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
requirements 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.