World Development Report 2015: Congratulations so far. Can you go further?

Robert ChambersRobert_Chambers200

Robert Chambers was recently asked to provide comments on the forthcoming World Development Report (WDR) 2015. The annual reports are the World Bank’s major analytical publication, each year focusing on a different aspect of development. The WDR 2015 will be on the topic of ‘Mind and Culture’. Below is Robert’s response to Steve Commins, of the Luskin School of Public Affairs at UCLA, and Varun Gauri, Senior Economist at the World Bank. Both are part of the WDR 2015 team at the World Bank. Robert’s response  gives a window onto some of the pressing avenues that participatory thinking should be exploring.

Hi Steve and Varun,

Much stimulated by the video call yesterday. Good to meet again after some time, Steve – I do remember your visit to IDS.

I am excited by the focus and proposed content that you outlined. Both actually and potentially (see below) this WDR promises to take us forward. As background to this, please read the critical piece I wrote about WDR 2000, which was such an achievement by Ravi Kanbur especially. It is in a book Provocations for Development, reprinted from Journal of International Development You are closer to what I advocate in the final paragraphs of that piece than any other WDR has been, to my knowledge, in examining ‘us’. This raises a host of questions (Who? Whose?) which you illustrated, Varun, with the example of Whose indicators? I.e. score cards for health services. How far can you push the envelope in this WDR? Huge opportunity.

My main points:

Reflexivity
(As above, a mirror on ‘us’) Can you, as I suggested yesterday, conclude powerfully with the case for reflexivity, setting an example with your own critical reflections on the framing and content of knowledge in your own WDR?  It would be brilliant, absolutely brilliant, if you could, and would set a wonderful example to all of us who call ourselves development professionals. ‘Belief traps’ is a great phrase and concept. Can you illustrate and elaborate, and show how we are all in them, and how we can recognise them and mitigate them.  Wow! What an opportunity!

Emotion
This is such a significant driver of change in norms and behaviour. In your presentation to us, Varun, you did use the word once, but only once. But is it not almost everywhere, but papered over by our analytical intellectualism? For learning and changing, is it a key element? See John Kotter and Dan Cohen  The Heart of Change: real-life stories of how people change their organizations ,including the critical distinction between see-feel-change and analysis-think-change.  Argues for the transformative power of the former. See also Valerie Curtis Don’t look, don’t touch, don’t eat: the science behind revulsion; also Nick Haslam Psychology in the Bathroom . Both well researched, insightful, entertaining. Haslam pages 9-11 section on emotion points to a dramatic rise in professional attention to disgust and shame.

There is a right hemisphere-left hemisphere dimension here – development in the last decade has lurched into the left hemisphere. But with participation, much of it Bank-led in the now-forgotten 90s, there was a much better balance. See paradigms in Provocations pages 190-4. This links with

Experiential learning
This is implicit in initiatives that give people new experiences. The Bank’s immersions (starting with Wolfensohn in the 90s, and still going on a bit) and similar experiences have been enormously formative. (See pages 171 ff in Provocations). You have experiential learning and change in there – experiences overcoming belief traps. Do we, in development, need to be much more resolute, imaginative and bold in designing experiential learning, as with immersions, into our professional lives? When you talk about horizontal (and by implication vertical) teaching and learning, is the horizontal more experiential in a whole-person and relational sense?

Accelerating change – in every dimension?
Has the perennial challenge of keeping in touch and up-to-date with the realities of people living in poverty – marginalised, vulnerable, weak…. become more acute because of the way in which social and other change has accelerated and continues to accelerate? I recommended the Reality Checks in Bangladesh (pdf). They have done five annual summaries of these. The rate of change they find is astonishing. I have to say that Bangladesh may be an outlier in speed (fertility rate now 2.2!!!), but there are many indications and experiences that suggest that acceleration is the norm. Could you have a box, perhaps combining the experiential learning of immersions with the need to keep in touch and up to date? This could have a big, good, impact. The person best able to advise on this is Dee Jupp who started and has continued this (There is a major review of this in Stockholm this week). In my view all countries should have reality checks – and they are spreading – Indonesia, Mozambique Nepal, Ghana , Dee could tell you.

Blind spots
This is something I am working on just now and links with the points I made about reflexivity above. There have been major areas that have been overlooked or given inadequate attention in the past across a whole range – sexuality and discrimination against LGBTs, canal irrigation at night, group-visual synergy in diagramming on the ground, the potential of participatory statistics, the combined nutritional impact of the many faecally-transmitted infections (perhaps responsible for some half of the undernutrition in the world, certainly in India…remarkable recent research findings by Dean Spears ), environmental enteropathy).These raise the question: what are the characteristics of areas that are blind spots (links with your belief traps, also institutional and professional silos, blinkers)? Why have there been these blind spots? Can you take this on? Open it up as a topic? If we missed these in the past, what are we missing now?

Words and concepts
They frame pretty much everything. We all have our favourites (see the first section of Provocations). The words and concepts here are not as dominated by economics as they might have been, but all the same what are the implications for framing and recommendations of those which come naturally to you and are part of current development speak,  Incentives, Prices, Regulations, information, for example ?

Can you define e.g. belief traps with examples, and cognitive taxes with examples, and explain how the latter overlaps with but goes further than transaction costs (if I understand it right)?

Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS)
I will write about this separately. Excellent that you have this in. And it is a good illustration of a number of the points above.

Finally, I would like to congratulate you, the collective you working on the WDR, on your work, but I would also like to challenge you and ask ‘How much further can you go?’ in order to make a real difference.

Robert Chambers is a Research Associate in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.

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