Qualitative data plays an important role in the planning, implementation, and evaluation of projects. However, as project planners, managers, and evaluators, we will likely not be in a position to spend 6 months in a project location to collect qualitative data through participant observation. We need to find ways to make it to the backstage to see the emic more quickly. Evaluators oftentimes use participatory tools, in conjunction with participant observation, to collect qualitative data from project participants relatively quickly. Useful tools include card or other sorting, seasonal calendars, mapping, and Venn Diagrams, among many others.
Participatory tools tend to be built upon the concepts of Participatory Rural Appraisal, or PRA. PRA is an approach to development interventions that aims to incorporate emic knowledge chiefly into the project planning and implementation phases. According to Chambers (1996), PRA enables people to express and analyze their realities, while empowering local populations to be active participants in the planning and implementation of development projects.
Use of Participatory Tools for Monitoring and Evaluation
The use of participatory tools in project planning is widespread and common. As project planners, we might gather with potential project participants to do a card or other sorting exercise, or create a seasonal calendar, for example. We can integrate these into our project planning, when we have a budget to do so. This is probably the best scenario, but given the reality of the funding cycle, this might not always be possible. It is perhaps the case more often that we write a proposal and design a project, and only subsequently use participatory tools to tweak the project to make it more locally and culturally appropriate.
Likewise, we oftentimes use participatory tools during a project’s implementation to collect qualitative data for monitoring. Perhaps we come together with project participants to do a transect walk or build a community map. Such a map might help us pinpoint who is benefitting from our project, and who is not. In this way, we might use participatory tools to do a “health check” on the project to see how it is going, and change our project activities or parameters if we are in danger of not meeting our objectives.
The use of participatory tools during the evaluation phase is likely not as widespread as it is during the planning and monitoring phases of a project. We can use participatory tools to measure outcomes qualitatively. Participatory tools can be helpful to flesh out the outcomes and impacts of a project. For example, we might use a card or other sorting exercise to see if a project has been successful in helping farmers identify problem pests. However, post project, it is the unfortunate reality that we oftentimes do not have a budget to conduct a participatory evaluation, even if such an evaluation strategy would be useful.
Caveats to the Use of Participatory Tools Monitoring and Evaluation
We use participatory tools because we usually do not have months to spend in a project location conducting participant observation. We use participatory tools where we go into a project setting with a clear plan for the data that we need to collect. Herein lies the caveat to the use of participatory tools: We adopt a get-in-and-get-it-quick approach that does not help us build rapport, and certainly does not help us to develop an emic perspective. We may even misinterpret or ignore data. We need to balance our time constraints with the time necessary to use participatory tools effectively (Chambers, 1996).
No matter what participatory tool you are using, their effective use requires good observation and interviewing skills, including building rapport, listening, and understanding nonverbal and cultural cues. You should choose the right participatory tool for the data that you need to collect, and ensure that the tool is culturally appropriate. Pay special attention to how you manage the participatory exercise, as you want to manage it so that everyone participates, but you do not want to control or influence it (US Peace Corps, 2005).
As part of a valid evaluation design, participatory tools can be very useful for project planners, managers, and evaluators looking to collect rich, emic, qualitative, data from project participants.
Chambers, Robert, Rural Appraisal: Rapid, Relaxed, and Participatory, IDS Discussion Paper 311, Brighton, UK: Institute of Development Studies, 1992.
Chambers, Robert. The Power of Participation: PRA and Policy, IDS Policy Briefing, Issue 7, Brighton, UK: Institute of Development Studies, August 1996.
International Fund for Agricultural Development, Methods for Monitoring and Evaluation, Rome: IFAD, undated.
US Peace Corps, Participatory Analysis for Community Action (PACA) Training Manual, Washington, DC: Peace Corps, 2007.
US Peace Corps, Using Participatory Analysis for Community Action: Idea Book, Washington DC: Peace Corps, 2005.
About the Author
Dr. Beverly Peters has more than twenty years of experience teaching, conducting qualitative research, and managing community development, microcredit, infrastructure, and democratization projects in several countries in Africa. As a consultant, Dr. Peters worked on EU and USAID funded infrastructure, education, and microcredit projects in South Africa and Mozambique. She also conceptualized and developed the proposal for Darfur Peace and Development Organization’s women’s crisis center, a center that provides physical and economic assistance to women survivors of violence in the IDP camps in Darfur. Dr. Peters has a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh. Learn more about Dr. Peters.
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