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Stimulation of Self-reliant Initiatives by Sensitised Agents: Some Lessons from Practice

Sirisena Tilakaratna, 1991

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bulletThe Nature and Mode of Stimulation
bulletCreation of a Cadre of Sensitised Agents
bulletEmergence of Self-reliant Actions
bulletIssues in the Sustainability of Self-reliant Processes


In this groundbreaking piece by the Sri Lankan economist and participatory researcher Sirisena Tilikaratna, he distils the main characteristic and attributes involved in stimulating self-reliant development through the creation of different cadres of sensitised agents – external animators, internal animators and external-internal animators.

Drawing on over 20-years of experience in participatory development in Asia he outlines the processes through which sensitised agents gain the necessary skills and knowledge to perform their roles and the varying modes of operation that they require to embrace if they are to hold true to this form of work.


Grassroots experiences from many developing countries have demonstrated that the spirit of self-reliance, which often lies dormant in people who live in poverty and deprivation, can be activated by appropriate stimulation using sensitised agents.

With such stimulation, the people concerned tend to take collective initiatives – creative and assertive actions – to improve their socio-economic-cultural status. This paper summarises lessons derived from four aspects of such self-reliant development experiences, namely:

  1. The nature and mode of stimulation;
  2. The process by which sensitised agents have been created to play such a role;
  3. The different kinds of self-reliant actions that people have initiated following such stimulation; and finally
  4. The issue of sustaining such initiatives on a broader front.

The discussion is based primarily on experiences in South and Southeast Asia.

The Nature and Mode of Stimulation

Stimulation of the poor and deprived to undertake self-reliant initiatives requires two essential steps.

The first is the development of an awareness about the reality in which they live. In particular, they need to understand that poverty and deprivation are a result of specific social forces rather than an outcome of some inherent deficiency on their part or even fate. Second, based on such critical awareness, they need to gain confidence in their collective abilities to bring about positive change in their life situations and to organise themselves for that purpose.

A stimulation of this sort implies a specific mode of interaction with the people, the essence of which could be summarised as the breaking up of the classical dichotomy between subject and object (manipulation and dominance) and its replacement by a humanistic mode of equal relation between two subjects (animation and facilitation). Such a mode of interaction would be fundamentally different from that adopted by a political party worker or a conventional development worker. The essential differences may be summarised as follows:

bulletStarting from where people are – their experiences, knowledge, perceptions and rhythm of work and thought (rather than from a preconceived political agenda or an externally conceived set of assumptions).
bulletStimulating the people (animation) to undertake self-analysis of their life situations (a self-inquiry into the economic-social-cultural environment in which people live) and helping them derive from such self-inquiry facts, figures and conclusions to serve as an intellectual base for initiating changes (rather than the use of a closed framework of analysis or a social analysis carried out by outside intellectuals).
bulletAssisting the people to organise themselves and to create their own organisations – people’s organisations – which are non-hierarchical in structure and democratic in operations and which can effectively be used as instruments of action to create change (rather than organising people into externally determined structures to serve goals set by outsiders).
bulletFacilitating the actions for change as decided by the people’s organisations, in particular assisting them to deal with logistical and practical problems which the people by themselves may not initially be fully equipped to cope with (rather than implementation of externally conceived projects/programmes).
bulletStimulating and assisting the people’s organisations to carry out self-reviews of their activities as a regular practice, to assess and learn from successes as well as failures and to plan future actions (rather than monitoring and evaluation carried out by outsiders).
bulletConscious measures taken by the external agent to make his/her role progressively redundant in order to pave the way for and thus ensure self-reliant capacity build-up of the people’s organisation (rather than attempting to provide leadership and patronage or to project one’s image).
bulletSuch a phasing out would necessarily require assistance in developing their own cadres (internal animators and facilitators) who could eventually replace the external agents. Moreover, selected internal animators/facilitators will be used for the expansion of the self-reliant development process (to cover new villages/communities), thereby reducing the dependence on external agents as well as the cost of external animation (rather than the use of a large number of external agents, which is costly and often requires high recourse to foreign funds).

Creation of a Cadre of Sensitised Agents

Adoption of a mode of interaction with the people as described above requires the availability of a cadre of sensitised agents who have gone through a process of rigorous learning based on exposure to concrete experiences and self-reflection, as against formal training and instruction. Analysis of several country experiences reveals that potential persons have originated from:

  1. Socially conscious and active segments of the middle class who have had some practical experience in social activities, have gone through secondary or higher formal education and are generally in the age category of twenty-five to forty; and
  2. Those who have begun to critically reflect on whatever activist roles they had been playing earlier and were looking for more relevant or fulfilling roles in society.

The learning process undergone to develop potential cadres should be distinguished from formal training courses where the trainee becomes an object of training and a depository of knowledge delivered by a trainer. The main elements of the learning process as revealed from practice may be summarised as follows:

bulletThe starting point is a collective reflection on the analysis of the experiences that trainees already have in working with communities and their existing knowledge of micro and macro social situations. Such a critical review of existing knowledge and experiences provides an opportunity for each trainee to engage in self-criticism and self-evaluation, to initiate a process of unlearning as well as new learning.
bulletBeginning from such an initial self-reflective exercise, the trainees are exposed to concrete field situations by living among selected communities in order to gather socio-economic information through informal discussions with the people and through direct observation as a base for understanding community life.
bulletSuch an exercise in basic data gathering enables the trainee to identify those categories of the poor and deprived. Through interaction with such groups, the trainee seeks to stimulate them to identify issues of common concern, collect the relevant data on these issues and assist them in analysing the data that will enrich an understanding of their own life situations. It requires a sustained effort on the part of a trainee to be able to set in motion such a process of self-inquiry by the people.
bulletWhile engaged in such field exercises, the trainees meet regularly (at least once a month) as a group to share and analyse their experiences among themselves as a collective learning exercise. This transference from field action to collective reflection is an important method for the trainees to improve the quality of their work by learning from each other’s experiences.
bulletWhile there can be no definitive time table, concrete experiences suggest that trainees generally take at least six months to achieve a breakthrough in learning and action, that is, to acquire the basic skills for stimulation and demonstrate some concrete results in the field. At this point, the trainees would begin to show varying degrees of success in stimulating the people, with whom they had been interacting, to organise themselves so to initiate changes. The progress is not necessarily even, some would lag behind others.
bulletAs an important part of these field exercises, the trainees also should identify these individuals from within the community that possess the potential skills in animation and facilitation, and should assist in improving such skills. Creation of internal or community cadres is an important requirement for the ultimate phasing out of external cadres.

Thus it is seen that the creation of sensitised agents is a process that involves sustained field experiences coupled with back-and-forth exercises for collective learning spread over a number of months. It is a delicate human resource development that cannot be short-circuited or compressed into a short-term training course to be delivered in a classroom.

Given their formal education and middleclass origin and aspirations, the external animators tend to go through many tensions in their work with the people, for example, comparisons with peer groups, middleclass lifestyles, demands of the family and careerist tendencies. These factors make it difficult to retain many external animators for long, resulting in a high turnover. Experience shows that after about four to five years of work, a sense of fatigue sets in, at which point many of them seek job change. Moreover, since they have to be paid salaries and allowances at least comparable to going market rates, their use in large numbers is a costly matter. This would lead to overextended budgets often requiring increased dependence on foreign donors.

In order to avoid both a high dependence on external funds as well as the problems created by high turnover, it is necessary to confine the cadre of external animators to a modest number of carefully selected and committed persons. This would invariably mean that Self-reliance Promoting Organisations (SPOs) will need to depend increasingly on selected internal animators (cadres of people’s organisations) to expand the process of self-reliant development and to increase its coverage geographically.

While some internal animators would be confined to the activities of their own people’s organisation, there would be others willing to cross the village boundaries to spread the development process in adjacent areas. Such persons may be labelled as Internal-External animators (IEAs), as distinguished from the external ones of the Self-reliance Promoting Organisation (SPO) and internal ones to the people’s organisation. They represent an intermediate category, being those from among the cadres of a people’s organisation willing to undertake external animation by going beyond the boundary of their respective people’s organisations. The use of their services on a part-time basis would require payment of a replacement income (alternative daily income foregone plus travel cost) which would greatly reduce the cost of external animation.

Emergence of Self-reliant Actions

Sparked by the stimulation provided by sensitised agents, the kind of actions that organised groups of people have initiated vary depending on the particular socio-economic-cultural context – that is, the nature and extent of the deprivations, concerns of the people and the availability of political and social space for desired actions. The diverse variety of actions that have emerged may be analysed under four inter-related types, namely:

bulletDefensive actions
bulletAssertive actions
bulletConstructive actions; and
bulletInnovative or Alternative actions

Defensive actions by the poor are basically aimed at protecting the existing sources, means and level of living against erosion and encroachment by the actions of other interest groups or by governmental policies or projects. Examples are dislocations and displacements of people and loss of their customary means of living as a result of such development projects as big dams for electricity generation, agribusiness and mining operations, the gazetting of hunting, forest and nature reserves and slum and shanty clearance projects. Other examples include adverse effects of the introduction of modern trawlers on small fishermen; environmental damage caused by some projects or certain so-called development projects. Actions by organised groups have taken a variety of forms, such as protest campaigns, making representations to public authorities, negotiations for compensation, resort to legal remedies and other direct actions.

Assertive actions refer to assertions by the poor deprived of economic, social and other rights available to them under governmental legislation, policies and programmes as well as what they collectively consider to be their legitimate entitlements. Experiences show that governmental legislation and policies intended to benefit the poor and deprived – e.g. rights of sharecroppers and tenants, minimum wages, delivery schemes and poverty programmes – do not automatically reach the poor unless the latter are organised and able to act as pressure group to assert their rights. Through organisations of their own making, the poor have enhanced their receiving capacity as well as their claim-making capacity for such rights and public services. Assertive action has a further dimension: assertion vis--vis private vested interests that attempt to make extractions from the poor through process of unequal exchange – exorbitant interest charged on credit supplies, low prices paid for peasant produce or high prices charged for inputs used by peasants. In social contexts where such income transfers (from poor to rich) are an important factor in the poverty of the peasantry, organised peasant groups have initiated collective actions to enhance their bargaining power as opposed to mercantile or landed interests. Or they have de-linked from them, initiating alternative (co-operative) methods of credit and marketing arrangements thereby retrieving formerly lost economic surplus.

Constructive actions refer to projects of a self-help nature initiated by organised groups to satisfy the group needs by mobilising their own resources and skills with or without supplementary assistance from outside. Such activities could take a variety of forms:

  1. Infrastructural works, such as feeder roads, simple irrigation works and similar physical structures;
  2. Economic projects, such as consumer good stores, schemes for credit and marketing, and small industries;
  3. Social development projects, such as drinking water wells, housing improvements, and health and education programmes; and
  4. Cultural activities of different sorts.

Innovative or Alternative actions represent initiatives of organised groups to experiment with and undertake development styles and activities that could be alternatives to some elements of mainstream development processes. These may be:

bulletTechnologies that are ecologically sustainable and more appropriate to the environment and culture of the people
bulletOrganic farming, biogas projects and indigenous practices of health care
bulletRecovery and revival of indigenous cultural elements that suffered under cultural invasions
bulletEvolution of innovative organisational forms and methods of community action that are democratic and participatory in character, and also capable of checking the growth of elitist forms of leadership within organisations

Issues in the Sustainability of Self-reliant Processes

Experiences vary as to the extent the above-described actions have proved self-sustaining or have led to a continuing improvement in the socio-economic status of the poor and deprived. While some have shown more durable results, others have stagnated, lacked continuity or failed to develop after an initial spurt of activity. Analysis of concrete experiences reveal that sustainability of organised initiatives appears to depend on four inter-related factors:

  1. The emergence of a group of internal animators;
  2. The practice of self-review by people’s organisations;
  3. The ability to move from micro groups to larger groupings; and
  4. An expansion of the action agenda to move toward a total or comprehensive development effort.

The first important development must be the emergence of a group of internal (community) cadres who possess the skills to animate their fellow men and women. They require skills to facilitate group actions (and thus multiply the development beyond village boundaries or a particular people’s organisation) and to progressively reduce the dependence on external cadres. External cadres, who tend to persist without the creation of internal cadres, consciously or unconsciously create a new form of dependency among the people. This is particularly the case when such external cadres also function as some sort of delivery agents, for example, for credit and other inputs. A progressive increase in the ratio of internal animators to a given number of external agents is in fact an important indicator of capacity build-up for self-reliance. As we have already observed, the existence of a pool of internal animators becomes an important source of internal-external animators, thus reducing the cost of external animation.

Second, for the emergence of a viable people’s process, self-review of activities must become a regular practice of people’s organisations. Self-review is an action-reflection process, which evaluates the ongoing actions by the people themselves, enabling any corrections or adjustments therein as well as providing a base for conception and planning of future actions. Moreover, it is an important instrument of assertion vis--vis outsiders (including the external animator) as well as their own leaders. Self-review helps improve people’s actions, assert their autonomy and creates conditions for democratic functioning of people’s organisations.

Third, the process of development that initially emerges is rooted in small-sized base groups that often encompass members having common interests or are subject to similar disabilities. There are many actions that such small groups can take by themselves to improve conditions. But a point is reached when the feasible agenda for autonomous action becomes exhausted and stagnation tends to set in. Hence the continued ability of such organised entities to make advances depends on their ability to forge links with one another and to evolve into larger organisations through appropriate groupings with the objective of expanding the available space for actions. This is the only way by which organised groups are able to move on to a higher plane of action and thus open up even newer possibilities for action. In order to tackle larger issues of common concern, which are beyond the capacity of any single group acting alone to deal with, there is a need to grow bigger, to enhance bargaining power and to emerge as a power to be reckoned with within a given social context. This tends to be an organic development in the case of groups that have attained a relatively high level of consciousness through an action-reflection process. Such groups are actively seeking ways to expand the space for assertive and creative actions. Broader groupings emerge as a logical necessity, a felt need. When group formation on a broader front fail to emerge, micro-level initiative (after a point) tend to stagnate and even fizzle out or become co-opted into the ongoing mainstream.

And finally, there is the need to broaden and deepen the action agenda by progressively moving from initial issues of concern to a total development effort – an integrated advance on several fronts which could make a significant impact on the life situations of the people concerned. The initial actions may be, for example, defensive or assertive ones (as described above), which should then be followed by constructive and innovative actions in order to create a base for continuing life improvements. With the formation of larger groupings or organisations in a given geographical area, a sizeable base would be available to facilitate the formation of comprehensive plans that could stand as alternatives to the mainstream development activities and programmes. Such alternative development plans, based as they are on visions, values, priorities and aspirations of conscientised groups, could be used as instruments for bargaining with governments or public agencies for a legitimate share of resource allocation. In this way organised groups need to progressively advance to a stage where local/regional planning for a total development effort, embracing economic-social-cultural dimensions, could be initiated. In this final analysis the ability of participatory initiatives to multiply, expand and grow in the face of overwhelming pressures emanating from the mainstream – dependence, alienation, atomisation, consumerism and environmental destruction – will depend on the proven success in developing innovations and alternative methods, practices, ideas and plans capable of making a significant improvement in the life situations of the poor on a continuing basis.


Action and Knowledge – Breaking the Monopoly with Participatory Action Research, Edited by Orlando Fals-Borda and Muhammad Anisur Rahman, Intermediate Technology Publications, London, 1991, pp 135 – 145. ISBN 1-85339-098-4



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