3: Teething challenges of implementing PAR processes

by Witness Kozanayi, researcher supporting the SKI AEL Participatory Action (PAR) Research process

Community dialogues in Chibvuma village, Chimanamini district. The dialogues ensure social learning and cement solidarity among residents
Credit: W. Kozanayi

While progress has been made in promoting PAR, there have been some pitfalls which the PAR promoters are facing and must overcome. Such pitfalls are inevitable given conventional research and development approaches and considering that PAR is new in some communities. In some cases, unexpected developments occurred such as competent PAR facilitators leaving their community to pursue other livelihood options in urban areas or to pursue political offices. In such instances, replacements had to be found quickly in order not to create an institutional vacuum which would then result in loss of momentum.

Three main challenges were common among thefive SKI partners piloting PAR, namely information overload, short time frames to learn about PAR, and lack of tools to effectively roll out PAR.

Firstly, when conducting PAR, a lot of data is being collected and processed into reports. A key reflection issue for the local PAR facilitators is how to strike a balance between avoiding information overload and collecting enough data to tell stories to different audiences within communities. 

A related question that is being raised across all the sites is the safe storage of collected data such as photographs, videos, and written material – both in hard and soft copies. These are issues everyone involved in PAR is grappling with. Solutions will unfold as the PAR process continues as it embraces learning, relearning, and unlearning by the actors.

Secondly, as alluded to by Mr. Nzira below, the PAR process needs time.

 “PAR training needs more time for effective comprehension of the approach and also to collect data (for baseline surveys)”- (John Nzira, FEET/Ukuvuna- 5/8/22).

The next SKI phase offers an opportunity to deepen and scale out PAR within and beyond the current processes. For example, PAR can be deepened through ongoing use as a M&E approach through the SKI mapping process, and within the Agroecology Landscapes (AEL) work while being expanded into the Healthy Soil, Healthy Food (HSHF) work. The HSHF is a regional initiative whose general objective is to put in context the biofertilizer technology use , adoption, optimization and its potential as a steppingstone to healthy soils and ultimately healthy food in smallholder communities.  Six SKI partners drawn from S. Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi are piloting this initiative. The learning curve can be shortened by SKI partners sharing experiences and reflections on PAR e.g., through the SKI Facebook page and other related virtual platforms. In the same vein, a virtual PAR Day is an apt platform for pilot sites (and others trying different PAR approaches) to share experiences.

A third challenge highlighted by the local facilitators across all the partners was the lack of tools for the local facilitators. In particular, facilitators highlighted that to do their work effectively (e.g., to take pictures, videos, or share reports or participate in virtual meetings), they would need smart phones. Unfortunately, some of them do not have these devices, which negatively affects their ability to engage. In some cases, facilitators walk long distances to borrow a smart phone to send reports or pictures reflecting those facilitators’ commitment to the PAR work.

Considering the enthusiasm for PAR that partners have demonstrated, these challenges are surmountable. Going forward, collectively, we need to deepen the work in pilot sites and thematic areas (Community seed bank and AEL) and broaden it to other areas of SKI’s and partners’ work. The goal of real community led research is not far-fetched! Partners using the PAR approach learn by doing, embracing error and honing acquired skills. To that end, a lesson we have all learned so far is that when using PAR, pragmatism and flexibility is called for to deal with unpredictable changes along the way.