Cochrane, L. (2019) Review: Can We Know Better? Reflections for Development. Progress in Development Studies 19: 84-86.
Starting in the 1980s, there have been regular publications of books that invite critical self-reflection in development study and practice: Rural Development: Putting the Last First (1983), Challenging the Professions (1993), Whose Reality Counts? (1997), Participatory Workshops (2002), Ideas for Development (2005), Revolutions in Development Inquiry (2008) and Provocations for Development (2012). Robert Chambers, critical champion of participatory development, yet again reminds and challenges donors, development practitioners and academics in Can We Know Better? Reflections for Development (2017). This book focuses upon knowledge – what, why and how we know, and how this impacts decision making and is a reflection of power.
The book is structured in typical Chambers style, in chapters that could be read as thematic stand-alone contributions (with abstracts and a concluding 'agenda for reflection and action'). The book challenges, but also engages, offering avenues for new ways forward. The six chapters respectively cover: (1) error and myth, (2) biases and blind spots, (3) lenses and lock-ins, (4) rigour for complexity, (5) power, participation, and knowledge: knowing better together, and (6) knowing for a better future. The first half is the critical foundation. In it, Chambers makes the case for why we need to know better: preventing the damage being done and ending the misallocation of resources. The examples of poor, uninformed or failed policies, programmes and professional beliefs that Chambers provides in the opening chapters are largely from decades past, and one wishes that Chambers would have guided readers to see the errors in the present and challenge new us to move in new directions (hindsight is always clearer). The latter half of the book is the 'more positive and forward looking' that is 'infused with an optimism which negative academics may find naïve and those embedded in bureaucracies difficult to put into practice' (p. xiii). It is call both for learning and unlearning better.
For anyone engaged in development – from the community-based practitioner to the researcher and donor – the biases that Chambers points out (spatial, project, person, seasonal, diplomatic, professional, security, urban slum) help everyone reflect on the ways in which we need to know better, and the processes through which these biases can be confronted. This is particularly important for those based away from project areas, the 'uppers' often working in offices in capital cities. Chambers believes we have made progress on some blind spots (water, sanitation and hygiene, gender, harmful traditional practices, unpaid care, masculinities and men, sexuality, child sex abuse) but others remain 'backwaters' (corruption, entomophagy, neglected tropical diseases, cookstove air pollution, climate change and ocean ecology) (p. 31-36).
Much has been said about random control trials in recent years. Chambers makes his position very clear, and argues that the reality people experience has become distorted, limited, and narrow as mechanical and reductionist approaches of research have become the standard (e.g. randomized control trials and systematic reviews). These types of research, he argues, have been entrenched by funding requirements that require these methodologies when demanding evidence and best practices. The alternatives Chambers advocates for are participatory, contextual, qualitative, inclusive, and collaborative approaches. It might have served the book well had the case for technical, expert-driven processes also been explored. For example, the design of electrical and telecommunication systems, drinking water contamination standards and regulations, and currency and exchange policy, to name a few, require specific technical information and expert knowledge. These are also development challenges. The argument for radical transformation may have transcended the echo chamber had it been made with slightly more nuance on the contexts and questions for which inclusive and participatory approaches are necessary, and when alternatives may be considered.
While Chambers spoke about the disincentives in research and academic publishing, an additional blind spot not covered in detail in this work is human resources and the incentives within the development industry that can result in less than ideal environments for enabling the kind of transformation Chambers is calling for. In many countries, jobs within international agencies and NGOs are often amongst the most well paid, attracting highly skilled individuals from a range of private and public sectors. The salary incentive is not one that necessarily attracts the values, passion, love, courage, commitment, reflectivity, and openness for new ways of knowing that Chambers argues are so critical for knowing better (p. 161-162). Rather, it is for many the best paying job on the block. This is one reason for the continued disconnect between the proposal and the implementation (e.g. the on-going struggle for changed practice using 'do no harm' and 'gender transformative' approaches). The way forward is unclear, but this challenge cannot be underestimated when seeking to understand why the myths, biases, lock-ins, misconceptions and lenses continue.
Can We Know Better? Reflections for Development is not a final word, but a call for continuous renewal: 'there will forever be new constellations of being wrong and new ways of being right, of being in touch, up to date, and realistic. We will always need to go on learning how to know better, and through knowing better, doing better' (p. xiv). Chambers calls for humility, passion and self-reflection, and provokes readers to re-consider their own values as donors, practitioners and academics engaging with development. This is a book that should be widely read, and should be essential reading for all students in development studies as well as those planning to engage in the practice of development.