Tata-Dhan Academy: PDM


Programme in Development Management

Experiencing Livelihoods Through Participatory Learning Methods

Many people, even experienced development practitioners, feel that participatory learning methods are only applicable during the promotion stage of primary groups. Some of us ignore these techniques while doing the expansion stage of a project area. However, participatory learning methods can also be used to understand different issues (for example, a community’s access to credit, or the health scenario in a village) in depth.

In this article, I am going to describe how we used participatory learning methods to understand the livelihood scenario of a coastal village. The article is based on a visit by PDM 10 students of the Tata-Dhan Academy to the coastal village of Mangadu in Rameswaram, Tamil Nadu (Ramnad region). When reading, try to keep in mind similar applications of participatory learning methods to different development issues. The techniques we applied during our visit which are presented in this report were social mapping, seasonal mapping, and well-being ranking.

During the social mapping exercise, we made a conscious effort to not only collect information about the housing patterns and infrastructure, but also collect information about the occupations of each household. It was found that there are 152 families living in 140 houses (multiple families per house); the houses were either concrete (33%), tiled (8%), or thatched (59%). We also found 14 different occupations (see Table 1). Seaweed cultivation (73 families) and fishing (60 families) were found as the two dominant livelihood activities. Fishing is one form of wage employment, while seaweed cultivation is a form of self-employment.

We conducted a seasonal mapping exercise to understand the flow of income and expenditure of the villagers throughout the year; such an exercise also helps to understand how structural factors (such as seasonality) affect livelihoods and how people cope with shocks and emergencies. In Mangadu, there are festivals spread throughout the year; while these festivals help to build a good relationship among the villagers, they do also involve significant costs. In all, the average family in Mangadu spends at least ₨ 13,000 per year on festivals, with the largest single expenditure being for the Deepavali celebrations. Spending on festivals is seen as a prestigious act and often leads to villagers taking loans from money-lenders.

The livelihoods of these families is also seasonal. During the fishing season, people will go fishing six days per week. October, November, and December are considered off-season, during which time fishermen migrate for work. There are also seasonal government constraints on their livelihoods such as bans on different fish varieties during different months. These bans are designed to prevent big fishermen from depleting the fish stock, but it also affects small fishers since traders do not bother to come to the village during those times.

Seaweed cultivation is commonly done by women and is carried out for eight months of the year. Seaweed cultivation requires extra equipment, but brings in a decent income for the families. A typical family involved in this occupation will earn around ₨ 67,000 per year (₨ 42,000 from February to July, and ₨ 25,000 for August and September). However, the occupation is not without its challenges. The women have to walk about 10 kilometers per day, and there are no proper roads. If the winds or tides are too strong, the seaweed cultivation equipment can be damaged, thus reducing the family’s earning potential and increasing their expenses.

Because of the poor housing condition in the village, the people of Mangadu face different health problems. During the summer, the heat and humidity can be unbearable; in this season, health problems like jaundice and chickenpox are common. In the rainy season, malaria is a serious threat to the villagers, and again, their poor housing conditions do little to protect them.

The well-being ranking participatory learning method is commonly used to rank and group houses and communities on the basis of income, wealth, and other perceivable well-being criteria; the criteria are decided by the local community and helps us to understand the local perception of wealth, well-being, and socio-economic disparities between households.

During the well-being ranking, the 152 families were divided into five categories: very rich, rich, middle, poor, and very poor; the middle category was subdivided into two categories.

One characteristic of the very rich families (16 families) was that they get regular income or wages from the temple. Because Mangadu is holy and is a tourist attraction, there are many employment opportunities and the wages are higher than other activities. Some of the families in this category were money lenders.

The rich families category (18 families) included families who owned petty shops, have been abroad, own concrete houses, and are involved in the accounting work of the temple. Most of these families were self-employed, had immovable assets, and secure work.

There were 86 families in the middle category, which included characteristics like families earning less than ₨ 300 per day, those involved in labor work, and those with irregular employment. These families were barely able to meet their basic needs. The middle category was divided into two groups. Some characteristics of the first group (56 families) included owning patta land, being engaged in fishing activities, and having children who could work to contribute to the family income. Some characteristics of the second group (30 families) included not having own land, working for daily wages, alcoholism, and high debt.

The poor families (20 families) were characterized as including people who were unable to work or elderly, widows, housemaids, and daily wage earners. Their wages were irregular and their livelihoods were unstable.

The very poor families (12 families) were generally elders who were on the verge of being destitute. Many of them had been abandoned by their family members who saw the elders as a burden. Some of the families in this category were daily wage earners involved in wood cutting.

As can be seen, participatory learning methods are useful for revealing a wide range of information. In the case of Mangadu village, it has helped to highlight some of the livelihoods-related issues. This perspective can help us in many ways. For instance, we can extend the activities to do a series of detailed occupation analysis studies to identify the occupations that are best suited for improving income and reducing expenditure while also being steady and with reasonable risk. To further reduce risk, insurance can be provided, particularly because families living in coastal areas face a wide range of risks to life and livelihoods. Participatory learning methods can also help to identify different credit products, particularly those used for productive purposes. Ultimately, the goal of such activities should lead to an improved quality of life for the participants.

N. Shanthi Maduresan, Faculty


Filed under: Spectrum, , , , ,

14 Responses

  1. Yogesh says:

    This article was difficult to understand before our first session of thematic PALM. so when we prepared our presentation on thematic PALM after reading this article, still we all did some mistakes but after discussion in class room with colleagues and Shanti madam, we all understood that how PALM techniques can use for understanding any specific issue inside the village. Hope in our field visit for thematic PALM, we will perform now better and come up with more better insights as we discussed in class.

  2. Shanti Gupta says:

    Today, we have round table discussion. Prof. Gibbon has raised a question, Are NGOs are reaching poorest of the poor through SHGs?

    I also thought about the authenticity of participatory method but I think there is a lack of scientific approach to find target group, whether we are going to work for livelihood or microfinance.

    Do you have any method to make our Participatory Learning Method scientific? It is fine, if I am working in my own institution but once I will go outside a number of question would be asked related to scientific selection method of target group.

    Shanti Gupta
    PDM 11

    • Ananda Mahto says:


      Before answering this question, there are other questions that should be addressed. For instance, what is meant by scientific? On what basis do you classify participatory methods as not scientific? What are your purposes for collecting the information you are collecting?

      Some studies have shown that PRAs can yield at least as accurate (if not more accurate) information about, for instance, who the poorest members of an area are. However, this accuracy doesn’t come without a cost. The cost, of course, is in the professionalism and level of specificity in the design of the PRA. Results are even further enhanced when combined with more traditional methods of data collection. PRAs are a type of qualitative research, and effective qualitative research requires a very systematic approach that includes methods to properly codify the information that you have collected.

      As a student, one of your responsibilities is to be able to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the different types of research, through both theory and application, as well as try to develop your skills in combining research methods.

      • Shanti Gupta says:


        While doing PALM, every time I feel that when I will do any technique second time, I will get different result. You have said that we can identify the poor person in an area. We only have base that it is identify by the community. For instance if somebody asked me about my process of selection? How can I prove that people selected by community are really poor. If I will go to village to verify. Would I will get the same result?

        Shanti Gupta
        PDM 11

        • Ananda Mahto says:


          The words said during each application of a technique might be different, but if you facilitate the process in a systematic way and if you are able to codify your information, you will most likely find that the results are comparable.

          Notice that with any qualitative research, you’re not only interested in what or how many, but also in things like why or how.

          Imagine, for instance, a question like “Why don’t you send your child to school?” Most likely, in an interview schedule, we would come up with a preset batch of responses, of which the respondent needs to select one, or specify “other.” Ultimately, the most analysis that a researcher might do with this is a frequency table of responses (a how many answer), but that doesn’t really let us get to the depth of why, nor account for regional differences in why.

          Notice, however, that a focused group discussion is a PRA method that would help solve this problem. The researcher can first get an in depth understanding of the different whys in a given community, develop an interview schedule to quantify the degree of each why, and then share the results with the community either with another focused group discussion or PRA to immediately validate the results.

          • Shanti Gupta says:


            Yes, you are right in the sense of coding the gathered information. I will practice in my Field work 2 to code the data at the time of Participatory Learning Method. I feel it all depends on the facilitator who can make PALM systematic and scientific.

        • Sandeep Bharti says:


          It seems that Shanti is not much comfortable with the end results of PRA. She is raising a valid question that when you we conduct PRA in same place with different set of people the results will not be same as earlier one. But, every PRA is only point estimates and their results are accepted by everyone in the sector. In any field survey even when we do it is natural that there are chances for deviation in results of next time. I have experienced that if we do is systematically then the deviation will be much less. In case of PRA also systematic approach is indispensable.

          • Ananda Mahto says:


            Your point and Shanti’s is well noted, but consider this: If you have gone to a village and sampled only 30 households out of 150, if you had selected a different 30 households, would you expect the same results?

            Obviously not.

            In fact, if you had asked a question like “Do you send your child to school?” and found that 60% of your sample (18 people) said “Yes”, because of your small sample size, you could only say that (at a 95% confidence level) between 44% and 76% of the overall population would reply “Yes” to that question.

            In other words, simply using traditional research methods would not necessarily yield the right results if, for instance, your sample size isn’t large enough.

            All research, whether qualitative or quantitative, should follow a systematic approach.

          • Shanti Gupta says:


            Yes, you have figured out my problem. Ananda has also given some potent like confidence interval and sample size. Obviously I have not undergone much exposure but this is the question of our skill. When I will be in my workplace, how I will ensure my analysis before some other people confidently. Sure I need some innovative systematic approach. Share your experience, it will be worthful for me.

    • shyamal santra says:

      Dear Shanti,

      The PRA methods are recognized as scientific method. Remember, PRAs are not for the researchers but more suitable for development practitioners to identify the people’s needs. And more than that it’s for people to empower themselves to identify their needs and aspirations.

      The method is authentic because it’s expressed and prepared by the people themselves. It’s scientific because these methods only allow people to participate. In other methods participation of people are limited except respondent.

      I would like to share my experience with one of funder Mr. Gorgio Lody, Italy. He was interested to fund a need based health project.So we designed project proposal using many numbers and data.

      But he was not convinced. Then I conducted PRA and interestingly we found that in our intervention area people don’t need support for health as they are accessing it from Sub centre which is operating well. Rather they need Education and also they identify that a number of girls has been trafficked and Education can be one solution for them.

      Through social mapping they identified the families with out-of-school children and families with trafficked children (girls).

      And when I presented the finding to Mr. Lody and told that ‘sir, people don’t need fund for health but for education’, he was very much interested to visit the village and funded 1.8 cr. for developing the village as ‘Child and Women Friendly’.

      Please don’t feel that PRAs are best tool for convincing funders. It’s the best tool for identifying people’s need and best intervention.

      • Ananda Mahto says:


        I’m not sure that I understand what you mean when you say that PRAs are not for researchers or why you feel the need to differentiate between “development practitioners” and “researchers”; perhaps you can clarify your position on that. What comes to my mind, for instance, is the role of action research to a development practitioner, and the role that PRAs (or the related initialisms like PALM or PAR or PCA) can play in facilitating the research.

  3. Shanti Gupta says:

    Shyamal sir

    Thanks for your response but whatever I have studied Action research which is a based on Participatory Learning Method. I am interested in research but in future I will be a development professional. According to your statement researcher could not be a development professional but I feel without research development is no more.

    I am agree with your statement that participatory method is a best approach to understand the community. I also want to share my one of experience. When I was in my first field work in a village of Uttar Pradesh. In participatory method people I came to know that people are poor because they do not have job opportunities in the village.

    When I took representative sample of the village. I came to know that expenses on health are responsible for poverty. I was very confused which issue I have to consider?

    Every time community could not be able to identify problem. I am thinking how can I make Participatory Learning method more scientific.

    Sir You share your experience I am very thankful to you. Hope you will be always share your field experience.

    Shanti Gupta

  4. SHYAMAL says:


    There is no doubt that a development practitioner should be a good researcher.
    You have rightly identified the challenges in identifying development issues through PRA.
    I am working towards integrating Health, Education, Nutrition and Protection with Panchayati Raj Institutes.

    People never prioratise health because people always prefer curative services rather preventive measures. Even from my experience of advocacy with MPs and policy maker of the state (WB) for better health services for poor I have found that they are also keen to invest on curative aspects. You may be surprise that only 0.057 percent (40 cr out of 700 cr.) has been proposed for preventive services in 2011-12 plan (yet to be sanctioned). I fear that this amount will be reduced to 20 cr.

    So, its not only your experience with villager through PRA but also the policy makers also do not recognize health as part of daily life.

    What is necessary for such situation?

    • Shanti Gupta says:


      You have share your experience in field. You know this is the problem with most of the policy makers because without knowing the problem, people take action. Development professional cannot change everything but we can think about policy advocacy with appropriate channel. I know at present we do not have power to change but time being, when we will get opportunity we can take action. Our government has resources but we can guide for quality investment of resources.

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