From tentative beginnings in the late 1980s, Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) has spread through Kenya ‘like a bushfire’. In response to growing demand for ‘doing participation’, PRA has been popularised and marketised to such an extent that, as one Kenyan practitioner put it, ‘everyone is doing something and calling it PRA’. PRA has become a routine requirement for development organisations, many of which have done little to change their ways of operating to accommodate a more participatory approach. Discussions with Kenyan PRA practitioners attest to a growing sense of unease: a feeling that something has gone wrong.
The paper explores some of the different visions and versions of PRA as it has taken shape in the Kenyan context, highlighting differences that are rooted in the different pathways that have brought practitioners to use PRA, and in the enduring development institutions that have shaped practice. It suggests that the sheer variety of meanings and practices associated with PRA pose a serious challenge for efforts to enhance the quality of participatory practice.
Practitioners focus on consensus building and peer pressure as a means through which to articulate and uphold ‘good practice’. Given tensions between different schools of practice, and differences in the ways in which people conceive of PRA, this raises the question of whether it would be possible to arrive at a single vision of what PRA is or ought to be. It also makes it difficult to see how to enforce any quality standards that might be agreed upon. But, the paper argues, deliberation on these issues is in itself valuable – even if no clear agreement is reached. Particularly where it extends beyond small circles of practitioners to those who fund and use PRA, such a process of deliberation can open up space for alternatives to be articulated and debated. This in itself may serve to build new understandings and alliances that can be ‘the new impetus’ for which Kenyan practitioners are looking.