivery to its being ringmaster of the development agenda and purchaser of delivery services through competitive contracting and other means.

These changes have coincided with a questioning of the effectiveness of trickle down economic development theory in achieving the benefits which its supporters and advocates so confidently promised two decades ago. New theories demand new methods – behold the village appraisal approach!

Controlling and Directing Operations

When rigorously scrutinised the novelty of the community or village appraisal approach often proves illusory. When examined closely, initiation of the process at the local level is often seen to lie in the hands of the statutory and intermediary NGO sectors, which control and direct operations through their extension workers or hired consultants.

The extent of local control depends on how key players choose to exercise their power at the local level regarding how information is gathered and knowledge created. These processes are central to determining the ownership of and commitment to future initiatives.

Covert Manipulation

External bodies have traditionally exercised control through their ownership of budgets, control of the methodology, extraction of information, analysing and processing the raw data (in some instances through specially adapted computer software packages) and writing reports in a format and style which is acceptable to those who deal in written technology.

The so-called, bottom-up, village-appraisal approach can in fact be a subtle top-down intervention controlled and managed by external forces. This subtle approach converts participation into covert manipulation. It results in local people being involved in activities imposed on them by powerful external groupings.

This encirclement of the participatory development process such that it is transformed into covert manipulation has been recognised, defined and labelled as elegant power. Knowledge is power – the challenge of participatory techniques is to rest knowledge in and with the people who will be using it.

Participatory Research and the role of the external agent

Local interest groups and external agents can view the same situation very differently. Participatory research and evaluation can be positive tools in realising and drawing together these divergent views2. However, external agents cannot conduct participatory research on their own. It must be conducted by those directly involved and documented in a format which articulates their ideas, knowledge, language, patois, style, timing and perspectives. External agents can at best only facilitate this process. They must resist skewing and manipulating the emergent local knowledge and ideas to fit external funding agendas. This includes minimal interventions in script writing, tidying up the language or determining the presentation format.

Why Bother?

When initiating an appraisal or stocktaking exercise three ethical questions should be asked by those promoting the actions:

bulletWho is participating in whose process?
bulletIs this a search to find something, which is known? (A treasure hunt.)
bulletIs this a search to discover something from which all parties can learn? (A journey of discovery.)



Powerless Professionals

When the public sector promotes these activities the field agents tend to be low to middle level officials who are not the key decision-makers regarding budgets and the allocation of services and other resources.

Consultants and NGO workers can find themselves in a similar position. They may have weak or non-existent linkages to the public or private sectors and therefore exercise even less influence on the key departments and levers of power that allocate public sector resources.

Well established external agents who are committed to genuinely participatory approaches are often in social, planning and environmentally orientated departments which are process and policy driven as opposed to product focused. They are rarely in the agency departments, which have resources and leverage, over the principal budget heads: roads, water and sewage, housing, education, industrial and business development.

Failure to notice local strengths and potentials

When externally driven, village appraisals tend to direct their attention to the failures and gaps in public welfare delivery systems. This is due to various local interests uniting and combining to present a common front to the external bodies known to be responsible for the delivery of public goods and services such as health, schooling, roads, water, sewage, etc.

In these cases the village appraisal approach fails to create an awareness in local residents of their own existing or potential resources and how these can be developed to produce more self-reliant and autonomous actions under their own direction and control.

By-passing Public Meetings and Assemblies

There are no neutral or value free research instruments. The use of externally designed household questionnaires and other information gathering tools directed at individuals can seriously distort and subvert the participatory process.

Local people must decide which questions to ask and how they will be worded. So with other tools of the trade – venn diagrams, wealth ranking, transect walks, role-plays, etc. Local people must also be involved in designing sampling frames when these are required.

BUT - these tools are often used as a means of bypassing public meetings and other village level assemblies. External agents often view these as confrontational and dominated by unrepresentative local interests. These assumptions are generalised into the view that information generated from public meetings and elected representatives is unreliable.

This questioning of the local democratic process has led to the public meeting being brought under the magnifying glass of democratic governance while, at other levels in society, little attention is paid to the democratic deficit.

It is tempting to pose the question as to how open and participatory are the decision-making processes within the external agencies.

Aspects of Concern

The implicit use of household questionnaires and some of the other tools of the trade fails to address internal differences of interest and outlook, which occur in households on gender, age, lifestyles, power and other issues.

In some village appraisal work there is the desire to have larger and scaled up coverage. This has resulted in extrapolation of information and data gathered through focus and other small group techniques to a larger scale. The information, data and views generated by these small group interactions is often of a particular and very specific nature and thus usually not comparable over a wider area or beyond the individuals who supplied it.

What has been paramount is that the word participatory appraisal has been displayed as a prominent trademark on the title page of the documents. It is as if a badge is sufficient evidence that the contents are of high quality and thus a tradable and fundable commodity in the world of development grant assistance.

Of note are the observations of the World Bank’s chief sociologist regarding the spread of rapid assessment procedures such as village appraisals and in particular the scientific quality, which is sometimes lacking:

" In other words, rapid assessment procedures run the risk of sliding into little more than the quick and amateurish manner of mis-gathering social information, that they wanted to replace in the first place. It is not an abstract risk: I have seen it at work, wreaking havoc. And I have seen it lurking in the pages of some glossy consultant firm’s field reports, marketed now under the newly fashionable rapid assessment procedures (RAP) label."

Who Benefits?

One may well ask, Who benefits from all this discharge of energy at the community level? The evidence is not hard to find. Cruise the Internet, buy a poverty report from the World Bank, receive your favourite NGO’s annual report and flick through the glossy publicity material of consultant firms and it all jumps out - pictures, photographs, illustrations, charts and diagrams by the poor.

The story lines glowingly report on the talent and generosity of the poor and how expert they have become in poverty work, micro-enterprise, health, peasant farming and natural resource management. Unfortunately they do not receive the going rate for their knowledge and intellectual property. The profit from these knowledge streams goes to the development experts and public officials as copyright fees and conference and seminar commissions.

The RAP process began in the early 1970s as a genuine attempt at a more participatory and stakeholder approach to development through the praxis of action-reflection. It has ended as a growth industry for academia, NGO research institutes and consultancy firms. What went wrong?

Development practitioners hold values and personal agendas that are in tune with capitalist society. They thus wish to be suitably remunerated for the knowledge and skills, which they have acquired. They are motivated, entrepreneurial, dynamic and talented. It is natural for them to seek opportunities to further their careers through enhancing reputations and getting out of the routine and hard slog of community level work. The majority of development professionals are not primarily motivated by idealism, ideology or deep spiritual values. They are profit motivated with an eye to promotion.

An Extractive Industry in the Making

The dilemma for the development practitioner is that to progress up the career ladder factual evidence is required that community work has the same intellectual worth as other more technical disciplines – engineering, economics, accountancy, project management, etc.

This has set in train a documentation and conferencing bonanza which has been encouraged and fuelled by the academic and NGO research industry who have sought to appropriate, influence and formalise rapid assessment procedures (RAP).

They have sought to exert this influence through control of the training, documentation and peer learning processes. Short courses, seminars, conferences and professional networks on participatory methods are now run by or under the direct influence of a large number of universities and NGO research institutes or personnel who have strong links to these institutions. Participatory methods have become a commodity for trade and are now fully embedded in the commercial operations of these training and research institutions. In recent years, as part of the ongoing commercialisation of participatory methods, these institutions have introduced new growth elements such as international and regional documentation centres and various types of newsletters, Internet web sites, training guides and journals.

The business of extracting and mining local knowledge and social capital has expanded enormously during the 1990s through the adoption of participatory methods by the World Bank and other international development institutions as part of their focus on global poverty reduction. This policy re-tooling involves combining standard methods of national data gathering (census, household budget surveys, labour market surveys, health and demographic surveys, etc.) with community level participatory methods. These combined methods are now functioning at national and regional levels under such titles as participatory poverty assessments, human development assessments and participatory policy assessments.

The participatory methods industry has expanded into new fields such as national policy setting and poverty reduction in addition to its original focus on people-centred development. The academic and NGO research institutions and their associated professional networks have become further entrenched into the heart of an ever-expanding extractive trade in local knowledge and social capital.

The main beneficiaries of this trade are the external agencies and development professionals who prosper from both the opening up of these new fields and the spreading of the approaches through their control of the means of documenting and disseminating the extracted knowledge.

Leave the Documentation to the Community

Development practitioners wishing to kill this extractive knowledge trade by exploitative academic and NGO research institutions and their associated professional networks should take a leaf out of the conservation movement by adapting their slogan Take only photographs and leave only footprints. Those professionals committed to people-centred development should Take only photographs and leave the documentation to the community.

If one needs to write up ones experiences then do that only after a period of self-reflection in which the ethical issue to consider is whether the documentation will have any real direct use in assisting to improving the condition of the less powerful. If it does not then you are writing to enhance your career and are therefore part of what Saul Alinsky terms "the fireworks spectacle that briefly lights up the sky and then vanishes into the void."

1. See Helping, by Marianne Gronemeyer, pp53-69, in The Development Dictionary: A Guide to Knowledge as Power, edited by Wolfgang Sachs, Zed Press, London, 1992

2. See A Short Note on Participatory Research, Prof. Sirisena Tilakaratna, January 1990, available at www.caledonia.org.uk/research.htm

3. Re-tooling in Applied Social Investigation for Development Planning: Some Methodological Issues, Cernea, M. p17. In RAP: Rapid Assessment Procedures, Scrimshaw, N and G.R. Gleason (Eds)



The assistance of George Clark from the Caledonia Centre for Social Development in reviewing and commenting on drafts of paper is gratefully acknowledged.



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