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The increasing incorporation of rural development goals in forestry activities has created a parallel need for relevant socio-economic information. Although data is often available from independent studies conducted by sociologists and anthropologists, it often does not focus on development or natural resource management. When included in forestry project formulation or implementation teams, social scientists often feel that they are not given enough time to adequately research complicated and site specific issues. Foresters, for their part, observe that socio-economic data is frequently too voluminous to analyze, difficult to relate directly to programme activity design or management decisions, or so time consuming to collect that it arrives too late or is out of date before it is ready to use.

It became apparent that there was a need for alternative techniques for socioeconomic information gathering to address the above problems in community forestry projects. One method that has been used increasingly in development projects is called rapid appraisal. Rapid appraisal is essentially a process of learning about rural conditions in an intensive, iterative and expeditious manner, specifically designed to improve quality and timeliness and to reduce cost. Characteristically rapid appraisal adopts a dialogue method in which a small interdisciplinary team works directly with local people to identify the constraints they face and opportunities for addressing them.

FAO wished to explore the range of techniques being termed rapid appraisal and their potential in community forestry efforts: specifically, the information they could provide either alone or in combination with other methods; how they could be used in a participatory manner; and the training and other requirements necessary to assure quality information. Consequently, through the FAO Community Forestry Unit, a consultant, Dr Augusta Molnar, was contracted to explore the range and effectiveness of rapid appraisal approaches being used by specialists and practitioners in various fields. Dr Molnar reviewed relevant documentation and interviewed a large number of social and technical specialists, researchers and project appraisers. She documented how those currently designing and implementing natural resource management activities were using more and less formal rapid appraisal techniques and how these actual practices related to the published theories and methodologies. The World Bank provided supplementary funding and access to its networks to expand the information base. Both the World Bank and the Oxford Forestry Institute hosted working group reviews of the material.

Initially the intent was to develop an internal FAO document on rapid appraisal as a step toward a more complete review of social science methods. However, given the overwhelming evidence of the high potential for effective use of rapid appraisal techniques in community forestry efforts, the high quality of Dr Molnar's work and the increasing number of requests for assistance in this area from FAO member countries, it was decided that the report should be widely distributed. Consequently, it has been revised and is hereby published as part of the Forests, Trees and People Programme working document series.

The FAO/SIDA Forests, Trees and People Trust Fund Programme focuses on developing methods, approaches and tools in support of rural people improving their own well-being through tree and forest management. Within FAO the Programme is coordinated by Marilyn W. Hoskins, Community Forestry Officer, Policy and Planning Service, Forestry Department.

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