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The most important principle to understand regarding rapid (rural) appraisal (RRA) is that this is not a methodology of information gathering, per se, but a creative, structured use of a particular set of investigative tools for assessing a situation, topic, problem, or sector. RRA and its toolkit can be described as a rapid learning process -- by creatively packaging social science tools for gathering and analyzing information, teams using such tools are able to assess natural resource management practices and the issues regarding their improvement in a more accurate and cost-effective manner than with conventional investigative methods. No RRA exercise is the same. Different combinations of tools are used to appraise the topics of concern, and particular tools are used to disseminate a team's findings in a more digestible form for use by planners, project staff, local people, and government officials. RRA was developed initially by social scientists to allow planners to get timely information about the social and cultural dimension of natural resource management problems, it has become a multi-disciplinary approach, which helps in gathering and analyzing information on a variety of technical subjects. In fact, one of the original developers of the agro-ecological perspective, Gordon Conway, is an ecologist.

One of RRA's contributions to the design and implementation of land-based programs has been to change the perspective of technical specialists regarding their own topics of expertise, and to help them to redefine their research priorities in light of factors relevant to other technical fields. In terms of structure, RRA approaches are midway between formal survey and non-structured interviewing (in-depth, participant observation). Unlike other investigative methods, rapid appraisal attempts to create a dialogue with the project clients/beneficiaries, allowing the respondent to lead the questioning as well as the interviewer. This feature of the methodology is important to analyze the local conditions under which proposed interventions will be promoted, because it is conducive to collecting data regarding values, opinions, objectives, and indigenous technical knowledge, as well as bio-physical and economic information.

Rapid rural appraisal methods are short-term. In general, they neither generate statistically-sound, survey data, nor do they provide the in-depth understanding offered by long-term, qualitative research methods. The quality of results from an RRA-based survey or planning exercise depends heavily on the team's quality of analytical judgement in creatively combining elements of the toolkit and upon their experience in picking up key issues within a limited time period. "Luck" also contributes to what information comes to light, just as it does in investigative journalism. But only with experience, can the team appreciate what it has just happened upon. Like anthropological in-depth research, the approach involves analysis and assessment of issues during the process of collecting information, rather than waiting for all interviews to be completed as occurs in the formal survey.

However, when properly used, RRA tools can generate surprisingly reliable and substantial information about particular problems of natural resource management. For example, John Bruce at the Land Tenure Center has produced a checklist on land tenure issues for use in forestry projects to identify tenurial issues and direct further studies (Bruce, 1989). Nor is an appraisal necessarily a one-time event without follow-on. In farming systems research, RRA is used as a method for defining the scope of appropriate research and to evaluate whether the research has been appropriately designed for local needs. It can be used during project implementation as a periodic evaluation tool to quickly assess where problems lie and provide a basis for designing a more formal or in-depth study. Or project staff can conduct RRA exercises on a regular basis, thereby building upon their understanding of specific problems.

1.1 Problems with Other Methods

The RRA toolkit was developed initially because of the failure of projects to effectively draw upon other, more formal methods of information gathering. Formal surveys often present problems of:

  1. the time lag required to produce results,
  2. the high cost of administering the survey,
  3. low levels of data reliability due to interview-bias and questionnaire design-based errors (what is known as non-sampling errors in statistical jargon), and
  4. the irrelevance of many of the questions for specific implementation purposes.

Long-term studies can provide important information for project planning, but, again, there is a time-lag in getting results. Information gathered by researchers for other purposes than the project itself for a smaller population cannot be used directly by a project, but must first be compared with field impressions and the results of macro-studies, before it can be applied to the project area correctly. Nor do either formal or qualitative survey methods generate an interdisciplinary dialogue among researchers, planners, decision-makers, and beneficiaries, since those hired to carry out the surveys are seldom the actual project actors.

A special set of problems has been common with the collection of monitoring and evaluation (M&E) data by formal methods. Project ME units have been slow to start up relative to other staffing units, the data systems developed have been unnecessarily complicated, analysis of information has been slow, ME staff have often remained marginal to decision-making staff, and the results of surveys have not been packaged or analyzed in such a way as to prove useful to decision-makers. Consultants hired to carry out in-depth, qualitative research as special studies have often lacked the understanding of practical problems of implementation and drawn untenable conclusions. Qualitative, in-depth studies have often been omitted in project design and analysis because decision-makers do not want to wait for the results, because those inside and outside the country concerned who were qualified to undertake the research were either busy with other assignments or were perceived as biased against the agency responsible for the project.

1.2 What the RRA Toolkit Can Contribute

Properly carried out, survey and planning exercises using RRA methods can offer several advantages. One, they are interdisciplinary exercises and can include decision-makers as well as researchers, because the time frame is shorter and more flexible. There is an opportunity to exchange perspectives among researchers, decision-makers, and beneficiaries. This can lead to institutional support for in-depth or formal research, if decision-makers and/or researchers become convinced of the importance of a specific problem. Decision-makers are much more likely to approve a longer-term study to evaluate land tenure issues in their project area, for instance, if one of them has participated in some of the field visits that clearly identified this as a key project constraint. The study design is also likely to reflect more realistic problems because of the interdisciplinary perspective employed.

Two, interview techniques are more open-ended than statistical survey questionnaires, and reduce the non-sampling errors resulting from poor question choice and lack of cross-checking to see that the interviewee and interviewer have understood one another. Three, the toolkit for Natural Resource Management includes a number of interactive tools for gathering information through close discussion with local clients. 2 These techniques provide a structure to the discussion that allows researchers and interviewees to see the situation from a shared perspective. Mapping is one such tool, that is now entering more long-term, qualitative field studies for this reason. Fourth, RRA methods allow for re-evaluation of the hypotheses during the course of fieldwork -- such as is the methodology in long-term, qualitative research -- so that questions can be adjusted in light of new information.

Box no.1 - A Brief History of Rapid Rural Appraisal Methodology in Farming Systems Research

Rapid Rural Appraisal methodology has developed partly out of survey methods for Farming System Research and Extension (FSR/E) developed by the International Agriculture Research Centers (CGIARs), and by a variety' of host-country agricultural institutions. FSR/E social scientists have generated a number of approaches; including (from Chambers 1985):

    1) Peter Hildebrand's Sondeo (Hildebrand 1981), whereby teams of 5 agronomists or other technical agriculture specialists and 5 social scientists spend 5 days in the field, Interviewing in rotating pairs of technician/social scientist, summing the results at the end;

    2) Robert Rhoades' Farmer-back-to-Farmer (Rhoades 1982), whereby informal surveys are used to define the problem and identify solutions by an inter-disciplinary team, the 'intervention is tested, using farmer evaluation, and farmers deliver the 'last judgement';

    3) L.W. Harrington's use of recommendation domains (Harrington 1984), whereby farmers are grouped by various criteria into 'domains' for the purpose of field surveys and applied research. These domains can also determine the scope for disseminating recommendations;

    4) Robert Chambers' paper, "Agriculture Research for Resource-poor` Farmers, Part 2: A Parsimonious Paradigm" (co-author, Janice Jiggins, Agricultural Administration and Extension, 27(2):109-128, 1987), whereby the special circumstances and constraints surrounding "RPF"s are the focus of informal surveys and extension research; notably such farmers' lack of access to credit, constraints in availability of family labor,, poorer quality farmlands', less access to irrigation, and poor market access for good prices.

    5) ICRAF's Diagnosis and Design (Raintree 1986), whereby agro-forestry strategies are outlined through surveys which address trees as well as crops and broad production and conservation objectives usually omitted in FSR considering'' productivity, sustainability and adoptability; and

    6) Program in International Agriculture (Cornell University)'s Regional Analysis of Farming Systems (Garrett, 1987), which covers the usual range of topics with a well thought out section informal survey questions regarding food habits and nutritional standing.

All of these approaches see Rapid Appraisal as part of a continuing and on-going learning process, whereby the results of each stage are used to re-evaluate the issues and projected solutions. Many of the interview and survey techniques developed through these approaches' have great applicability to community forestry. In particular is the need to see the farming system as a whole and to view the problems from both the individual farmer as well as group community perspective, especially to understand how land-use issues impinge on individual farmer decision-making. The special constraints on the "resource poor farmer" are also quite important in designing tree-crop interventions, pasture improvement schemes, or common resource inputs that require community labor contributions.

Methodologically, FSR guidelines pay considerable attention to:

1) providing pointers for establishing a more reliable context in which to hold the interview, 2) collecting information using locally-customary categories, particularly for weights, measures, and time estimates, 3) creating a good rapport with the respondent before addressing sensitive issues, 4) encouraging the respondents to take the discussion into areas important to them, 5) discussing results throughout the interview process with the team as a whole, 6) recording and annotating information collected in the field, so that there is limited memory bias, and 7) cross-checking' information through direct observation and use of mapping techniques.

There are several' sets of guidelines which: address' FSR/E survey and interview methodology. The most complete reference is Shaner, Philipp, and Schmehl (1982). This work includes appendices as well as discussion in the text of possible non-statistical random' sampling, ways to reach commonly excluded groups, such as women, ways to determine farmer decision-making patterns, etc. This reference does not, however, evaluate the criteria for choosing between different` techniques for use in different circumstances in a comprehensive fashion. It provides a useful reference guide to social scientists, but requires that they have sufficient experience with the material to make their own judgements regarding which' techniques they wish to use. The Farming Systems Support Program at University of Florida has also prepared detailed training materials for FSR/E (Odell, Odell and Franzel, 1986) which include' a detailed bibliography of Farming Systems Research literature.

Unresolved Issues and Gaps in FSR Methodology

For designing and carrying out activities in agro-forestry, the FSR approaches' with the modifications introduced by the D&D specialists at ICRAF are extremely important for community forestry. Many oŁ the techniques are also applicable to the use of informal surveys in visits to t field for project design, supervision, and evaluation. There are five main limitations to the applicability oŁ the FSR approach to community forestry and land-use planning needs.

First, FSR does not tend to pay attention to the non-landed population In the rural area, which are a particular target of community forestry on public and communal lands.

Second, FSR is not tailored to the broad range of circumstances in which rapid information gathering takes place for varied project design, monitoring and implementation.

Third, FSR has not generally provided guidelines for negotiating with local groups for activities such as common resource management, or for involving private voluntary institutions in village-level activities. One

exception is Rocheleau, 1985, but this is limited to experience in Africa.

Fourth, FSR does not generally gear questions to the longer time frame required by agro-forestry (Except for DO methodology). Recommendations for tree planting must take into account the future farming system as well as the present one, so that the recommendation will remain valid throughout the tree's growing cycle.

Fifth, FSR has not yet generated a commonly agreed-upon list of socio-economic indicators or variables relevant to land-use surveys, nor has it generated an agreed-upon list of proxy indicators that can' he used to measure hard-to-gather information indirectly.

An important thing to remember when comparing newer approaches to RRA-tools and FSR/E methods is that FSR/E methods are also rapidly evolving and incorporating new approaches. An annual symposium is hosted by the University of Arkansas for FSR/E that leads to considerable exchange of new approaches and more holistic farming systems research and analysis. This is particularly the case for research on upland areas where mixes of perennial and annual crops are the norm.

Box no.2 - A Brief History of RRA as a Planning Tool

Parallel to the Farming Systems Research efforts to develop RRA as a diagnostic survey tool were efforts in the bilateral donor agencies in the 1970's to develop more people-oriented approaches to planning. These agencies beginning to recognize that development strategies did not alleviate poverty as expected and that ignorance of socioeconomic factors and issues led to massive project failures. Development practitioners oriented to these problems -- often social scientists by training -- began to tailor existing analytical and information-gathering tools to planning needs. Out of these came a form of rapid appraisal using many of the same tools as RRA in Farming Systems Research and Extension.

1.3 Underlying Methodological Issues for the Proper Use of the Toolkit

The term "properly carried out" has been used in several statements in the above background section. This is the kingpin of the controversy regarding the applicability of RRA methods to a wide range of purposes during both program planning and project execution. The RRA toolkit is: a) rapid, so that results can be quickly made available to decision-makers, b) eclectic, tailoring diverse interview and survey techniques to meet the needs of specific information gathering aims, c) holistic, capturing a multi-disciplinary picture of the local situation, and d) interactive, generating a dialogue between researchers and project clients.

The toolkit includes proven techniques from interview and survey methodology adapted to the specific purpose of the planning or survey exercise. Methodological decisions are made by the team members on the basis of personal experience and professional understanding of ways to reduce bias in gathering information. The quality of a field survey using RRA is thus highly dependent upon the expertise of the individuals carrying out that exercise. This caveat has led to considerable controversy regarding the extent to which the use of RRA generates reliable information adequate to its purpose.

1.4 Constraints on the Use of RRA

This constraint has been recognized from the initial development of the RRA toolkit. Early on, this was not a major problem because RRA was used in limited instances and generally was carried out by highly-trained, field-experienced professionals who paid quite conscious attention to methodological issues. The use of RRA in natural resource management has now greatly expanded and the toolkit is now being adapted to a wide range of purposes and carried out by a diverse set of people -- expert social scientists, technical specialists of other disciplines, higher-level project managers, local-level extension staff, M&E staff, and lower-level researchers in provincial institutes. There are as yet very few guidelines regarding the minimum levels of training required to properly use different parts of the toolkit. There are also few critical evaluations of the methodological underpinnings of the different techniques which define basic parameters for their sound application.

Why is this gap there? Several reasons. First, the toolkit is relatively new and the problems which emerge in common from its use in different situations are only beginning to be understood. Second, the applications of the toolkit vary considerably and there has been a hesitancy on the part of the writers of guidelines to generalize about methodological issues across different applications. Third, as long as the RRA experts responsible for generating guidelines and conducting training were professional social scientists, it has been assumed that the answers to emerging methodological quandaries would fall in the category of "common sense" (to quote Robert Chambers) -- basic principles of sound data collection learned through academic training and/or through extensive, practical experience in field interviewing.

This paper tries to summarize the methodological issues which have emerged in the application and development of the RRA toolkit, so that individuals making use of various manuals and approaches are aware of their existence. In addition, it compares the solutions to some of these issues used in different approaches, to help individuals in the practical selection of these alternatives. It is hoped that this presentation will provide a step in the eventual resolution of these issues as RRA becomes more widely used and our experience grows.

The question of whether proper training in RRA approaches can help resolve the methodological issues is receiving increasing attention among the main proponents of the approach. Khon Kaen University staff in Thailand, International Institute for Environment and Development and University of Sussex in England, and ICRAF in Kenya are all grappling with the problem of convincing those host-country institutions who are trying to develop this methodological capability, that instant training in this method is not possible. There is no consensus even among this core group, however, as to what is adequate training of trainers and independent practitioners. Some argue six months, some three months, some six months followed by several years of practical application.

One section of this paper will analyze the methodological issues in some detail and discuss ways that these are being addressed in current approaches.

Box no.3 - Terminology for the Reader


Key Informants


Individual Respondents


Household Respondents


Groups as Respondents



International Centers for Agricultural Research

Diagnostic Survey

Survey carried out in FSR/E to initially define research topics of interest to researchers,


Diagnosis and Design


Farming Systems Research and Extension: an Interdisciplinary program developed for International Centers for Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and disseminated to other agricultural institutes around the world.


Institute for Development Studies, University of Sussex, Brighton, United Kingdom


International Center for Research on Agro-forestry.


International Institute for Environment and Development, London, United Kingdom


Monitoring and Evaluation


Non governmental organization

2. The term "clients" is preferable to the term "beneficiaries" because it implies an active relationship between project staff and the resident population, rather than a passive one of merely "receiving" benefits.

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