The heart of this issue concerns real participation – valuing the contribution of each individual and ensuring that each person has the opportunity to share their views. Too often, ‘experts’ from outside think they have the answers to development issues. Too often, local people (who may have been told for decades that their knowledge is inadequate) assume that only outside experts can solve their problems. Genuine sustainable development can only come from community action – begun and continued by the community itself. Lots of impressive things can be achieved with outside funding and experts, but – like the example of the hand-pump – will they last once the outside help finishes? Sadly the benefits may rapidly fade away unless the community owns them.

Providing the opportunity for every person to share their knowledge and understanding of their own situation can be encouraged by a range of methods known now as Participatory Learning and Action (PLA). In this issue we share information about some of the most commonly used methods. PLA exercises were originally used with farmers. Later their usefulness was realised for all kinds of other work with communities. The exercises are now used to help in planning health work, water programmes, community development projects – involving communities in full participation.

Joining in PLA exercises is usually very enjoyable. However they will only work if any outside ‘experts’ involved, genuinely believe local people have the answers to their own problems. The ‘outsiders’ need to make their preparations and arrangements well, to set the scene for the exercises. Once these have begun, the outsiders need to take a back seat and, as Maclean Sosono writes, have ‘big ears to listen, big eyes to see and a small mouth to speak‘.

Over the years these exercises have been known by various terms – RRA: Rapid Rural Appraisal, PRA: Participatory Rural Appraisal, etc. Ideally, participatory exercises should lead to action within the community and not simply be a means of gaining information that outsiders take away. Hence the more recent term – PLA – participation and learning that lead to action.

by Isabel Carter