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My First Experience with Process Documentation

M.J. Arul


This paper is an outgrowth of the process documentation study that the author did of a Joint Forest Management project in Bharuch, Gujarat, India, for a non-government developmental organisation, which was implementing the project. The paper steers clear of the contents of the study and presents only a summary of the author's experience in the conduct of the study. In other words, what is presented here is a process documentation of a Process Documentation Research study. To give you, however, an idea of the study itself, a sample of two events is given in the Appendix.

The background

It is broadly accepted today by all concerned that participatory management -- by which is meant that the beneficiaries and the external agents of change (such as the various departments of government and non-governmental organisations) work together in the planning and implementation of projects -- is the most appropriate strategy for implementing programmes that are aimed at sustainable development of natural resources. The latest policy documents (e.g., the National Forest Policy, 1988, the Gujarat Government Resolution, 1991, and the GRs of several state governments) on regeneration of degraded forest lands and on management of irrigation facilities also emphasise and foster this approach.

A non-governmental organisation (NGO), engaged in several rural development programmes in Gujarat, India, on the lines of participatory management, visited some of the successful, large-scale, participatory development programmes on forestry and irrigation in Thailand, Indonesia and, particularly, the Philippines. During this visit, the NGO found that the very design of the projects in those programmes had provisions for, inter alia, creation of a working group and conduct of an ongoing process documentation research (PDR). Convinced of the need for continuous learning from project implementation and recognising the instrumentality of process documentation in meeting the need, the NGO sponsored a PDR study to be undertaken by the Institute of Rural Management, Anand (IRMA).

Preparation for the study

The author, on behalf of IRMA, undertook to do the PDR study, covering two of the participatory natural resource development programmes, which the NGO was implementing in Bharuch district. The two programmes were Joint Forest Management and Joint Irrigation Management (JFM and JIM).

Having assumed the responsibility for the above study, the author recruited two PDR Assistants who would adequately compensate for the inability of the faculty members to be continuously on the field. The criteria used in the selection of the assistants included observational skills, communication ability, sociability, proficiency in the local language, readiness to put up with the rural environment and probability of staying the entire duration of the study.

The selected candidates were then oriented to the PD job through some reading and discussions, followed by a month-long field training at a locale similar to, but far away from, the study site.

Methodology of the study

With no prior experience in process documentation, the author first thought of selecting a representative sample of villages where either or both of the programmes to be covered (JFM and JIM) were in progress so that the study could follow a scientific research design. During the first field visit, however, in April 1994, it was found that the projects were at different stages of their implementation in different villages -- such that the required stratified sample would turn out to be as large as the population itself! It also occurred to the author that, since the focus was to be on process, it would be better to observe a project from its beginning and dog it through. Hence it was decided to adopt a "design" in which a mixed sample of villages would be selected in a purposive way: i) take one or two villages where the project was just starting (for continuous observation and documentation) and ii) cover, on a critical-event basis, those villages where the project had been going on for various periods of time (to monitor significant events that might occur in those "old" villages and document the processes associated with the events).

Having decided on the approach, mentioned above, the study team familiarised itself with the history of the two programmes (JFM and JIM) in the district through a study of relevant records and discussions with persons associated with the programmes. Concurrently, the two PDR assistants, selected and trained specially for the study, were introduced to the respective programme personnel and were placed in the field so that they could sufficiently socialise in their work milieu before embarking on the task of process observation and documentation.

Faced with the as-yet nebulous task of having to process document the Joint Forest Management (JFM) project, the author conceptualised the task as follows:

Every developmental project comprises three elements:

OBJECTIVE ---------> OPERATIONS ------------> OUTCOME
(Project)................. (Process)..................... (Product/Impact)

JFM is a developmental intervention and, as such, its elements are the 3 Os of Objective, Operations and Outcome. The first component (the Objective) is usually well attended to in the form of project proposals and their scrutiny. Impact and evaluation studies assess the third O, the Outcome. The middle O is often taken for granted or neglected in most studies. It is, however, known that, given a well-planned project and strategy, the outcome is a function of various activities and how the various activities are carried out. The following questions were, therefore, considered important for the task at hand:

How does JFM in Bharuch work? How does it begin in a village there? What are the various stages of implementation the project goes through? What tasks does each stage entail and how are they carried out? What are the problems and difficulties that crop up at each stage? How are these problems solved and difficulties overcome? What are the problems (if any) that continue to persist? What are the sources of these problems?

Observation of on-site happenings, related to these questions, would (so thought the author) capture the what and how of the middle O in the model and would constitute the contents of the PDR study.

For the conduct of the study, the PDR Assistant was stationed at the study site and was urged to maintain three documents: A diary of daily visits and events, a daily diary of detailed field notes, and a register of weekly summary reports. The author visited the site once in two or three months for three to five days at a time.

The Output

Two interim reports were submitted to the sponsoring organisation. Before each submission, two copies of the draft report were sent simultaneously, one to the field office and the other to the head office, for their comments.

The Outcome: Reactions

When they read the draft of the first interim report, the field staff was amazed at the details and accuracy of the record and expressed mixed feelings about "this process documentation". While they agreed with the contents of the report, they also began to explain why they had done certain things the way "correctly" described in the report. They returned the draft with their comments and explanations in about a month's time. They took only ten days in returning the draft of the second interim report, with certain additions that had been omitted by oversight. Trouble began later: a three-page note from the Head Office in regard of the contents of the second interim report resulted in some of the field staff being hauled up. The field staff was definitely displeased and began to distance itself from the village where PDR was in progress!

On reading the draft of the first interim report, the Head Office pointed out certain gaps in the narration of the role played by the NGO's chief in the starting of JFM in the area. They had no other comments to make. When they received the draft of the second interim report, they remained silent for over a year; they sent me no comments, at all. Instead, they shot off a three-page letter to the field office chief, seeking clarifications on why certain things were being done as described in the draft report. (E.g.: Why women members were so few in the mandals; why the Community Organiser did not turn up for the scheduled village meeting; why the women were asked to wait outside until the men's meeting was over; why the Community Organiser insisted on a common bank account for the men and women of the village, even when the people seem to have demanded separate accounts; why hold village meetings that do not even last 20 minutes; etc.) The field office chief pulled up the field staff!

The forest department received no copy of the report -- neither draft nor final. In response to their request, however, the author made a brief presentation at the State-level Working Committee on JFM. The forest officers paid keen attention to the presentation, specially to issues related to inter-group conflicts in the JFM villages. At the end, one of the officers asked, "So, what's your conclusion? Is JFM a success or failure?"

The author answered him (them!), "Mine is a process documentation project, not an evaluation study; success or failure is no concern of the study. I am to capture the processes that occur on the field. All those concerned with JFM (the Forest Department, the implementing agency and even the village community) could reflect on the factual processes and learn from insights that might emerge. The learning could be useful for a variety of purposes: e.g., take appropriate steps to monitor and facilitate the future course of the the project; influence the design of new programmes; etc. To the one who does the study, no process is bad or good."

At the lunch break that followed the above presentation, the CF (Consevator of Forests) of the Circle where the study was under way, came up to the author and said, "... you must also take up one of our projects; it is really useful to know what happens in the field. I shall ask my DFOs and others to cooperate."

When the DFOs and RFOs were contacted (by the author), they agreed to cooperate, but made themselves scarce or became evasive ever since!

Issues and Concerns:

1. It is said that process documentation is not for evaluation. What is meant by "not for evaluation"? Isn't there an implicit evaluation that is potentially even more potent and threatening in such an exercise than is present in the traditional impact studies?

2. It is said that process documentation is primarily for purposes of the PIA's self-learning and self-correction. Fair enough! But how does a PIA go about doing it? The NGO in this study did (or tried to do) it, but, in the process, hurt the process study that was still in progress! Where, when and how should the learning from a process documentation study be used? Should it be in the same project? Immediately? When it is used for correctional purposes, what is the likelihood of its being interpreted by the functional field staff as a punishment?

3. What are the various purposes that could be met by process documentation studies? Do the attitudes of the client (for whom PD is done) influence the study and its outcome?

4. Is there an appropriate methodology for process documentation studies as such? Or, does it vary with the purpose a given process documentation study is intended to serve?

5. What are the ethical considerations, connected with process documentation studies?


Sample snapshots from the study

Having completed a PRA exercise in the village, the NGO took the villagers to their forest land. The plot for the proposed JFM was to be demarcated.

1. With the help of a concatenated (several shorter pieces tied to one another to form one) rope of about ten metres, the group moved along the periphery of the plot, measuring it by the rope and marking the contours by implanting stones at every turn. The stones were then brushed with a dash of slaked lime for easy sighting later on. Quite a bit of discussion (at times, even heated exchange of words) took place among the men during this activity. The discussion and decision on how wide an area must be left out for bullock-cart roads and for purposes of human and livestock movement, was fairly smooth and relatively quick. Discussions regarding the contour line were often more involved and took up time. Following are further details of the event:

When the rope-holding boundary markers approached a particular patch of forest land that had (illegally) been cultivated by one of the villagers, the farmer asked them to have the patch skirted out of JFM; the whole group quickly closed in on the spot and almost every one spoke up in varying pitches and volumes, some in support of the farmer and others opposing his demand. After about twenty minutes or so, the group resumed and continued with the boundary-marking task, after having "granted" about half the portion of the land the farmer had cultivated. None of the outsiders intervened.

2. In a PRA meeting at a village, two tree matrices had been produced (one by the male group and the other by the female group) on the first day of the meeting. The lists were presented the next day to the combined group for evolving one common matrix or preference list. The NGO Organiser explained that if the common list turned out to be too long, the group would be asked to discuss the list further to shorten it to a dozen trees or so, for reasons of practicality in raising the required nursery. Here's what took place in Kalijaman:

There were only five species of trees found common in the two lists. When both the groups got together to draw up a single list of desired trees, the women quite readily went along with the men's choices, saying, "Achha, kari nahko" (well, drop it), when the male group suggested dropping of a tree. The result was: of the 11 finally chosen species, four were common, six were exclusively from the men's list and only one (namely, Neem) from the women's list. Tree species such as Khakra, Pipal, Mango, Tanach and Banyan from the women's list were given short shrift in the discussion and dropped. The women acquiesced.

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