The Participatory Rural Appraisal

It’s interesting to me that in the New Testament, Jesus’ disciples are always portrayed as total idiots.  They never seem to understand what Jesus is trying to tell them.  It’s amazing that this group of misfits is at all responsible for the beginnings of the church.  It’s one of the things that makes the story more believable.  If the writers were going to invent a story that was going to change the world, they most certainly wouldn’t have written themselves in as incompetent fools, but that’s what they did.

Let me share with you an idiot disciple story featuring myself.  I was in Nicaragua a few weeks ago with Josh Pease and our local staff members, Rydder and Gilma.  I mentioned the cumbersome nature in which we engage communities in order to assess needs and initiate projects.  Gilma immediately starts into a seemingly rehearsed lesson about something she calls a PRA (Participatory Rural Appraisal).

Gilma is an Ecuadorian in her late 30s.  She’s been working with NGOs in Nicaragua for 12 years or so.  Her previous boss is a really smart guy who is currently helping the Nicaraguan government to rewrite the water portions of their public utility laws.  After listening to her spiel, I asked her if this PRA thing was one of her previous bosses tricks.  She laughed and said, “No!”, then handed me her blackberry with a wikipedia article about PRAs.

In the past, when we wanted to do recon for a potential project, we would just ask around and hear a response like, “Well, my uncle lives out in this village and they don’t have any water out there.”  We would then find our way to said village and start asking around.  A noble effort perhaps, but it immediately set an expectation that, moving forward, we were to be viewed as “the people bringing the water”.  You may be asking, “Well, what’s wrong with that?” The answer is tricky.  There may be nothing wrong with it, but perhaps this attitude could doom a project from the start.

The key to engagement is community buy-in
When it comes to engaging in community development, there is an invisible key to success that can be incredibly hard to switch on. This key has been called “ownership” or “community buy-in.”  When you feel ownership for a project or a task, you’ll do infinitely more to ensure its success, to protect its well being, and to sustain it.
The PRA is a method by which SuNica can begin a relationship in such a way that promotes this buy-in.

The secret to a good PRA: Separation and mapping
The concept of the PRA is similar worldwide, but according to Gilma, a good PRA in rural Nicaragua includes 2 very important pieces. The first is that men and women are separated into 2 different meetings. Women in Nicaragua will often not express their views in front of their husbands, especially if their opinion is different from his.

The second piece is community mapping.  We ask the community to draw a map on the ground or on a table using sticks, matches, rocks, or anything else laying around. Rural communities love to share their knowledge of their own community. The exercise loosens everyone up and leads to a lot of talking.

We then introduce a box of nails. In Nicaragua, a problem is referred to as “un clavo”, which means nail.  The community members begin to pinpoint problems in their community with these nails.  This leads to a tremendous amount of information that provides a better understanding of what the community perceives as its biggest issues.

This type of assessment may turn up a problem related to water or education that SuNica can get involved with.  It may turn up an agricultural or domestic violence problem that we can’t solve, but we will almost always know someone working with that issue, and can make the appropriate connection.

Solving problems through social responsibility
The PRA produces a conversation that is mostly led by the villagers and fosters the sense that the community itself is in charge if its own destiny.  We score two major wins from the outset.  #1 We have a better understanding of the community’s problems. #2 Our relationship moving forward feels less paternal which promotes a sense of pride that ultimately fosters ownership of any solutions that may arise from the PRA.

When Gilma told us about the PRA, I thought, why hadn’t we learned about this yet?  I felt kind of silly in that it’s taken this long to discover. Now that we have this tool, we’re excited about the opportunities it can provide which equals a positive change for the folks we serve.

Read More

Previous Posts