Trained as a sociologist in grad school, I have to admit that I get giddy about things like survey and interviews. I like having information at my fingertips and I’ve always wanted to know more about the community that PEPY has been working with in Chanleas Dai. When I envisioned our team doing this, it was always something along the lines of my academic training……a village-based survey, perhaps some interviews with randomly selected families….focus groups with village chiefs etc. Mostly it was OUR team collecting information, and then using that information to make conclusions and evaluate problems in the community.
When we hired our Cambodian Country Manager Aline in September, she proposed a version of assessment that was drastically different: a Participatory Rural Appraisal. Unlike typical research methods which extract information, the PRA method attempts to involve community members more directly in their own appraisal of their livelihoods. Instead of asking questions, the PRA encourages villagers to use creative tools to ask their own questions, discuss their community problems, and come up with problem rankings describing the biggest issues in their village. It sounds so abstract in writing, and though I was excited about as much community engagement as possible, I have to admit that I wasn’t quite sure how or if it would work out.
After spending a week with Aline and Tolors in Chaleas Dai, my vision of social research has been stood on its head. The PRA does nothing I have been taught social research should do. It is also incredibly effective at empowering community members, something that is never high on the goal sheet of survey researchers. I am so inspired by the way the PRA tools engage villagers, and make “research” more of a partnership than I have ever seen in the past. I fear I would do a poor job at explaining what makes the PRA methodology so impressive. Instead, perhaps a few pictures will do the trick.
Each day, in all of the 11 villages, we start with a village walk with community members representing different ages, sexes and viewpoints. The villagers show us the water sources, the different crops, the homes where people have remittances sent from migrant workers in Thailand, the local school, the homes where kids drop out, the types of fertilizer they use, the toilet facilities and where the women who make brooms and straw mats live. We walk for an hour or two, covering the span of the village and getting a sense of the resources available.
The group splits into two teams, one drawing a village map with social and geographical indicators including things like migrant households, rich and poor households, high drop out rates etc. In many of these villages, no one had ever seen a map of their village or attempted to draw one. The second group creates a seasonal calendar, indicating what months of the year money comes in for each different resource (rice, eggplant, morning glory, straw mats, remittances from abroad, etc) and when payments take place (fertilizer, school fees etc). They also map out water availability, climate, festivals and other relevant periods of time. After talking about these two tools as a group, the participants brainstorm their village problems….everything from “too much iron in the water makes our tea black” to “poor soil and lack of water sources during the dry season”. We rank the problems as a group, and then brainstorm causes, effects, and possible solutions together.
We are completely blown away by what we are learning, but the people we are meeting, and by the potential that we are seeing to create large shifts with small changes. Our plans are still in the works, but I have never been more excited about where PEPY programs are headed. Our whole office is enthused….seeing the possibilities with a more clear vision than ever about where we can make an impact.
The eleven village chiefs are excited too. And also the cutest group of old men I’ve ever met 🙂