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 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!
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
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
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.
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.
When initiating an appraisal or stocktaking exercise three ethical questions should be
asked by those promoting the actions:
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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 Banks 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
firms field reports, marketed now under the newly fashionable rapid assessment
procedures (RAP) label."
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 NGOs 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
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.
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,
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
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
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
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.