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PPM&E Resource Portal - Participatory Learning and Action

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Participatory Learning and Action


What is Participatory Learning and Action (PLA)?

Participatory Learning and Action (PLA) is an umbrella term for a wide range of similar approaches and methodologies, including Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA), Rapid Rural Appraisal (RRA), Participatory Learning Methods (PALM), Participatory Action Research (PAR), Farming Systems Research (FSR), Méthod Active de Recherche et de Planification Participative (MARP), and many others. The common theme to all these approaches is the full participation of people in the processes of learning about their needs and opportunities, and in the action required to address them.

Participatory approaches offer a creative approach to investigating issues of concern to poor people, and to planning, implementing, and evaluating development activities. They challenge prevailing biases and preconceptions about people's knowledge. The methods used range from visualisation, to interviewing and group work. The common theme is the promotion of interactive learning, shared knowledge, and flexible, yet structured analysis. These methods have proven valuable in a wide range of sectors and situations, in both North and South. Participatory approaches can also bring together different disciplines, such as agriculture, health and community development, to enable an integrated vision of livelihoods and well-being. They offer opportunities for mobilising local people for joint action.

Recent shifts in participation

In recent years, there have been a number of shifts in the scope and focus of participation:

  • emphasis on sub-national, national and international decision making, not just local decision making
  • move from projects to policy processes and institutionalisation
  • greater recognition of issues of difference and power
  • emphasis on assessing the quality and understanding the impact of participation, rather than simply promoting participation

Recent issues of Participatory Learning and Action (formerly PLA Notes) have reflected, and will continue to reflect, these developments and shifts. We particularly recognise the importance of analysing and overcoming power differentials which work to exclude the already poor and marginalised.

Common principles of PLA:

  • A defined methodology and systematic learning process: the focus should be on communal learning by the stakeholders through a system of joint analysis and interaction.
  • Multiple perspectives: it is important to reflect the various interpretations of reality and solutions for problems by the different stakeholders (seeking diversity and differences).
  • Group learning process: revealing this complexity of the world can only be done through group analysis and interaction.
  • Context specific: methods and approaches should as much as possible be designed or adapted to the local situation, preferably by the actors involved (ownership).
  • Facilitating experts and stakeholders: the role of outsiders (researchers and/or practitioners who are not members of the community or group with whom they interact) is to act as catalysts (facilitators) for local people to decide what to do with the information and analysis they generate. Outsiders may also choose to further analyse the findings generated by PLA, to influence policy-making processes, for example. In either case, there should be commitment on the side of the facilitating organisations to do their best to assist or follow up on those actions that people have decided on as a result of PLA, if local people feel that such support is needed.
  • Leading to change: the process of joint analysis and dialogue helps to define changes which would bring about improvement and seeks to motivate people to take action to implement the defined changes.

PLA - what have we learned

  • Outsiders do not have all the answers.
  • Local people have a rich knowledge base and experience of making a living in a complex environment (e.g. 10 different crops and 4 species of livestock all being farmed on 2 acres of land supporting a family of 6).
  • People realised that local communities are much more likely to come up with appropriate solutions to problems than outsiders.
  • Within PLA the role of outsiders is more of facilitating a process, where by local people identify, prioritise and analyse their own problems, and develop their own solutions.
  • Outsiders can also play a useful role in facilitating links between communities and other organisations with technical expertise or funding. Outsiders can also offer their own skills and expertise but should not impose these on local people.

(Pretty et al, 1995; Chambers, 1999)

The term 'participation'has different meanings for different people. Jules Pretty (Pretty et al, 1995) describes the following typology of participation:

1. Passive participation

2. Participation in information giving

3. Participation by consultation

4. Participation for material incentives

5. Functional participation

6. Interactive participation

7. Self-mobilisation

If the objective is to achieve sustainable development, nothing less than funcitonal participation will suffice.