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This paper takes an actor-oriented approach to understanding the significance for policy and practice of field-worker experience at the interface between project and people. It is set in the context of an Indian project which aims to reduce poverty through sustainable, participatory agricultural change, based on low-cost inputs, catalysed by village-based project staff. Diaries kept by such staff are analysed to reveal how the social position of field-workers enables and constrains their interactions within and without the project, and the ways in which ‘street level bureaucrats’ shape projects through their discretionary actions. They show the Village Motivators struggling to communicate project objectives, to establish their roles and distinguish themselves from other village-level bureaucrats, to negotiate participation, to overcome hostility to Participatory Rural Appraisal, to arbitrate access to consultants and seniors, to interpret project objectives and lobby for changes in these without admission of failure, and finally to develop a shared vocabulary of participation and belief in success. Some of the implications for participatory approaches are that there may be significant contradictions between sustainability and participatory development.

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