We recently finished the first stage of a brief research project on the needs of small farmers in Swaziland and Lesotho, using a participatory approach that has been used for impact assessments of projects in various countries.
I’ve written before on the Beneficiary Assessment (BA) approach, which attempts to get a more authentic view on local community perspectives of development project impact by having members of similar communities act as primary researchers.
This time around, we are adapting the approach to create a kind of baseline for a possible new phase of the SDC-funded regional Seeds and Markets Project (SAMP). SAMP began in 2008, but was initially mplemented only in Zimbabwe. More recently, SAMP expanded into Swaziland and Lesotho.
SDC Pretoria is interested in getting a better idea of how the project can be more effectively aimed at poorer households, which is a challenge because much of the attention in SAMP up to now has been aimed at supporting community seed producers and the market systems within which they operate.
It’s likely that many poorer households face significant barriers to entry as seed producers because of limited access to land and/or the labour necessary to cultivate at an appropriate level. Based on this dilemma, SDC commissioned a participatory review of SAMP in the most recent two countries, to see whether a clearer picture of needs and possibilities could be generated.
Over the past several months, I have been working with national level facilitators in both countries, to adapt the BA approach for this purpose, to identify appropriate community level researchers and specific communities where the research can be done over a two-week period.
We just finished a simultaneous one-week training of researchers in both countries, and I am hopeful that things are ready for the field research in the coming several weeks.
From time to time we discuss the potential usefulness of this kind of participatory approach, where members from several communities are trained to gather information, and then do so by visiting households in other communities and facilitating focus group disucssions. In particular, its effectiveness in getting ‘real’ perspectives from those communities, as opposed to highly derivative exercises where external consultants are gathering such information, is one of the elements we’re interested in. I still believe we *do* get a more authentic picture, but I can’t prove it. I can only rely on what the various stakeholders involved in this kind of exercise say, and so far they seem to be almost universally enthusiastic.
There’s another thing that tends to be forgotten when we do such things, and my recent experience in Lesotho brought this out: most community members who are trained have never done anything like this kind of research before. When I compare the tentative and sometimes puzzled comments of those participants at the beginning of the training to their more relaxed, enthusiastic and confident behaviour at the end of it, it reminds me that this is not just a participatory research exercise, but also a capacity building one.
Who knows how and when trainees will use their new skills, which we try to reinforce by successive rounds of increasingly realistic role playing (‘fake’ household and focus group discussions in the workshop, followed by a field testing exercise in a real community, followed by the actual research).
I can’t say how this experience will affect the trainees, but my gut feeling is the skills they developed over these several months will stick with them and at the very least stimulate their thinking about possible futures that is open to more possibilities than before. Although this is not the main goal of the participatory research, it is certainly a tangible benefit that goes beyond the exercise itself.