Jan
13

Qatar's Modern and Contemporary Development

One of the benefits of being in Qatar, when reading books written on the country, is the ability to walk the shelves of the Qatar National Library and stumble upon gems that almost certainly would not be available outside of Qatar. One example of this is "Qatar's Modern and Contemporary Development: Chapters of Political, Social and Economic Development", published in 2015, in Doha, Qatar. This book was written by Prof Ahmed Zakariya Al-Shelek, Prof Mustafa Oqail Mahmoud, and Dr. Yusuf Ibrahim Al- Abdulla (I believe it was originally written in Arabic but I do not have the date of that publication).

While other histories offer details of events in relation to external and colonial actions, the strength of this book is the extensive reference to local developments (e.g. related to the changes in the governance system, the consideration of a regional union when approaching independence, relations with other intergovernmental organizations like the Arab League and the UN, etc). In many ways this is much more of a history of Qatar, as opposed to other histories which situate Qatar as subject to the actions of others and their history. Entire chapters take this local focus. For example, Chapter 5 covers the Beginnings of the Modern State and is a valuable reference as it lists the emergence of various government offices, laws (e.g. nationality laws), Islamic courts, and so forth. Chapter 7 covers the political history of oil, putting it in local and international context, and Chapter 8 analyzes some of the socio-cultural impacts of oil. These histories are not included in most texts, and makes this a particularly valuable contribution.

Although not a strong focus, relatively more attention is paid in this book to the history before the colonial period as well as the role of Islam (the latter is made invisible in many works on the country). When the colonial era is covered, readers learn more of the Ottoman role in the 1800s, in comparison to other histories that emphasize that of the British. Also unlike almost all books on the country (including those published by academic presses) this book uniquely has a chapter on methods and sources, which is appreciated. This methods chapter outlines the inclusion of Arabic sources, Turkish sources, colonial sources, amongst others (including Russian sources). For this interested in the history of Qatar, this is worthwhile read.

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Nov
16

Qatar: Politics and the Challenges of Development

In the same year that Kamrava published his book on Qatar, Matthew Gray published Qatar: Politics and the Challenges of Development (2013). Kamrava's book has about three times as many citations and seems to have become the go-to book on political issues in Qatar for the time period. Kamrava took a position at Georgetown University in Qatar in 2007, and has been there since, giving him a depth of experience and insight that many others do not have. When I picked up Gray's book, and read that it was based upon three short visits to Qatar in 2011 and 2012, I was skeptical. Maybe it is a disciplinary or training difference, but I struggle to see how I could write a book with such limited contextual experience. Nonetheless, Gray's book is a really good resource, contains lots of data (which is often challenging to find in one place), it is well organized and structured. Some parts could have done with more references, allowing us readers to know where the information was obtained - for example the historical chapter gives many details that must have been sourced somewhere, but we are not told where (and a heavy reliance upon one source, in that chapter Crystal's work). As with many other works written by 'outsider' academics, no Arabic sources are used. While the author speaks of interviews and cites interviewees, we know little to nothing about who they are, how representative that data is, how many interviews are used, how the data was analyzed in order to draw conclusions, et cetera. This presents a significant methodological weakness. Nonetheless, this is a good resource for students, albeit slightly dated now, but for the period before 2012, this is worth reading.

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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)

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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.

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