From PRA to PLA and Pluralism: Practice and Theory
Author: R Chambers
Access full text: available online
How have the theory and practice of participatory methodologies in development activities changed since the mid 1970s? What variants and applications of these methodologies have emerged? This paper from the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) traces the spread of Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) and Participatory Learning and Action (PLA), and identifies strengths and weaknesses in the ways they have been implemented in development contexts. Whilst inflexible applications of PRA and PLA may produce disappointing results, when executed with spontaneity and creativity, these approaches can be a source of community empowerment.
PRA and the more inclusive PLA are families of participatory methodologies which have evolved as behaviours and attitudes, methods, and practices of sharing. More recently, PRA has also come to mean Participatory Reflection and Action, as a result of shifts in its practical application. The term Participatory Learning and Action (PLA) is broader than PRA and includes other similar or related approaches and methods. Because of the continuities and overlaps, this methodological cluster is often referred to as PRA/PLA.
In the evolution of PRA/PLA, there was much intermingling and innovation. Among other sources were the approaches and methods of action science, reflection-in-action, popular education, and participatory research and participatory action research. Beyond this illustrative listing, more of a sense of what has happened can be given through eight examples of parallel and intermingling PRA/PLA:
- Farmer Participatory Research programmes have shifted from an emphasis on researcher design and control to a farmer-led approach which has substantially improved outcomes.
- Integrated Pest Management, which trains Indonesian farmers to control pests through action research, has provided a safe space for social learning and action even within a repressive social order.
- ‘Reflect’ applies the participatory approach to literacy and empowerment processes and has spread to more than 60 countries, working best when programmes are adapted to their social context.
- Stepping Stones aims to facilitate experiential learning about social awareness, communication and relationships through group interaction and has received near universal support from participants.
- Participatory Geographic Information Systems combine PRA/PLA techniques and spatial information technologies to empower groups traditionally excluded from geographical decision-making processes.
- The Internal Learning System incorporates pictorial diaries to enable poor, often illiterate participants to reverse normal power structures by gathering data on social change.
- Participatory Action Learning Systems provides individuals with the tools to collect and analyse the information they need to improve their lives in areas such as women’s empowerment.
- Community-Led Total Sanitation offers individuals the opportunity to research their own defecation practices in order to improve local sanitation services.
From these examples, some general principles can be drawn out for applying PRA/PLA methodologies:
- Practitioners should remain humble before local people’s own knowledge.
- Improvisatory approaches in the field can provide opportunities to enrich the practice of PRA/PLA methodologies.
- Simply formulated precepts can effectively embed changed attitudes and behaviours in the minds of participants.
- Visual, tangible methods such as modelling or scoring with seeds can encourage collective analysis, represent complex realities and empower marginalised individuals.
- Projects governed by very few rules can often prompt complex practices which embody local people’s creative and instructive responses to their surroundings.
- Participatory methodologies should remain eclectic and inventive in order to encourage sharing of knowledge and avoid the trap of ownership and branding.
Access full text: available online
Chambers, R., 2007, 'From PRA to PLA and Pluralism: Practice and Theory', IDS Working Paper, no. 286, Institute of Development Studies, Brighton
Participation, Power and Social Change Team, Institute for Development Studies, http://www.ids.ac.uk/ids/particip/