The ways in which development projects and initiatives are created and implemented have changed drastically over the past 50 years, with one of the most important changes being improved community involvement. Beginning in the 1970s, development practitioners found potential development projects by utilising Rapid Rural Appraisal (RRA) techniques, which included doing short-term observatory research in order to identify the different development issues a country faced. These research trips utilized community members at a limited capacity as cultural barriers made it difficult for researchers to gain a community’s trust in a short period of time and therefore gain the privilege of accurate information coming from the native perspective.

Many projects created and implemented under RRA saw many obstacles along their way, such as general cultural impediments due to oversight and community buy-in and engagement due to a lack of connection to the purpose of the projects. These obstacles tended to affect the overall outcome of projects, leaving many goals unmet and resources ineffectively used. As soon as development practitioners saw projects fall short time and time again, new approaches to understanding development issues began to pop up and became more widely utilized.

Many of these new techniques fall under what is called Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA), which depends on community involvement to identify problem areas in the path to development of their countries. This method fosters the idea that an engaged and empowered community will bring about improved and more permanent community development. While utilization of PRA techniques is on the rise, there still exist many organizations who either use it half-heartedly or not at all due to the time intensive nature of many of the techniques, which require gaining trust from a community. During the Fall 2014 semester, I studied abroad in Southern Madagascar and had the opportunity to learn about these techniques and implement them on a small scale.

After spending a few weeks studying different participatory rural appraisal techniques, the twelve of us were split up and paired with a Malagasy student our age to go out, integrate ourselves into a rural village and its culture in the most southern region of Madagascar and to practice implementing the techniques we had been learning our week there. I was assigned to a village called Tanandava, known as one of the liveliest villages full of some of the most vibrant song and dance in the Faux-Cap region.

When not singing and dancing, my team and I conducted a transect walk through our village, drew maps and gathered other relevant information to understanding the level of development in the area. We created three different types of maps; one was a map of the local market we created by observation and interaction with merchants, the second was a map of our village as created by the villagers, and the third was a map of resource flows in and out of our host’s home. The second map we created was the first technique we practiced with our village, having them identify what objects would mark which landmarks and the like. While the village created the local map almost entirely on their own after we explained our goals with creating the map, the community seemed to need reminders of different parts of the village to include such as their fields and roads.

The resource flow map was the most difficult of all the techniques we practiced as our host father had a hard time determining what a resource was and the resource flows into the household. He began to understand that the effects and flows of resources were not only animate things once we gave examples and asked more detailed questions, in which we saw flows such as honor and respect coming into the household.

In both of these scenarios, I realized that one of the most interesting consistencies was that through participating in PRA techniques, community members gained a better understanding of all the resources they had access to and their importance to the livelihood of the community. While the information we collected was not for any particular research purpose other than experience, we left copies of the notes we took and maps we created in both French and Malagasy versions. We did this for a few reasons; we wanted our village to remember us and what they had learned by having physical copies of our work, as well as wanting to assist future practitioners in the region by providing them with information on past states of the village.

The opportunity to learn about these skills through a hands-on approach helped me to understand the importance of inclusive research and appraisal techniques to the future of development but also the many challenges these techniques face. With many global efforts aimed at improving developing countries, particularly as quickly as possible for greater economic benefits, the need for long-lasting development is necessary and it is imperative that these efforts factor in time to effectively research. Even though community involvement in development may not be time efficient, the resulting impact and permanence of projects with cultural understanding and community buy-in should be considered a worthy trade-off. 

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