Dec
19

Getting to Zero: On the Ebola Frontline

  • "It seems very hard to stop this now, but I think we all just have to believe that it is possible." (Norwegian epidemiologist, p. xvii)

Within development studies literature there is a sub-genre of memoires, biographies and dairies. Some are troubling to read. Not all are well written. Some are extremely informative. Most present aspects of the sector that are invisible for those outside of it. Daily routines. Successes and failures. Lessons. Lived experiences. I enjoy reading these works. "Getting to Zero: A Doctor and a Diplomat on the Ebola Frontline" (2018) by Sinead Walsh and Oliver Johnson falls in this sub-genre and is well worth a read. The book is quite long (422 pages), so I will not attempt a summary. Rather, a few parts that I think are worth sharing:

On training: "The second problem with Ebola trainings was that they fell into the 'training the trainers' trap, another common fault of aid programmes. The logic here was that an expert, often an international consultant flown in for the task, could provide a brief training to a selection of local staff brought together from across the country. These staff would then 'cascade' this training to their colleagues after returning home. Whilst this may be effective in some specific situations, generally a few hours or a few days of classroom-based teaching simply does not give someone enough knowledge or hands-on experience of a complex real-world challenge for them to be able to undertake it independently or teach it to others" (p. 52).

Learning in emergencies: "Key to any process of community engagement is respect. This meant being willing to sit down, listen, and then have a conversation with communities to find compromises between our preferred biomedical strategies and what they felt they could actually do. It took us a long time to get to that. Much of the community engagement in the early months was one-way, telling people what to do rather than understanding the kinds of challenges they faced and what ideas they had for how to protect themselves." (p. 343)

On roles within humanitarian and development activity: "the question of how assertive to be in a situation like this is at the core of the distinction between development and humanitarian approaches to international aid. The development mindset tends to focus on supporting the country to better serve its population over the long term, and therefore recognizes the importance of being led by the government. After all, it is the government that (usually) has the democratic legitimacy to make decisions about the country's future and is therefore best placed to run the services that aid agencies are looking to strengthen. Mutual respect and a collaborative relationship between the government and the aid agency are key in this kind of approach. As a result, timelines are usually slower than if aid agencies implement services directly. A humanitarian approach can sometimes appear to be the exact opposite. The focus in an emergency situation is not on long-term improvements to government systems but on immediate relief for those in need. There is a strong sense of urgency, and aid agencies will sometimes take control, with only a token consultation with the government, so that rapid decisions can be made. Humanitarian budgets can be quite large, allowing the swift hiring of additional staff and the bringing in of supplies for the short-term effort." (p. 66-67)

Pointing fingers: "Paul Farmer has written extensively about the tendency of people in the aid system to over-focus on weak accountability in developing countries, rather than questioning the role of developed countries, either today or historically. This is both about weak accountability within their international aid systems and about how they often contribute to corruption in developing countries." (p. 361)

  122 Hits
122 Hits
Jan
11

Can We Know Better? Reflections for Development

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.

  246 Hits
246 Hits
Sep
28

Can Intervention Work?

Crises call for action. Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen... The international community has responded to countries experiencing crisis in a range of ways, from heavy-handed military action to neglect. Have the activities achieved their objective? And, if not, what might be do differently in responding to crises in the future? This is the subject of "Can Intervention Work?" (2011) by Rory Stewart and Gerald Knaus. The book is two long essays, one by each of the authors. This book is essentially reading because is challenges commonly aired opinions about state-building, governance, international intervention,

In essence, the book advocates that "limited but well-resourced humanitarian interventions can succeed. Outsiders can bring a war to an end and even help build peace" (p. xiii). However, in many instances it does not, and has not. Rory focuses on some of the causes of the failures. One is the application of a planned, best-practice approach often devoid of any context. For example, staffers are higher for generalist knowledge, not linguistic abilities or depth of cultural knowledge (p. 16). He writes of Afghanistan: "They were not experts in gender or governance in Afghanistan: they were experts on gender and governance in the abstract. They had studied "lessons learned" by their colleagues in other countries and were aware of international "best practice." Their focus was one "cross-cutting themes" – issues that should be applied to all countries and integrated into any project – such as human rights, the environment, and (to quote mission criteria for a Department for International Development, or DFID, project in Iraq) "the political participation of the poor, the vulnerable and the marginalized, particularly women" (p. 20).

As an example of a failure to recognize context, regarding one of the foundational documents developed in Afghanistan, among "the sixty-nine separate tables and charts in this 137-page plan, including ones on "predicted teledensity" and "status and accomplishment, national police and law enforcement," the following words did not appear: Pashtun, Hazara, Tajik, Islam, Sharia, jihad, communism, Northern Alliance, warlord, democracy, equality, insurgency, resistance, and consent. Were you to delete the word Afghanistan from the document, and replace it with the word Botswana, it would be very difficult to know of which country you were speaking" (p. 36-37). What was the result? One example is that after a decade of work, of billions of dollars spent, and far too many lives lost, "the justice delivered by young Taliban commanders under trees was consistently rated as fairer and more efficient than that of the infrastructure of the state" (p. 45).

What does Rory propose? "The knowledge required for intervention is not theoretical knowledge – it is a form of practical wisdom: an activity in which there is no substitute for experience. The ideal instructors are those who have spent a long time getting to know a particular place and have seen it at very different times and under different conditions. The ideal education is through an ever more detailed study of the history, the geography, and the anthropology of a particular place, one the one hand, and of the limitations and manias of the West, on the other. You should not, therefore, teach interventions in the way that you teach natural science, but in the way that you teach mountain rescue. Although there is a humanitarian purpose – to save life – the central question is not "What ought you to do?" but "where are you and who are you?"" (p. 77).

The second half of the book, Gerald's essay, focuses on Bosnia. It presents four ideologies about international intervention, drawing out lessons from the Bosnian experience. He echoes Rory in many regards. For example: "In reality, interveners are never in a good position to understand what objectives are actually achievable or how to achieve them before a mission starts. It is by trial and error – by learning from failure as well as success – that a mission understands gradually what is might be able to achieve" (p. 188). Gerald concludes: "Changing other countries is extremely difficult. Historically occupations have rarely ended with an outcome that was satisfactory to the occupier. But supporting certain norms and values and opposing others has led to some astonishing successes in recent years" (p. 192).

  212 Hits
212 Hits
Apr
22

The Parable of the Pauper

"Imagine a pauper who turns to two finance gurus for advice. Not only is he broke, this pauper is poorly educated and lives in a rough neighborhood. The first guru urges, "Earn your first paycheck. Once you start making money, your circumstances will improve, and you will eventually escape poverty." The second guru counsels differently: "Start by doing as my rich clients do: attend college, move to a safe town, and buy health insurance. You can only escape poverty by first creating the prerequisites for wealth." The two gurus mean well, but the advice of both clearly falls short. The first guru provides no clue as to how the pauper might earn his first paycheck, much less how to sustain a stable income. Conversely, the second guru ignores the realities of poverty. If the pauper could afford to, he would have obtained the prerequisites for a better life long ago. Attaining such prerequisites is not the solution to poverty, the difficulty of attaining them is itself the problem. The parable of the pauper and two gurus reflects a fundamental problem of development in the real world." (p. 1)

  • "no particular solution is universally effective or ideal. Particular solutions work only when they fit the needs and resources of particular contexts and the success criteria of the players involved." (p. 16-17)
  • "Whether it is in Western Europe, the United States, East Asia, China, or Nigeria, particular solutions work only when they fit the particular demands of their environments. Therefore, it is futile and even self-defeating to search for one replicable model believed to work always and everywhere." (p. 223)

- Yuen Yuen Ang (2016) How China Escaped the Poverty Trap

  338 Hits
338 Hits
Subscribe to receive new blog posts via email