“Why don’t they want our help?” Exploring the relationship between community and development worker

21/10/2014

Jody Akedjody

The Valuing Volunteering project that IDS is undertaking with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) is exploring the role of volunteers as development workers. I often hear volunteers tell me that one of the conditions of their success is the “willingness of the community”. In a World Café discussion with Filipino and British volunteers we discussed the example of International Citizen Service (ICS) volunteers doing research using Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) in Ghana. The aspect of their placement that volunteers found most difficult was not learning the PRA process, which took weeks and weeks, but the realisation that the community didn’t want a stake in the participatory process. One of the participants recalled a local volunteer who screamed in frustration, “why don’t they want our help?” In a similar epiphany in the Philippines, volunteers realised, somewhat painfully, that some schools didn’t want to accept their offers to run Information Education and Communication campaigns with students.

Misplaced assumptions

As development workers offering their resources for free, volunteers and programmes supporting volunteers presume that a community is going to be as receptive as they are eager to help. As researchers or practitioners we can fall into the same trap: we risk assuming the burning research question or difficult-to-fund project consuming our working days will strike an instant chord with the people we hope will benefit from it. This reciprocation is often an unspoken assumption in our theories of change about how we contribute to alleviating poverty. So we just jump right on in there, brimming with energy and primed for a successful outcome only to find progress elusive and frustrating.

A different approach

The volunteers discovered that it is not realistic to expect a community to be interested, even in their most valiant efforts. So what does this reality tell us about the way we should begin our relationship with a community or group of people we really want to work with?

Using a systemic action research approach, we tested some ideas about what a development worker can do:

1. Commit a little time up front to work out what makes a community “willing” or not

It turns out all sorts of things affect whether people are receptive or keen to harness our energy. The Valuing Volunteering research found the following factors important, either working in isolation or in combination:

  • Lack of understanding and trust in what a volunteer is about
  • Previous negative experiences with volunteers / development workers
  • Seeing that the change process is complex and difficult, so easier not to engage
  • What outsiders see as needs do not correspond with what local people see as important
  • Timing – other priorities and commitments prevent people from engaging
  • Participation comes at personal, social or economic costs hidden to the outsider

2. Reframe expectations about participation

For many valid reasons, people may not want the kind of assistance we think it is important to give right now. And this is ok. We should be content with small, more mutual beginnings, which build trust. The ICS volunteers in the Philippines decided to work first with the schools who wanted more information on solid waste management. They will create something good and see if this piques interest elsewhere.

If we find levels of participation rapidly sink from high to low as we get into the messy, complex process of making change happen, we shouldn’t despair but celebrate! Fewer participants usually equal more participation. And it means we are beginning to identify the local people who will sustain our efforts. The first follower is often an under-appreciated form of leadership. We should encourage and not dismiss their importance because the total number of participants does not meet pre-determined beliefs about what good attendance looks like.

3. Create the spaces and relationships to find the people who do have energy

Communities are not homogeneous entities. This creates multiple opportunities for volunteers and development workers to harness local interest. We just need to know how to listen and where to look. On another island in the Philippines, we used systems mapping to create a big picture of issues and local dynamics. We found an important local driver for change was not protection of marine ecosystems per se, but the family breakdown that resulted from low fish catch. Our entry points were different but we found common ground. And this was enough to get going.

The list is clearly not exhaustive. But the ideas raised have something in common.  In these examples development workers have tried to think systemically about why momentum for change is slow before coming up with precise interventions. This process resulted in a re-assessment of their role in the change process as being co-dependent on the interest and energy of the community to embark on a journey with them. We found the fight against poverty doesn’t need more willingness on the part of communities to fall in line with our way of thinking at all. It requires different approaches – and the confidence and conviction that come with them – to enable development workers to work in more reflexive and iterative ways.

Jody Aked works as researcher for the IDS-VSO partnership ‘Valuing Volunteering’ in the Phillipines. She is also a PhD student with the PPSC Team

Read a previous blog piece by Jody Aked


Welcome back John Gaventa!

08/10/2014

Jane StevensJane_Stevens200

Having let out my own whoop of delight on reading my email this morning I knew I was not alone – our corridors are a-buzz with the excellent news that Professor John Gaventa has been appointed as Director of Research here at IDS.  John is currently Director of the Coady International Institute and Vice President of International Development at StFX University in Canada.  He was formerly Chair of Oxfam GB, for which he received an OBE, and is renowned as a leading researcher, educator and practitioner on issues of citizenship and citizen engagement, power and participation, and governance and accountability around the world.

For many years John was at IDS heading up our Participation Team and associated research consortia, which is how I came to know him.  He was an inspirational colleague and leader, combining clear-thinking, innovative and wise research with a genuinely participatory and pioneering approach, all of which are deeply rooted in a life of activism and a compelling conviction that it is possible to change the world for the better.

One of the first times I met John, some 17 years ago, was attending a film screening one lunchtime about a community he was involved with in the US.  It documented how a group of citizens, mostly poor but living in a resource-rich valley, came together to fight for their rights which were being eroded by a large, powerful and intimidating mining company.  In the conversation afterwards John told some hair-raising tales of the activities he and the community undertook together to achieve this.  I found the film very inspiring but was also struck by the importance of research and leadership that stems from the personal: from being part of real-life, grounded and sometimes challenging experiences, and from being able to reflect and learn from them.

John’s enthusiasm, thinking and vision has continued to influence and encourage me (and many, many others around the world) over the intervening years.  I am so glad he is returning to take up this role at IDS.  And I know that someone who, on a rare weekend off, can determinedly walk 100km in under 30 hours to raise money for Oxfam will have the energy to steer IDS research into a bright and exciting future.  We all look forward to your return John – see you in January!

Jane Stevens is the Comms Officer for the PPSC Team at IDS. 

Read a previous blog piece by Jane Stevens:


5 take home messages from Pathways of Women’s Empowerment: Beyond 2015

30/06/2014

Kate HawkinsKate Hawkins

The life of a meeting report writer is a lonely one. It is easy to get caught up in the energy and excitement of an issue when surrounded by fascinating and challenging speakers. But once everyone has flown home and you are wading through 50 pages of meeting notes, trying to decipher acronyms and cryptic quotes you sometimes feel like you are drowning in a mass of information you will never make legible to those who didn’t have the privilege of attending. So to give myself a bit of impetus and help order my thoughts I have come up with a list of what I consider the top 5 take home messages from the recent Pathways of Women’s Empowerment meeting.

To add to the complexity of synthesising simple messages, the meeting made it clear that there is no single feminist nor a single development actor. Those involved in this field inhabit very different worlds, subject positions, politics, and positionalities. When we sit outside the places that people live and look in on them, we can fail to make sense of, listen to, and resonate with women’s lives. Those caveats aside, here are the messages:

1. That there is a gulf between policy advocates engaged in post-2015 agenda setting and the fears, dreams and demands of many women organising in disparate settings. The skills required to track and influence advocacy at the global level are very technical and a particular cadre of feminists occupies this space doing vital and necessary work. But somehow, post-Beijing, the parallel structures which enable these staff to adequately network with women at the grass roots have been lost. (Re)building this dynamic and organic network of links and entry-points for dialogue is a key priority.

2. There is a translational issue. Women’s movements have been just as good as any other advocacy group in developing clear messages for policy. However, what is understood by the term ‘women’s empowerment’ differs between large development institutions and social movements struggling for justice. All too often empowerment is instrumentalised – as exemplified by catchphrases like ‘gender equality is smart economics’. The reductionism and sloganeering of the development sector sometimes strips the politics out of the work.

3. Feminist networks and monitoring, learning and evaluation experts need to work together. Participants at the meeting decried the difficulty of generating indicators and systems which would allow them to trace the impact of strategies like collective organising and consciousness raising. They also rightly pushed back against a value for money and results agenda which inadequately traces the types of change in women’s lives which women believe are important. More could be done to foster partnerships between feminist activists and progressive evaluation experts who are trialling methodologies such as process tracing and realist evaluation to strengthen this area of work.

Andrea Cornwall speaking at the conference

4. Research has failed to adequately deal with the implications of global capitalism for women’s empowerment. The global financial crisis has had a very debilitating effect on global policy spaces. At first people with a progressive slant to their politics thought that it would highlight the failure of capitalism and provide an opportunity to create a new world. But the opposite has happened and neo-patriarchialism has been enforced. Moving forward this needs to be central to research agendas.

5.Forging new alliances and intersectionality will be central to the future of feminist activism. The importance of partnering and working together with men, sexual rights activists, the creative industries, workers movements, revolutionaries and legal and religious scholars with an interest in social justice all came through strongly in the meeting. As did the idea that women have complex identities which encompass a number of interests and issues beyond women’s rights. There is a need to be strategic about these alliances and understand that there will be instances where interests do not necessarily collide. Furthermore, women’s movements need to guard against instrumentalising others in the push for women’s empowerment.

I hope that this blog gives a flavour of some of the issues that we discussed. I am relying on my co-author Jenny Edwards to add a bit of oomph to the text I have come up with. And we are planning to bring together some of the multi-media content from the meeting which will make it all the more engaging. Join the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment mailing list to get a notification of when the report and the multi-media contents go live and watch this space for details of how to learn more…

Kate Hawkins is a member of the Sexuality and Development Programme International Advisory Group and the Director of Pamoja Communications.

Read previous blog posts by Kate Hawkins


The emerging LGBT movement in Vietnam: lessons in negotiating legal spaces

23/06/2014

Tu-Anh Hoang

Thirty years ago, before the economic reform which is known as Doi Moi in Vietnam in 1986, it was hard for people who know the politics in Vietnam to imagine or even think about the existence of civil society in the country, let alone a civil society movement. Today the Vietnamese government not only recognises the existence of thousands of registered and unregistered NGOs and groups but also acknowledges the contribution these organisations make to the development of the country. This emergent civil society includes LGTB groups which until the 1990s were invisible.

Homosexuality though not illegal, used to be seen as social-evil together with other illegal phenomena such as drug use, gamble and prostitution. A HIV epidemic helped make the LGBT community visible and known to the media and public. However, the government’s health risk management approach did not help empower the community to affirm their rights on sexual orientation and identity nor reduce related stigma and discriminations. Much of the public and policy makers still think about homosexuality and transgender as phenomena that affect some (unlucky) individuals and if society keeps a close eye on this, they can control and somehow eliminate these ‘deviants’.

However, in 2012 the VietPride bicycle rally with rainbow flags on the streets in Ha Noi and the Ministry of Justice’s proposal to revise the Marriage and Family Law to take into account same-sex relationship awakened the country. LGBT people are no longer isolated and marginalised groups but have organised and engage successfully with media and policy makers.

As a result of this engagement Vietnam became the first country in Asia to discuss same-sex marriage at the national level. The revised Marriage and Family law that passed on 19 June 2014 does not recognise these rights. This is a setback not just for the movement in Vietnam but also for other groups in the region who had hoped to use the legalisation in Vietnam to open the door in other countries. While this is disappointing it should be seen in perspective of a turbulent political context and process with setbacks and successes. The movement with the LGBT organisations and their supporters is still strong. Their engagement and negotiation abilities are not diminished.

The recent report Negotiating public and legal spaces: the emergence of an LGBT movement in Vietnam – co-authored by researchers from the Institute for Social Development and the Center for Creative Initiatives in Health and Population, a local NGO in Hanoi – documents the process of the emergence of the movement.

Three strategies made the engagement and negotiation possible:

Depoliticising the LGBT movement to create space for civil association and engagement
Creating emotion is considered a key term in the mobilisation for both public presentation in VietPride and the legalization of same-sex cohabitation and marriage. Rights for love, for having a family and for pursuing happiness are centred in the arguments of LGBT activists and groups. Instead of criticising sexual politics, slogans and messages are adapted to somehow match with the country development goals regarding equity and well-being. This strategy is criticised by some activists as ‘too safe’ and may hamper the linkage of LGBT movement with other human rights and democracy movement in Vietnam, it is recognised by majority that this is relevant and effective in current Vietnam political context.

Broad rights-based framework on LGBT rather than employing a limited special interest LGBT group framework
The number of organisations and groups working exclusively or focally on same-sex relationship in Vietnam is still modest and most unregistered, which imply the limit in term of legal power. However, this disadvantage is made up of a coalition with other well-established and registered organisations working on gender, domestic violence and sexuality in Vietnam. This linkage is possible through a shared broad framework on gender equity and human rights. This coalition does not only bring more legal power to LGBT movement but also makes it more acceptable to the public and policy makers.

Building positive wholesome images of LGBT
This is a key strategy of the LGBT rights movement in Vietnam. LGBT activists see this as characteristic that distinguishes their movement from the work of HIV. While this strategy seems successful, the positive images and stories of mainly young, healthy, middle-class, university-degree not reflect the wholeness and diversity of LGBT communities.

The strategy of depolitisation might be reconsidered by LGBT groups and their network of partners. What’s important to keep in mind is that this broad rights based network is still there in spite of this setback. The friends of the LGBT activists are still their friends even though their enemies might still be there. The image of LGBT today is also much more positive and diverse than it was a few years ago. LGBT are no longer portrayed as sick social deviants; instead images of young wholesome LGBT are found in the official and on social media. It is likely to be a long process. Vietnamese are probably the world’s experts at thinking strategically, playing a long game and winning unlikely wars. Losing battles along the way is part of this path and will not change the determination of the LGBT movements and their friends for equal rights. In fact it may fuel it.

This blog was written by Tu-Anh Hoang as part of the Sexuality, Poverty and Law Programme.

Read other recent blogs by the IDS Sexuality and Development Programme:


Understanding food security through a gendered lens

16/06/2014

Georgina Aboud

At the heart of the IDS Knowledge Services’ gender team – BRIDGE – is a passion for understanding and promoting gender justice through participatory approaches. BRIDGE’s latest publication – the Cutting Edge Pack on Gender and Food Security – due to be published in autumn 2014, is an excellent example of this. The team recently convened a highly engaging 48 hour online discussion, from 13-14th May, with the main objective of allowing experts to share and exchange ideas on the most current thinking and practice on the issue in order to inform and strengthen the publication.

women selling fish

Key themes to emerge from discussions:

Food Security needs to be understood as much more than just food production: Emerging strongly from discussions was the extent to which, in policy, ‘food security’ is being conflated with and reduced to food production, driven by an economic growth agenda – described as the ‘productivist’ trend. Success is measured in crop yields, disconnected from people, power and inequalities, but very much connected to market solutions and agricultural profit. Food insecurity is more complex than simply not enough food, so increased food production does not necessarily mean enhanced food security, and enhanced food security for women.

Women’s lived realities need to be fully understood and integrated: Thus, calls for more holistic approaches to food security and gender equality emerged from our discussions, where the popular policy response of ‘invest in poor women farmers’ is seen as only part of the solution to a complex problem. A close connection to women’s lived realities is needed – where women are not just mothers, or farmers, or farmworkers, they have multiple roles and needs.

Identifying the interconnections between policies is key for effectiveness: Key recommendations to emerge in terms of ensuring policy change move beyond words into action, is that policy makers need to see and develop the interconnections between policy areas so that policies strengthen each other. For example, interconnections should be made between food security and climate change, and between food security, gender and HIV/AIDS. It was also identified that a rights-based lens, a clear understanding of the problem, political will and robust monitoring are also essential elements to success.

Gender equality and women’s empowerment must be central in action and practice: Overwhelmingly the discussions saw calls for holistic approaches, with the need for food and nutrition security approaches to not only tackle women’s nutritional status but also their ‘position’ in families and society. Discussions linked women’s earning power and control over land resources, to strengthened decision-making power in the household and greater control of women’s social and physical security.

Learning from good practice: Examples from India, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador were given of successful initiatives using a more holistic approach, which essentially created safe spaces for women to talk and reflect. These were an important step in women gaining confidence and made way for more decision-making opportunities within the household. Other fascinating examples included several initiatives on value-chains.

Training and skills promotion, for women in particular, is key: A key theme running through much of the discussion was the importance of training, skills promotion – the idea that ‘new skills will add to a woman’s status, and decision-making’.

More research on food security using a gendered lens is vital (and access to it): many participants pointed to the persistent and yawning research gaps: from the need for more contextualised household-level data, to sex-disaggregated time allocation surveys; from research into the impact of female extension workers, to research that unpacks the disconnects between rights to food and women’s rights, amongst others.

Understanding the value of gendered research: We also need evidence that demonstrates the value of investing in gathering these types of data, and the costs of failing to do so, from a food security and a gender equality perspective.

The Gender and Food Security Cutting Edge Pack will incorporate, and build on, these points to ensure that relevant policymakers and practitioners have a clearer understanding of the key issues and a set of recommendations sign posting the best way forward. For more information about the Cutting Edge programme, please visit the BRIDGE Gender and Food Security Cutting Edge page .

Cutting Edge Pack Series

Written and produced in collaboration with partners, Cutting Edge Packs provide accessible overviews of the latest thinking on a cutting edge gender theme in development research, policy and practice. Each pack includes:

  • Overview Report, outlining the main issues, examples of innovative practice and recommendations;
  • Supporting Resources Collection including summaries of case studies, tools, online resources, and contact details for relevant organisations;
  • Gender and Development In Brief comprising a short overview of the theme and two inspiring case-study articles by Southern-focused practitioners

We usually translate packs into at least French and Spanish to reach a broader global audience.

The Cutting Edge Pack Series is available online on the BRIDGE website.

Georgina Aboud is a Gender and Food Security Convenor at BRIDGE, a research and knowledge mobilisation programme located within IDS Knowledge Services. BRIDGE supports gender advocacy and mainstreaming efforts by bridging the gaps between theory, policy and practice.

Photo credit: C. Schubert (CCAFS) under the creative commons license

Read previous blog posts on gender and sexuality

 


Barcelona: The conflict of Can Vies and its political significance

06/06/2014

Alison Carney and Maria Olivella Quintana

‘Politics is the art of resolving problems and here a problem has been created, instead of being resolved, at many levels: a security problem, the destruction of a meeting/cohesion/training space… With many people being thrown out of the system, Can Vies was not part of the problem, but part of the solution.’ (Gemma Galdon, Political Scientist, University of Barcelona, Interview with El Pais 29th May 2014)

One week ago the Catalan police entered and evicted the famous squat and community centre in the Sants neighbourhood of Barcelona, called Can Vies. This event, and the disproportionate brutality used by the police against demonstrators later that day, have sparked some of the biggest riots and public demonstrations in Barcelona since the Indignados in 2011. The social significance and strength of the movement that is loudly protesting the eviction of Can Vies is far greater than this one incident. Although the significance of these demonstrations and resistance is being discussed in Catalan and Spanish media, sadly the English speaking media around the world has limited their coverage of the event and continuing movement to some very short, page-three articles that fail to even address the complexities and potential of what is happening in Barcelona this past week[1].

The building that is now known as Can Vies[2] was constructed in the 19th century is located near the Barcelona Sants train station. It is owned by the TMB (metro) company in Barcelona and by the 1990s it was abandoned. In 1997 a group of young people occupied the building and organised it so that part of the building was used as a living space, and the other part as a social centre that has been used as a political organising space, and a community centre for dance, music and other activities[3].

In 1998 and again in 2007 the TMB company filed complaints against the squatters in Can Vies in an attempt to evict them. After both of these complaints were rejected by the courts, the TMB company filed complaint again in 2013 and the Can Vies Assembly[4] has been negotiating with the city council since. The negotiations continued until the day before the eviction.

Can Vies is one of a number of occupied buildings throughout Barcelona (and Spain) that serve as community centres and political gathering places that are completely unmediated by the state. These centres provide resources and alternative spaces to communities that the city council has failed to provide.

Image of Can Vies before the eviction

Can Vies before the eviction

The Eviction
In March 2014, the city council and the court made a joint decision that the TMB company could evict Can Vies. TMB had already stated that when they evicted Can Vies they would tear down the building and leave an empty lot. This eviction happened first thing in the morning on Monday, May 26, 2014. The police were extremely aggressive towards the neighbours and supporters of Can Vies who gathered outside the building in solidarity with the occupants. A large demonstration was organized for 8 pm Monday evening to denounce the eviction and protest the destruction of the building.

The demonstration had not made it more than 500 meters before the Catalan police cut off the march and dissipated the crowd by driving their fleets of vans into the middle of the demonstration, with armoured police officers jumping out of the vans and beating anyone near them. People were forced to run into the narrow streets in the neighbourhood, chased by the armoured police officers who were wielding weapons. Conflicts with the police broke out as a result.

Image of demonstration

Demonstration against Can Vies eviction on the 26 May 2014

On Tuesday morning, the TMB company brought a bulldozer to the Can Vies site and immediately began to tear down the building. In reaction, people gathered around the site, banging pots and pans to draw attention to the issue[5].  This resistance lasted most of the day and at 11 pm, half of the building had been torn down, the police had finally left, and protesters set fire to the bulldozer. This led to more police violence and riots in neighbourhoods throughout Barcelona. The police were incredibly aggressive in the neighbourhoods. Militarization in dealing with demonstrators and angry citizens has been a growing problem in Catalonia.  Armoured police who are armed and who do not hesitate to beat any person in their way is common at any public political gathering. This level of violence is what sparks riots and more violence, not the other way around[6].

During the week, as demonstrations continued to be organized throughout the city in different neighbourhoods and the numbers of supporters grew to over 20,000 at a demonstration on Saturday, police violence escalated. By Friday, over 60 people had been arrested, 1 of them in prison and more than 200 people injured.

The bulldozer burning on the night of the 27 May 2014

The bulldozer burning on the night of the 27 May 2014

The Significance
The significance of this public fight and demonstrations goes far beyond simply wanting to protect a building. The city council and TMB have claimed their right by the legal argument of the ownership of the building, but it seems that this claim is only a façade for a deeper intention to discourage political organising that challenges the traditional government spaces. As we can see, the building has already been mostly destroyed, and yet the numbers of supporters of this movement continues to grow daily. We see this fight and the demonstrations as symbolic of support for alternative solutions to the current crisis in Spain (and elsewhere for that matter).

A well-known political scientist in Spain (Joan Subirats) has argued that the destruction of Can Vies is a destruction of a symbolic capital for a certain type of population. This type of social capital is extremely important. In the context of crisis (as in Spain), it is significant that citizens have not stopped self-organising.  There are centres like Can Vies all around Barcelona that demonstrate a resistance and coping with the crisis that is outside the market, the individual and the state. These spaces are a network that has found a way to exist and support a community precisely because they exist outside of the state rules. The growing solidarity and demonstrations since Monday is proof that people are perplexed by why the council is threatened by such a space as Can Vies (aside from the private property issue), and it is symbolic of the growing need and support for such spaces.

In addition the rise of alternative political parties in recent elections such the CUP[7] in Catalonia or Podemos[8] in Spain demonstrate that the politics of self-organisation is gaining traction and presenting alternative options to the traditional politics in Spain. We see that more and more people are drawn to self-organised politics, rather than party driven or state mediated politics.

The movement that has led to the growing support for self-organised politics in Spain has a long history, has taken enormous work and is far from being spontaneous. The creation of alternatives that strive to exist outside of the market and of traditional politics is not something that can happen overnight, or without a lot of building. Although the context and history of this type of organizing in Spain, and even specifically in Barcelona, is particular, there are lessons to be learned by communities in other countries who are equally fed-up with the same old political options that have driven many of our counties to this point of crisis and abhorrent social conservatism.

Maria Olivella Quintana and Alison Carney are both IDS alumni.
Alison is a sport and development consultant, social activist and researcher.  She has extensive experience working with sport for social change, as well as research on the role of sport for supporting the realisation of gender equality and sexual rights.
Maria  is a feminist activist currently carrying out PhD research in Anthropology in Spain, on the transition from ‘family planning interventions’ to ‘sexual and reproductive health’. She is part of Gap Work (http://sites.brunel.ac.uk/gap), a European research project addressing gender based violence, homophobia and transphobia in educational spaces. She has a MA in Gender and Development from IDS and has been part of the Unruly Politics thinking since then. Feedback welcome at:  M.OlivellaQuintana@ids.ac.uk

 

[1] The New York TimesThe Guardian:
[2] For more information about the community center you can check Can Vies website
[3] Almost all squats in Spain are social centers, providing a space for youth to meet and organize, which was something that was missing in the 1990s.
[4] The Can Vies Assembly is the name for the community group that orginizes and engages in politics.  They are based at Can Vies, this includes squatters who live there as well as other community members.
[5] The banging of pots and pans is a tradition in the region as a way for a community to show their solidarity during demonstrations – video
[6] Documentary filmed by the Guardian on the campaign “Ojo con tu ojo” that has denounced the use by Catalan police of rubber balls as an anti-riot weapon
[7] The Popular Unity Candidates (Catalan: Candidatura d’Unitat Popular, CUP) are left-wing Catalan independentist political party active in Catalonia. The CUP have traditionally concentrated on municipal politics, and are made up of a series of autonomous candidatures that run in local elections. More information here 
[8]Podemos (meaning ‘We can’ in Spanish) is a Spanish political party created on 11 March 2014 by Spanish leftist activists associated with the 15-M movement that emerged from the 2011–12 Spanish protests. More information here

 


What does it mean to be an explorer in development? Review of Robert Chambers’ recent book

03/06/2014

Pauline OosterhoffPauline profile

It is rather rare these days to find optimistic books on development. Robert Chambers’ latest book is a welcome change. Into the Unknown: Explorations in development practice does not shy away from sharply critiquing development paradigms that have proven ill-suited or counter-productive over the past five decades. This includes, Chambers ruefully acknowledges, some of those he has been part of himself, in his nearly half century in development work. But he remains enthusiastic about the capacity of development initiatives to succeed when they avoid being co-opted by powerful gatekeepers, and incorporate the knowledge and agency of poor people themselves.

‘Written in the spirit of exploration’
In the preface, Chambers modestly introduces himself as someone who learned -during an exercise managed by a student- that he mainly sees himself not so much as a researcher but as an explorer. With that he sets the tone for a book ’written in the spirit of exploration.’ The book contains some older already-published articles, and some new more recent work. The first part of the book critically explores Chambers’ professional experiences, starting as a colonial field administrator in Kenya; the second contains reflections on learning and teaching as individuals; and the final section explores the future of development in a digitalized world.

Chambers is hopeful about poor people’s abilities to improve their lives, and sceptical about privileged people’s willingness to recognise the distorting effects of power. A recurrent theme is the system of incentives for framing the realities of the poor in ways that suit the powers that be. The book details many examples of perverse incentives in the development sector. In Chapter 3, which focuses on irrigation in South Asia, Chambers explains how a water distribution project with context-specific

into-the-unknown-cover-imagrequirements only available in the Northwest of India was nonetheless sold as an India-wide solution, ignoring farmers’ knowledge and needs. Chambers harshly criticises the use of research to document the ’successes‘ of such projects. Badly-designed large projects continue to be authorised, he argues, because ’on a personal and social level there [is] a self-sustaining nexus of professional, social and personal relations, with a political economy linked to careers and income.’ Donors and recipients have a common interest in approving large loans; national officers stand to gain secondments to international organisations if they approve their projects; development workers hope to win well-paying consultancies; and expatriates especially tend to be part of social networks  with shared schools, swimming pools and other recreations. Designing good projects takes time to explore, listen, and learn through open-ended consultations with the poor, time that career-driven development professionals often do not have. The next section of the book focuses on acknowledging failures, reflexive learning, and how it can be promoted among institutions, groups and individuals.

A stimulating read
Chambers writes with humour, wit, and a real verve for telling stories, including unflattering ones about the author for the benefit of the reader’s education. (This is part a deliberate tactic; what sticks in people’s minds, Chambers writes, is ’telling stories, best against yourself‘.) There are lots of other plusses in the book – tips for individual learning and self-reflection, activities to plan, organize and conduct large participatory workshops and co-generating knowledge (ensure people have time to meet in well-set up coffee breaks, neutralizing dominators, finding out experiences and resources in the group). It clocks in at a very readable 130 pages, structured into 3 parts and 7 chapters with key lessons learned over a career in development that spans almost half a century on exploring experience and learning on development. This manageable size, clear language and the light tone make it a stimulating read.

But the book would have benefited from more detail on how to deal with gatekeepers to the poor who are less interested in learning than in keeping their privileged status. In development practice there are many hurdles, including visa procedures and travel restrictions that aim to deter explorers. What do we do with people in positions of power who are not eager to learn and discover? Apart from whistleblowing, what can we do to support good governance and effective development practices? This is one of the crucial battlegrounds in development work, and to be honest, I would have appreciated more stories about when to choose a battle.

On the other hand, the author is quite aware of his tendency to be optimistic. If you can accept that you will have to figure out yourself how to deal with gatekeepers and other authoritarian figures, the book provides a wealth of insights into development practices that are likely to deliver more sustainable results than narrow logframes.

Pauline Oosterhoff is Research Fellow for the Participation, Power and Social Change (PPSC) team at IDS.