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The fundamental principles of RRA

RRA is never the same in different circumstances and never follows a predetermined pattern; its usefulness as a means to information generation lies in this fact. Nevertheless, there are certain principles that must be kept in mind, and often sharing one's experience is valuable for the wider use of this methodology.

A variety of approaches have been used by different researchers; nonetheless, the fundamental principles of RRA must be adhered to. Broadly, they are: triangulation, optimal ignorance, appropriate imprecision, rapid and progressive learning, learning from, and along with, rural people.

1. Triangulation relates to the use of more than one, often three, sources of information for validation. In order to obtain information, there is no way that can be termed the "best." Therefore, in order to improve accuracy of information, triangulation becomes an important element of RRA.

2. Optimal ignorance means knowing the difference between what is worth knowing and what is not, enabling the collection of information that is required for the research projects. This avoids collection of too much irrelevant data.

3. Appropriate imprecision. In conventional surveys, many of the data collected have a degree of precision that is really unnecessary. It is often more useful to obtain causes of problems, trends and directions of change, rather than accurate information on the absolute numbers affected by the problem.

4. Rapid and progressive learning can occur because of the exploratory and iterative nature of RRA. Many new issues are raised along with better insights into the problems. However, it is these new issues and insights that lead to an understanding of the real problems and their solutions.

5. Learning from, and along with, rural people. Local perceptions and comprehension of situations and problems are essential to learn and understand, since the intention is to plan programmes that are viable and acceptable to the local inhabitants. The knowledge base of local inhabitants must be tapped in order to avoid misconceptions about the lives and constraints of this population. Also, by involving the local community in both defining community needs and identifying possible solutions, the people develop a "sense of ownership" of the activity. This reduces the possibility of failure.

Techniques for data collection

The process of information generation involves a combination of various research methods and techniques. These techniques vary from one research study to another. There is no standard set of techniques that can be used in all circumstances, and a deliberate selection of a combination of tools should be used. Nonetheless, data must be collected from secondary as well as primary sources.

In the nutrition context, various factors influence the nutritional status of an individual and the community as a whole. Among these are factors associated with socio-cultural and environmental background, economic, health, hygiene and agricultural patterns, and food accessibility and food policies. Therefore, it is important to understand as closely as possible those limiting factors that may be open to intervention to affect the well-being of the population. A diagrammatic representation of the factors influencing the "problem under consideration," which is often a complex network, is a critical step to data collection. The network representing the different interactions (and often feedbacks to causes and effects of malnutrition) forms the basic tool for the information generation process. To understand these interlinked factors, different techniques should be used, and these will vary with the research objectives.

Secondary data collection

Collection of information from secondary sources is vital prior to the initiation of actual field work. Various secondary sources should be tapped, depending upon the objectives of the particular research. Secondary sources include:

• Review papers on the issue for the particular region under study.

• Published government data/statistics.

• Discussions with selected experts from various disciplines.

• Informal discussions with selected key-informants, which may constitute village leaders, members of local voluntary agencies or organizations, local health personnel, school teachers, etc.

• Maps and aerial photographs can also be used to mark the region for study and assess the topographic and other characteristics of the area selected.

• A knowledge of existing programmes for community development, both regional and national.

Primary data collection

SEMI-STRUCTURED INTERVIEWS At best these are conducted by developing an outline or a guideline in order to maintain the direction of the interview. Such a guideline should indicate the major issues to be covered in the interview and should be referred to frequently during the process of the interview, which is an informal one. The interviewee is allowed to put forward his/her views on a particular issue and the role of the interviewer is to listen and maintain focus and direction to prevent the conversation from going off on a tangent.

The most crucial part of such an interview is to develop a rapport with the community, and this is most often established by listening to the people talk about their problems rather than suggesting solutions.

GROUP DISCUSSIONS Group discussions have a special advantage over personal interviews in that a larger body of information can be collected, covering larger groups of people, in a short time. Group discussions are also useful to cross check information. Also, certain information that may be sensitive is more easily obtained in larger gatherings where the source cannot be pin-pointed to one individual alone. Such information often relates to misuse of funds and resources or to maltreatment or violence directed against certain groups of people. However, selections of the group should be done carefully and it must be homogeneous in nature.

FOCUS GROUP DISCUSSIONS Focus group discussions are particularly useful to elicit information regarding social customs, food patterns and behaviour, infant feeding practices, and also local food fads and taboos. Small clusters of five to six women may be sufficient for this purpose. Group and focus group discussions have an advantage of the self-correcting mechanism within the group, whereby an individual who gives an overly favourable picture of herself is immediately corrected by the others in the group.

Participants for focus group discussions may be selected at random, following brief interviews. However, experience in India indicates that focus groups develop without prior planning during household interviews. Seldom is it possible to avoid men folk joining in on such sessions, particularly when the topic relates to child care and infant feeding practices. It is best, therefore, to form focus group sessions exclusively for men, which are easy to organize either at the local tea shop or at the bus stop.

DIRECT OBSERVATIONS Direct observations of all major activities may not be possible with RRA. However, taking the time to just walk around in the community, observing activities and asking questions at opportune moments, may yield important information. Lack of correlation between actions and beliefs may sometimes be revealed through such observations. The best way to study the socio-cultural patterns, customs and local behaviour of the community is by simply being there. Direct observations are valuable for checking differences between knowledge and actual practice.

Direct observation of the nutritional status of children, particularly those under five, for possible signs of malnutrition through looking at feeding practices, eating habits and apparent use of unhygienic child-care techniques can often reveal much more than health centre records.

KEY INFORMANTS Key informants can be a major source of information. People from the community who, because of official position or informal leadership have access to information about the community rather than individual problems are good resources. Key informants can be government officials, local health service personnel, traditional healers, community leaders (elected or self-appointed), local shop owners and members of nongovernmental organizations.

However, there are well-known dangers in associating with leaders who for some reason might be biased against a certain group of people and who may express personal views rather than those of the community. Also, associating with local leaders who most often form the elite group in a village may result in creating fear in the community, and the poor who are most often exploited by this group may not express their frank views and opinions.

It is important to seek out women and poor households so as to offset any bias. These people are often less visible and rarely get an opportunity to talk to outsiders and express their problems and needs.

VILLAGE OR COMMUNITY PROFILE Simply being around in the community and observing facilitates information gathering. In the initial days, when efforts are being made to develop a rapport with the people and to make your own presence less conspicuous, it is useful to map the village. All that would be required for this is a notebook, pen/pencil and observational skills. Simply making a note of the location of health facilities, water sources (location and type), location of farms and households, segregation of households based on caste or class, location of livestock, etc. can be valuable. Often, information on all these aspects can be gleaned over a period of time through mere observation. It is a handy tool, once completed, and gives a total view of the area under study at a glance.

AERIAL SURVEYS Aerial surveys are particularly useful in obtaining firsthand information on natural resources and their management. The usefulness of aerial surveys for counting animals and certain types of natural resources has been established [3]. However, it is expensive and therefore less popular where cost is a major constraint.

Selection of respondents

The most crucial aspect of any successful RRA is the selection of respondents, both for secondary and primary data collection. Some of the aspects that must be considered are:

• Villages selected must be far from urban influence and should not be the "ideal" villages where development projects have been in place for a while.

• Since the objective is to establish causes of undernutrition and help resolve the problems, efforts must be made to seek out the undernourished themselves. Respondent households selected for detailed primary data collection must include the impoverished. As put forward by Chambers [4], RRA does not involve just putting people first but putting the poor people first, in thinking, actions and priorities.

• Social barriers must be broken and the less vocal and noninfluential must be contacted.

• To reach out to the impoverished, efforts will have to be made to go far into the villages and identify the neglected and isolated population. Such locations are often difficult to reach.

• Biases of "rural development tourism" and "tarmac" will have to be dealt with. If only the visible and active people are contacted, the information obtained will have an obvious bias.

Team size and composition

It has been suggested that, ideally, a RRA must be conducted by a team of researchers from various disciplines [5]. This is even more important in the nutrition context. Where a complex array of factors influences the nutritional status of an individual and the nutritional well-being of the population, it is difficult to single out one discipline as a research priority. In order to understand these influences, RRA is adapted to collecting information from one individual or a community on various issues and applying different scientific disciplines for problem solving. It may be ideal to organize multidisciplinary teams for RRA; however, considering the associated cost and time limitations, this may not always be feasible.

In the developing countries, it would not be easy to bring together representatives from agricultural, medical, nutritional and sociological disciplines to coordinate a rural appraisal with nutrition objectives. Researchers generally tend to limit their understanding and activities to the discipline of primary interest to them. Also, the costs involved in hiring high-profile people (experts from different disciplines) and the time involved. to set suitable schedules convenient for all would be considerably high.

Larger teams often intimidate rural people [6]. Chambers [7] indicates that large teams are more likely to be conservative and cautious, and tend to take longer to produce a report and recommendations. Also, members of large teams are more likely to talk to one another and less likely to listen to others than are members of a small team [8]. The Khon Kaen University (KKU) experience [9] indicates that, besides organisational and cost problems, accommodations for a large number of researchers can also be a problem. However, if RRA is conducted by one person or a two-person team, the costs in terms of remuneration, transportation, and living expenses would be substantially lower.

Therefore, one person, or at the most a two-person team, may be more suitable in such conditions. Holtzman [10] suggests that, in developing countries, it may not always be necessary to have large multi-disciplinary teams. Also, personal experience indicates that lack of expertise in any particular field does not necessarily mean it will, in any way, be an obstacle to progress or affect the efficiency of RRA. It is a trade-off between the ideal and the practical.

There is no argument to state that one person is ideal for rural appraisals; in fact, this has its limitations and drawbacks. Some of these limitations are:

• For one person to be successful, it is mandatory that, prior to field visits, much time is spent in discussions with experts from various fields and in doing a literature search on various issues/ policies that affect human development in the region of study. It is imperative for the researcher to gather and study, as much as possible, the available documented information about the region related to health, nutrition, agriculture, social-structure, local culture and traditions. In other words, the researcher will have to meet experts from different fields, in different regions, at different times (in the shortest time feasible) and absorb everything pertinent to the study region. This will call for hectic travel and appointment schedules and could therefore be an exhausting exercise even before the field visits start.

• Days and weeks of isolation in environments that differ from those of the researcher's may add to the hardships.

• RRA conducted by one person or by small teams is likely to take longer both in the field and later for report preparation than is considered ideal for RRA. Nonetheless, small teams may be more useful and feasible in certain situations. A comparison between characteristics of the multi-disciplinary and two-person teams is summarized in Table 1.

Specific research issues

Some of the nutrition-related issues for which the RRA methodology can be utilized to elicit information are as follows:

1. Crop production patterns and consumption profiles of the less popular food crops, especially coarse grains.

2. Intra-family food distribution and factors influencing inter-family food accessibility.

3. Women's role in the household food and financial economy.

4. Better understanding of household demographics, especially labour patterns and household capacity to grow their own food or to purchase it.

5. Migration behaviour - causes and patterns; its influence on the nutritional well-being of the family, particularly the vulnerable members of such households.

6. Study of food market system and the capacity of the existing food system to meet income, nutrition and employment requirements of the local population.

7. Influence of national and regional food policies on the food acquisition behaviour of the households.

8. Assessment of the food security system in a primarily agrarian society. Cyclical food shortages are caused by dependence on rainfall for local farming practices.

Table 1. Comparison between Multi-disciplinary teams and one/two person teams




1. Team Size

One to two

Up to 20 experts

2. Cost

Relatively low


3. Arranging Accomodation



4. Time to organize schedules for field work and report writing


Difficult: a lot of time and effort

5. Community confidence generation


Difficult: large teams can be intimidating [6]

6. Organizing work schedules

More flexible

Less flexible

7. Selection of team members



8. Expertise

Each member must have expertise in areas other than that of specialization

Each member has his/her own discipline of specialization

9. Secondary and primary data collection

Need to gather data on various subjects

Each member gathers information in area of specialization

Future needs

1. Issue of recognition: Researchers in scientific disciplines are expected to undertake highly technical work in order to gain recognition. Minimum recognition and remuneration are given to this kind of research. The field is hardly recognized in cultural, health and nutritional institutions. This is the major reason why RRA at present has not, with the exception of the Khon Kaen University in Thailand, been put into an institutional framework. Thought must be given to ways of generating recognition for qualitative approaches in order to provide academic respectability. This could be effected through special awards in recognition of RRA research by national institutions through various donor agencies. Small grant schemes must be initiated to encourage adoption of this methodology.

2. Popularizing the use of RRA The use of RRA methodologies, combined with selected quantitative data to generate rapid understanding of the causes of malnutrition must be encouraged to formulate policies acceptable to the intended beneficiaries.

In this context, it is essential to develop detailed manuals that provide methodological details, the pros and cons of using different tools and their interrelations, and those more suited to specific situations. These manuals should be specifically designed and suitably adapted for various regions the world over.

Time is opportune now to organize workshops in the Indian subcontinent to popularize the use of RRA in the nutrition context. For such workshops it will be essential to identify resource persons in the region who have been actively using this methodology to plan, implement and evaluate their programmes. While such workshops would facilitate the exchange of experiences in RRA within the region, they can also provide training experience for all participants.

3. Training needs: Appropriate programmes must be developed to provide training in the methodological aspects of RRA to encourage its correct utilization for nutrition problem identification and development planning. The RRA technique can be very useful to organizations actively involved in development activities, within the community. Also, RRA techniques can be used by government policy makers in urban centres, who most often plan for the rural poor. The scope for utilization of RRA to introduce changes within the prevailing social and economic system is tremendous.

The usual training programme conducted in most training centres is not suitable for training field workers who are to be involved in participatory action and evaluation. Conventional training is seen to be a transfer of selected information, knowledge and skills from trainers to trainees. The trainees are mere objects of the training and are primarily passive recipients in a one-sided interaction. However, the role of trainer in a community-based programme is that of facilitator - one who creates an environment in which all the participants can express themselves freely, ask questions, raise doubts, attempt solutions and learn without any hesitation or inhibition. The participants must be encouraged to see the causes, interrelationships and the methods of analysis to solve the problem.

The demand for training is now increasing and probably already exceeds the capacity to meet it. Therefore, training the trainers and efficient dissemination of methods should now be a priority. In-field training, supported by classroom teaching of the basic concepts, must be organized as workshops for those keen to learn and practice this methodology. Lack of availability of such training facilities would undoubtedly result in the obvious danger of labelling RRA as a means to legitimize bad or biased work.

4. Networking: In addition to organizing national and international workshops on the use and application of RRA methodology and training, it is imperative to set up a national/regional network of RRA practitioners and lay persons. Such a network will facilitate an exchange of experience on a continuous basis and also provide a database to transmit available literature on RRA. Members of such a network would constitute researchers from any discipline in health, agriculture, and social sciences.

As experience in the methodology increases, greater exchange of knowledge through seminars and workshops would be possible.

5. Methodology refinement for specific conditions: There is greater need now, more than ever before, to share experiences and adapt the RRA methodology to specific needs and situations.

It has been recognized that RRA methodology cannot be standardized and that it varies in different circumstances. Nonetheless, certain issues need to be addressed so as to refine the RRA methodology. The following are some of the questions that come to mind that need to be addressed:

• What really is an ideal RRA? Can the term "ideal" be used for RRA, since RRA varies with situations and specific needs?

• What is meant by RAPID? How rapid is RAPID?

• What is the ideal team composition for conducting RRA in the nutrition context?

• What is the best team size?

• What balance must be maintained between qualitative and quantitative data collection?

• Who, how and where can training be provided to those keen to pursue RRA techniques for rural development programs?

• What are the major tools for rapid, low-cost assessments of nutrition problems and programme evaluation? What are their individual strengths and limitations?

Summary and conclusions

Rapid rural appraisal is a way of organizing people and time for collecting and analyzing information in a cost-effective manner. Important advantages of this methodology are community participation and flexibility in the information generating process. The fundamental principles of RRA are

1. Triangulation,
2. Optimal ignorance,
3. Appropriate imprecision,
4. Rapid and progressive learning, and
5. Learning from, and along with, rural people.

Although there is increased availability of published literature on rapid assessment methodologies, there seems to be an apparent resistance by academicians to use the method. Lack of institutionalization of the methodology and insufficient availability of training facilities further constrain the adoption of this iterative community-based approach to nutrition programme planning, implementation and evaluation. Those having an inclination towards the adoption of rapid approaches are often unable to resolve some of the doubts raised in their own minds. Standardizing the methodology would limit its flexibility, yet, in order to prevent misuse there is a need to establish certain minimum requirements and general guidelines for more efficient use.

This paper has highlighted some concerns that need to be resolved, so as to provide a better base for new practitioners, who often learn through their own mistakes rather than those of others. It is logical to assume that resolution of these concerns will help clarify doubts and increase the popularity of this methodology for identifying community nutrition problems and determining actions for the betterment of impoverished and undernourished communities.


1. Grandstaff TB, Grandstaff SW. Report on rapid rural appraisal activities Khon Kaen: KKU-Ford Rural Systems Research Project. Khon Kaen, Thailand: Khon Kaen University, 1985.

2. Kashyap R. Young RH. Rapid assessment of community nutrition problems: a case study of Parbhani, India. IDRC Manuscript report. Ottawa, Canada: IDRC-274e, 1989.

3. Abel N. Stocking M. Rapid aerial survey techniques for rural areas. Paper for RRA conference, December 4-7, 1979. Brighton, UK: University of Development Studies, University of Sussex, Brighton, U.K., 1979.

4. Chambers R. Shortcut methods in social information gathering for rural development projects. World Bank Agricultural Sector Symposia. Washington, DC: The World Bank, 1980.

5. Khon Kaen University. Proceedings of the 1985 international conference on rapid rural appraisal. Rural Systems Research and Farming Systems Research Projects. Khon Kaen, Thailand: Khon Kaen University, 1987.

6. Beebe J. Rapid appraisal: evolution of the concept and the definition of issues. In: Proceedings of the 1985 international conference on rapid rural appraisal. Rural Systems Research and Farming Systems Research Projects. Khon Kaen, Thailand: Khon Kaen University, 1987: 47-68.

7. Chambers R. Rapid appraisal for improving existing canal irrigation systems. Discussion paper #8. New Delhi, India: Ford Foundation, 1983.

8. Rhoades RE. The art of informal agricultural survey. Training document. Lima, Peru: International Potato Centre, 1982.

9. Samart M. Rapid rural appraisal. In: Proceedings of the 1985 international conference on rapid rural appraisal. Rural Systems and Farming Systems Research Projects. Khon Kaen, Thailand: Khon Kaen University, 1987: 282-98.

10. Holtzman JS. Rapid reconnaissance guidelines for agricultural marketing and food systems research in developing countries. MSU International Development Working Paper #30. East Lansing, Michigan: Department of Agricultural Economics, Michigan State University, 1986.

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