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PPM&E Resource Portal - Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA)

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Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA)

See also PLA

What is PRA?
PRA can be described as a family of approaches, methods and behaviours that enable people to express and analyse the realities of their lives and conditions, to plan themselves what action to take, and to monitor and evaluate the results. Its methods have evolved from Rapid Rural Appraisal (RRA). The difference is that PRA emphasises processes which empower local people, whereas RRA is mainly seen as a means for outsiders to gather information.

The terminology is confusing and there is much debate about what constitutes "real" PRA. The key elements of PRA are the methods used, and - most importantly - the behaviour and attitudes of those who facilitate it.

Participatory rural appraisal (PRA) is an approach to the analysis of local problems and the formulation of tentative solutions with local stakeholders. It makes use of a wide range of visualisation methods for group-based analysis to deal with spatial and temporal aspects of social and environmental problems. It mainly deals with a community-level scale of analysis but is increasingly being used to help deal with higher level, systemic problems.

PRA grew out of a range of methodologies including agro-ecosystems analysis and rapid rural appraisal in the 1970s and 80s, in which the emphasis was placed on finding ways to express the diversity of local knowledge through facilitation by outsiders. It evolved from two distinct traditions: planners seeking to overcome the limitations of externally-dominated blueprint planning; and empowerment-oriented activists seeking to make their social transformation ideals more pragmatic. PRA is increasingly being used autonomously by communities but is now so diverse in application that it is hard to speak of a single methodology. The term is somewhat misleading because the combination of techniques are equally applicable in urban settings and are not limited to appraisal — they are linked to planning processes and are being adapted for monitoring and evaluation purposes.

PRA provides a structure and many practical ideas to help stimulate local participation in the creation and sharing of new insights. The emphasis on ensuring community feedback broadens the group of people involved. It is increasingly linked to participatory planning processes (e.g. using adapted forms of logical framework analysis). Although PRA was not intended to collect statistically significant information, it is increasingly used in combination with other methodologies to fulfil more scientific information needs and is easily made complementary.

There is no single way to ‘do’ PRA, although there are core principles and over 30 methods available to guide teamwork, do sampling, structure discussions and visualise analysis. The combination and sequence of methods will emerge from the context. Optimal ignorance and triangulation of findings guide the fieldwork in recognition of the need to know enough without knowing it all and to ensure that the qualitative insights are cross-checked by different sources using different methods.

The core principles are:

  • sustained learning process: enhancing cumulative learning for action by participants is the focus and has three outputs: identifying strategies for improvement, motivating people to undertake these strategies, and enhancing their capacity for solving problems;
  • different perspectives in group-based analysis: PRA explicitly seeks insights from and an understanding of the needs of different individuals and groups, which may be conflicting but will better show the complexity of local situations;
  • key role for facilitators: to include different perspectives often means challenging local traditions of communication, which requires sensitive facilitation (often someone from outside the area but also increasingly a role taken on by someone with a local stake in the process);
  • systemic and methodological basis: creating a structured process that explores problems within the wider context and not just focusing on a narrow slice of reality - from description to analysis and action; and
  • context-specific: unique social/physical conditions means building a process of discussion, communication and conflict resolution - which by necessity evolves out of the specifics of the local context.


PRA employs a wide range of methods to enable people to express and share information, and to stimulate discussion and analysis. Many are visually based, involving local people in creating, for example:

maps showing who lives where and the location of important local features and resources such as water, forests, schools and other services;
flow diagrams to indicate linkages, sequences, causes, effects, problems and solutions;
seasonal calendars showing how food availability, workloads, family health, prices, wages and other factors vary during the year;
matrices or grids, scored with seeds, pebbles or other counters, to compare things - such as the merits of different crop varieties or tree species, or how conditions have changed over time.
PRA activities usually take place in groups, working on the ground or on paper. The ground is more participatory, and helps empower those who are not literate. Visual techniques provide scope for creativity and encourage a frank exchange of views. They also allow crosschecking. Using a combinations of PRA methods a very detailed picture can be built up, one that expresses the complexity and diversity of local people's realities far better than conventional survey techniques such as questionnaires.

Behaviour and attitudes

PRA depends on facilitators acting as convenors and catalysts, but without dominating the process. Many find this difficult. They must take time, show respect, be open and self-critical, and learn not to interrupt. They need to have confidence that local people, whether they are literate or not, women or men, rich or poor, are capable of carrying out their own analysis.
The use and abuse of PRA

Unfortunately, there has been much abuse of PRA by outsiders keen only to extract information quickly, and use it for their own purposes. Such practice is unethical because local people are brought into a process in which expectations are raised, and then frustrated, if no action or follow- up results. To avoid this, those wishing to use PRA methods in a purely extractive way need to be transparent about their intentions, and refrain from calling what they do PRA.

In PRA, facilitators act as a catalyst, but it up to local people to decide what to do with the information and analysis they generate. Outsiders may choose to use PRA findings - for example, to influence policy or for research purposes. In all cases, however, there must be a commitment on the part of the facilitating organisation to do its best to support, if requested to do so, the actions that local people have decided on. 
Practical applications
Since the early 1990s, PRA approaches and methods have evolved and spread with astonishing speed. Originating mainly among non-government organisations (NGOs) in East Africa and South Asia, they have since been adopted by government departments, training institutes, aid agencies, and universities all over the world. They are now being used in at least 100 countries, with PRA networks existing in over 30.

PRA has been applied in almost every domain of development and community action, both urban and rural. Examples include:

natural resources management

establishing land rights of indigenous people

slum development

HIV/AIDS awareness and action

anti-poverty programmes

disaster management

negotiation and conflict resolution

adult literacy

Further reading:

  • Chambers (1997) Whose reality counts?
  • Dunn (1994) Rapid rural appraisal
  • Guijt and Shah (1998) The myth of community
  • Holland with Blackburn (1998) Whose voice?
  • IIED (1987) Participatory Learning and Action notes
  • IIED Resource Centrewebsite
  • Pretty, Guijt et al. (1995) Participatory learning and action
  • World Bank (1996)The World Bank participation sourcebook
  • IDS Policy Briefing 13, 'The power of participation, PRA and Policy', issue 7, August 1996