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STORY TWELVE For the People, By the People Bangladesh, 1994 175 Ben was dozing; by noon the heat was getting to him. He was in the front seat of the lead jeep. There were three jeeps altogether, carrying ten visitors, not including the drivers. This was yet another of the overorganized development tours Ben had come to dislike. Along with his colleague on this evaluation assignment, Ramesh from Nepal, there was a USAID project officer (USAID was the lead donor in this multidonor community development program), two officials from the Bangladesh government, a local government official, and three senior staff of the Bangladeshi NGO Village Mobilization whose job it was to ensure that the genuine voices of all the villages in the project would be heard and their true needs and wishes reflected in the final design of the next phase. Village Mobilization (VM) was just one of several organizations involved in this complex project. It had been selected because of its long experience in the technique called Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA). They pulled into a village. At the end of a lane Ben spied a bit of shade provided by a few trees. Though the heat of the day was getting close to its high and normally everyone would be indoors, about ten people were waiting under the largest tree. The vehicles stopped. Ben thought, “Not bad, ten visitors for ten villagers. Could be worse.” But it was worse. Three of the people under the tree were full-time VM staff: a Participatory Rural Appraisal trainer and two village-level workers (VLWs); two others were not even Bangladeshis but trainees from Bhutan, assigned to VM to learn the PRA technique. A PRA session had been under way that morning, and the two visitors were observing it. The other five people were genuine villagers. Apparently everyone was taking a break while waiting for the visitors to arrive. The three jeeps began emptying, and the group approached the consultants and the VM staff. Ben and Ramesh were introduced, and everyone went around shaking hands. “Don’t let us disturb you,” Ben said to the PRA leader. “Please, please, go about your work,” he added, feeling awkward. Ben knew that protocol and plain politeness required everyone to stop and greet the group. But how he longed for something he had never once experienced—the chance to be a fly on the wall, to arrive quietly and unnoticed and observe what people were doing. Because this was never allowed to happen, Ben always felt uneasy drawing conclusions about what he observed. He had, as good evaluators in this business do, learned to discount some of what he saw, to pick up tiny clues and extrapolate from them, using triangulation to approximate what was real. But what he most disliked was the point in each visit that he thought of as showtime. The villagers themselves are supposed to be the center of attention, especially in this new participatory technique. But showtime inevitably made the visitors the focus, especially when they represented a development assistance agency. At any rate, now he felt it coming. Sure enough, the leader cleared his throat and began briefing Ben and Ramesh on what PRA is. Both listened politely, though both knew quite a bit about it. Ben had taught a PRA course the summer before, and Ramesh had practiced it regularly in Nepal and Sri Lanka. Ben cocked his head toward the PRA trainer to make it seem he was listening attentively. It would have been impolite to interrupt and tell him not to bother with the lengthy briefing he had so obviously rehearsed . Meanwhile, Ben’s eyes roamed as he looked around for the familiar PRA props. There they were, on one side of the tree. The ground had been carefully swept to create a rectangle about ten feet wide by twenty feet long. Here and there within the space were different shapes made of twigs, as well as conical piles of sand. Some of the piles had tiny flags stuck in them, made with bits of cloth. One of the five 176 Story Twelve villagers had gone back to the space and was squatting in the middle of the rectangle, carefully forming a mound of sand into a volcano-like cone about five inches high. Since the late 1980s, PRA had spread around the development industry . Today, there is hardly a village-level project being undertaken anywhere that does not involve...


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