Are we ready for an “academic spring”?


Danny Burns

The Wellcome Foundation recently announced that it would be taking steps towards open access to information. It is unhappy about the dominance of three academic publishers who according to the Guardian account for 42% of journal articles, and it proposes to set up its own online journal. It is also keen to ensure that research gets out within six months avoiding the absurdly long lead times of some academic publishers. Harvard University is “encouraging its faculty members to make their research freely available through open access journals and to resign from publications that keep articles behind paywalls”.

These are important steps from large and influential institutions, and I applaud them, but this is only the start of a much bigger revolution in knowledge generation and dissemination that needs to happen.  The model of knowledge that is represented by academic journals is outdated, exclusive and ineffective.

Innovative and creative thinking is most likely to emanate from diverse collaborations. The Research Excellence Framework (REF) pushes academics toward the production of single authored papers in elite journals. Stephen Curry quoted in the Guardian says that although the adjudicating panels have been instructed to ignore the impact factors of journals, no one believes that “it is remotely possible to do so”. Journals are largely disciplinary and yet most real world problems are inter-disciplinary. It is really hard to get good cross disciplinary reviews of research.

Even the idea of peer review needs to be challenged. Who are the peers? Are they affected in any way by the research?  Even if we accept the legitimacy of academic ‘peers’, their insanely busy lives mean that they are usually reading these articles on the bus or the train, or crammed in between other things that they are doing. It is hard to escape the conclusion that this is the elite talking to the elite.

While peer review is supposed to ensure good scientific method, the controversies over scientific climate change research clearly show how the perspectives that people bring to these analyses fundamentally impact on their assessment.  When it comes to complex social issues, interpretation and sense making are critical.  Knowledge that is co-generated and critiqued by those people that will be affected by it, is likely to be much more robust than knowledge extracted by external researchers; Knowledge that can pass freely across the internet can be interrogated and subjected to a much more diverse arena of scrutiny; Knowledge that is written in straightforward language that is meaningful to more diverse populations will be triangulated by a far more diverse community.  Knowledge that is generated iteratively and continuously, and tested in action, is likely to make a far greater impact on complex social problems than knowledge crystallised in journals long after the event.

The internet provides other ways of validating research. As the Guardian points out downloads, numbers of bookmarks on social networking sites etc may much better indication of research quality than where it is published. Similarly initiatives like Google Scholar which can track who has cited or used work across a much wide range of outputs offer exciting possibilities. I want to know if my work appears in policy documents, books, pamphlets, films etc. I want to know how it is being used is to impact on poverty and vulnerability. I don’t want to know if an elite journal thinks that I am worthy of publication, and I don’t believe this serves society.

Academics have long assumed the position of “experts” in our society because they have had unique access to information and intellectual argument. This is no longer true. The internet makes access to information ubiquitous and opens that information up to the many different expert voices that have a right to reflect upon it. The more that we open up the knowledge that we generate the more society can benefit from the many views and perspectives which can give it meaning. It will not be an easy journey to find new models of knowledge distribution which allow real access and interaction. These will inetivably evolve rather than be constructed, but many people are starting to think about this and many initiatives are already well underway

There are clear implications for me. We should not stand on the sidelines and say that while we believe in new ideas about knowledge, we will continue to participate in the old system and legitimise it. We should stand up for a new vision of open knowledge generation. Many academics might not want to walk this road because to threaten the status quo might threaten their career progression. But if we believe in the social change that we espouse in our writings, this is exactly what we should be prepared to do.   

Danny Burns is the Team Leader for the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.

Ensuring those who are ‘last’ come first: using Reality Checks to inform post-MDGs


Robert Chambers

The MDGs picked low hanging fruit.  To achieve them,  the incentive has been to go for those who were closest to thresholds or easiest to help, for instance people close to the poverty line, those who are most accessible and so on.   But this precisely leaves out the last, those who are poorest, least able, most marginalised, women most vulnerable to maternal mortality and babies most likely to die.  What this has meant can be shown by UNICEF’s diagram of sanitation in India.  The  Total Sanitation Programme of subsidised toilets was meant for those below the poverty line, roughly the bottom two quintiles.  But they hardly gained at all.  The biggest gains were by those already better off, the third and fourth quintiles.

Let me propose, and add my voice to others who are proposing, that post-MDG the great need and opportunity is to think and act from the other end, with those who are poorest, weakest, and most excluded and marginalised, those who are disadvantaged and lving with physical, mental and/or social disability.  It means aiming to level up from the bottom with equity as the goal and a radical rethink of policies and priorities.

It also means reviewing and focusing systems of monitoring and learning.  Policy-makers need to be closely in touch with what is happening on the ground to those who are worst off, the conditions they experience and their changing realities. It means finding ways in which there can be flows of honest, accurate, insightful and credible information to those in positions of power. This matters more than ever given the rates of change for all people living in poverty, not least with the rapid transformations of global interconnectedness, the mobile phone revolution, and accelerating changes in social conditions and relationships.   Being out of touch and out of date has always been a problem, and has repeatedly led to misfits between policy and field realities.   More than ever before, those in capital cities are finding it challenging to keep up with developments and changes at the grass roots,. This can be expected to be even more pronounced after 2015.

Fortunately, we have a new means for being in touch and up-to-date.  An approach has been pioneered which all countries can and should adopt.  This is the Sida-supported Reality Checks pioneered in Bangladesh.  This is a brilliant and extraordinarily successful innovation.  Many have still not heard of it, but it is beginning to be recognised and spread.  

The Reality Checks are conducted annually at the same time of year by the same teams.  Outsiders spend several days and nights staying in the homes of people living in poverty. Each year they stay with the same families in the same nine representative areas.  The brief for those who take part in Bangladesh is to listen, observe and understand the perspectives of their host families and others in their communities. The focus has been primary education and primary health care, two sectors which Sida supports, but a great deal else has come to light.  The approach lends itself very well to learning about the realities of those who are poorer, weaker and most marginalised.

The insights repeatedly surprise, not least people’s changing experiences, behaviours and priorities. Unrecognised policy issues are raised. Much more is learnt than just about education and health.  The teams have been struck, even astonished, by how much has changed and how fast it has changed since the first Reality Check was conducted in 2007.   The people who live in poverty in all countries deserve that their governments keep themselves in touch in this sort of way. 

A bottom up focus on equity and on those who are ‘last’, and the approach of Reality Checks, combine and support each other well. Emulating Bangladesh, they could and in my view should be adopted and adapted by all governments.  David Cameron could set an excellent and early example by starting Reality Checks in the UK. Though his stay was brief, the Secretary of State, Andrew Mitchell, can testify to the value of staying overnight in a community from his own experience with a poor family in Ethiopia.

We do not need to wait for 2015.  We could start now.  Experience could then be gained across a range of countries and conditions, ready to inspire and inform extensive adoption post 2015 and to make it more feasible for equity and the wellbeing of those who are ‘last’ to come first.

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

Why predict a riot?


Naomi Hossain

Like millions of Indonesians, I watched the protests against the fuel subsidy cut as it was debated in Parliament last week. They were at it (debating, not protesting) into the wee hours; in the end, the protests were big and ugly enough for the opposition and coalition partners to hold the ruling party to ransom. They fudged it, agreeing that if the global fuel price goes up a lot, they will act. Result? Unruly politics – 1; responsible fiscal policy – 0.

Technocrats and policy types all agree the fuel subsidy is A Bad Thing. It cost US$18bn last year- more than half of spending on education (US$£32bn). The Iran situation will increase global fuel prices. 60-70% of the fuel subsidy benefits the richest 40% of Indonesians. But because fuel subsidies are so economically irrational, technocrats and policy types fail to analyse the political responses and easily discount the protests. Pure party politics, they say; protestors are cheaply hired; an easy populist win for parties against the cut; there weren’t many protestors really etc.

On the other side, protestors, spokespersons and even the occasional real person were heard arguing that no, increasing fuel prices by 33% will be bad for ordinary people. For one thing, the price of food in this island nation depends directly on fuel and sharp rises in the basic costs of living are toughest for people on low incomes. On cue, food prices shot up in anticipation.

To an outsider, there is a mesmerising balletic quality to the repertoire of fuel price protests. There seem to be clearly defined moves, honed over the decades. Some responses are no doubt learned from when the mighty Suharto lost power after the 1998 fuel price rise protests. There were protests in 2002, 2005, and 2008 against fuel subsidy cuts. The ritualistic quality helps the policy wonks dismiss this as ‘mere politics’; the spectacle seems not entirely real. The policewomen doing their cute dance to calm the crowds in Surabaya illustrates how domesticated– how subversively ruly (as Alex Shankland says) these protests are. Even then, there is an edge of danger: to contain Tuesday’s protests took 14,000 police and 8,000 army.

I doubt that fuel price protests are just the shadow-puppetry of elite politics. Fuel price rises unite the concerns of the poorest with that far more politically important and better organised class – the numerous nearly-poor, the group recently described by Martin Ravallion as ‘bunched up just above the poverty line’. This group is not the target of the sophisticated proxy-means tested social protection schemes so beloved of the international technocracy. But the nearly-poor have excellent reasons to be annoyed that their protection against inflation is being removed, as industrial workers in Bekasi (itself the site of protests earlier this year) told us during the price spike last year.

So here it seems is the recipe for a successful bout of unruly politics:

• A history of having worked
• Some familiar routines and rituals (Charles Tilly’s ‘repertoire’)
• A popular, broad-based concern to protect basic rights
• Actors willing to politicise the issue to their own advantage
• Authorities sensitive about unpopularity (general elections in 2014).

Clearly the technocrats need a much sharper political analysis if they are ever going to make this reform work. Conclusion? Political analysis – 1; technical correctness – 0.

Naomi Hossain is a Research Fellow in the IDS Power, Participation and Social Change Team.

The 0.7% target debate should not distract us from considering the quality of aid


Rosalind Eyben

Last week the Economic Affairs Committee of the House of Lords published its report of an enquiry into the economic impact and effectiveness of development aid. The headline recommendation was to abandon the 0.7 per cent GNP target for aid. The Committee concluded that increasing the spend has undermined quality. I tend to agree. There is a disincentive to fund the relatively low cost interventions through small grants and technical co-operation assistance that may have disproportionately significant impacts. And the pressure to spend may distract from the construction of the effective relationships necessary for sustainable poverty reduction. When I was first working in the UK Department for International Development (DFID) in the late 1980’s a reduction in the aid budget certainly did improve the quality of the programme; we had time to build relationships and think about how we went about our work. However, cutting staff puts this in peril. The House of Lords got this one right when warning about the risk to quality of such cuts.

But the main problem has been DFID’s response to the Daily Mail newspaper and the rights wing of the Conservative Party in defending their increased budget at a time of general cuts. Ministers are seriously undermining DFID’s potential to support equitable and sustainable development. The drive to demonstrate to the British taxpayer how every penny is spent ironically risks these pennies being ill-spent just because the donor is trying to be in control. Here are four lessons about effective aid that both DFID and the House of Lords appear to have over-looked.

Support from international agencies is more likely to be effective when harnessed to already initiated, locally-owned processes.
Findings from the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment Research Consortium (Pathways)  illustrate this point. Women’s political organising is key to securing government policies and private sector practices that make a difference to women’s lives. Today, however, by insisting on time-bound and pre-set objectives which treat such women’s organisations as contractors rather than innovators, donors are putting at risk their own gender equality objectives. DFID and other donors must realise that social change is contested and messy, requiring aid agencies to be flexible and responsive to rapidly changing local contexts. They should not seek to be in control of the agenda.

Value for Money means designing and adapting interventions that reap long term and sustainable development dividends.
Investing in mutually satisfactory relationships with partners makes possible the establishment and implementation of integrated financial and programmatic monitoring, evaluation and learning processes that enable all involved together to review progress and consider the value for money being achieved. Ensuring that budgets reflect the real costs of an intervention thus means including what is required to implement an adaptive learning strategy within supportive relationships with partners, characterized by respect, solidarity, responsiveness and helpfulness. For more about value for money, go to the Big Push Forward.

Modesty makes aid more effective.
Women’s rights organisations in Bangladesh highlighted to Pathways researchers that donors’ negative qualities were: being top-down; not giving the organisation a “decent hearing”; no transparency in decision-making; wanting too much publicity; imposing their decisions; being bureaucratic and inflexible; and thinking too much of themselves – for example, by insisting on ‘badging’ their work, as the House of Lords mistakenly recommends, rather than staying modest and in the background.

Aid agencies should develop a sound understanding of their power, position and biases
Power has an adverse effect when we impose our own point of view. Alternative ways of understanding and tackling problems are ignored or dismissed as irrelevant; those putting them forward feel disempowered and will drop out of the conversation. Organisational and individual critical self-reflection delivers benefits for donors as well as the others they seek to help. Like them, donors also will learn and think differently, to imagine new possibilities and to debate alternative choices.

Rosalind Eyben is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.