Tools of the Trade: Participatory Learning and Action

I have a task for you: rummage around your desk or bedroom and find ten similar small objects. They could be paperclips or balled up socks, anything that you can move around easily. Use these to answer the following questions:

1. Imagine that your collection of objects represents your entire income. Divide up your objects into proportional categories. Now do the same for your spending.

2. Think about your collection as representative of all the problems you face in a given month. How do you categorize and weight them?

3. What did you learn?

I’m sitting here with 10 Shreddies in front of me (plus a small draw pile for snacking) working my way through a series of exercises called the Ten Seed Technique developed by Ravi Jayakaran. Doing these questions, I realised that I fret a lot over my non-essential spending, when it really takes up only a tiny portion (1 Shreddie’s worth) of my income.This exercise is part of a whole host of strategies for doing PLA (Participatory Learning and Action).  The Ten Seed Technique is specifically designed for illiterate people to be able to describe their community, divide income groups, or express gender norms.  

Here’s an example of a Chinese village that answered “Why build a house?” among income groups. It’s fascinating to see how significance isn’t even in the books for the poorest, while the richest hardly think about security.


PLA can include a variety of techniques: having a community map their village, create a timeline or even just sitting and listening can be used as tools for participation. The key aspect, though, is not the clever models you use or the creative exercises you invent, but the attitude with which you approach problems.

Participatory development was spearheaded by an English academic named Robert Chambers. Chambers wrote two books in the eighties and nineties, “Rural Development — Putting The Last First”, and “Whose Reality Counts: Putting the First Last”, which challenged the top down, expert driven development that characterized the era. Chambers argued that when the poor were involved in identifying and solving their own problems, the solutions would be authentic and sustainable. This requires that the development “expert” stop and listen to the people she is working with, answering the question of “whose reality counts?“. Jayakaran takes this further by emphasizing the learning aspect, that the practitioner must be willing to learn alongside those he is working with, to enter into relationship with them. In a workshop, he had us talk to a partner, first standing on a chair above them, then sitting on the floor below them. That small change made a big difference how we expressed ourselves.  Perween Rahman, summed up the approach eloquently:

 “Go to the communities. Participate in their lives. It is not the communities which have to participate in the development programmes of anyone. It is the development workers who need to participate in the life of the community.”

In any position, especially development, it’s easy to see your expertise in terms of the answers you are able to give, the problems you can solve. PLA flips this on it’s head and says that your strongest assets are the questions you ask and the solutions you take the time to hear.


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