Practitioners of Appreciative Inquiry (AI) technique assert that the problem-led diagnostic approach in development planning tends to focus on negativity, which only emphasizes and amplifies negative traits, while, appreciative inquiry focuses on positive features and leverages them to correct or overcome the negative (White, T.H. 1998). The experts claim that the traditional approach to participatory action research and learning in development (such as, Participatory Rural Appraisal – PRA) tends to focus on searching for and identification of community problems to plan a solution package. This can create and reinforce a culture of dependency among the locals and make them view their community as a place full of problems, which require outsiders’ help to overcome them.
Such unintended consequences of the traditional approach of action research and learning have justified the usage of the Appreciative Planning and Action (APA) tool, which derives its techniques from the appreciative inquiry school. APA is intended not only for data collection but also as a capacity building tool that aids community members to recognize and apply their skills and assets toward a future they envision for themselves and their community. The application of appreciative inquiry in data collection and needs assessment is said to unleash existing strengths and achievements of a community and build upon them to initiate locally driven and managed project activities.
A local NGO or a training expert is recruited to facilitate the Appreciative Planning and Action (APA) tool, which entails a four-step process: 1) Discovery, 2) Dream, 3) Design and 4) Delivery. The Discovery Phase searches for and appreciates the best of ‘what is.’ Community members are asked to recall incidences, stories or lessons learned from high-points in their lives; recognize and appreciate their inherent strengths and assets and any additional qualities that they attained from those achievements; and deliberate upon the elements (leadership, relationship, values, technologies) that they most value and want to enhance in the future.
In the Dream Phase the participants draw images from grounded examples of their positive past. The discovery phase is supposed to unleash the creative spirit of the participants and bring out positive elements that they can use in the dream phase to paint a picture of themselves and/or their community that they want to see in a designated time frame (usually 5 to 10 years). The discovery phase is conducted in a story telling format and the dream phase encourages participants to draw a picture that they can frame on the walls of their homes and community centers.
In the Design Phase, participants chart out a strategy or a plan toward achieving their dream by applying the skills and strength they freshly discovered, individually and collectively. This involves incorporation of qualities of the community life that they want to protect, the relationships that they want to build, and the assistance that they will seek to supplement and enhance their existing capital. The final phase, Delivery, entails actually translating the planning into actions. This involves realigning skills and priorities and collectively working to co-create the future.
While the Appreciate Planning and Action (APA) tool deserves much appreciation for cultivating positive enforcement and helping to envision and plan for a better future, for individuals, communities and even development interventions, the actual practice of the APA tool in achieving the intended results in community development has not met with much success. Various factors contribute to this. Community values and actions are shaped by cultural norms and practices. Some cultures thrive on positive reinforcement while some cultures emphasize shortcomings and self-reflection to overcome and strive for perfection. Instead of relying on appreciative inquiry as a sole methodology for participatory learning and actions, a combination of different tools and methodologies (including PRA, which has proven very effective in some cases) can be tried, tested and assessed to decipher how well they assimilate and complement to the given cultural setting and value system.
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