Robert Chambers is who I want to be when I grow up, an object lesson in how to grow old (dis)gracefully. Funny, passionate, always willing to admit doubt and failure, and endlessly curious – he never pulls that weary ‘oh, we tried that in the 1970s and it didn’t work’ routine beloved of other development veterans.
He also writes short books, something I can’t seem to get the hang of. His latest, ‘Into the Unknown: Explorations in Development Practice’ is just 140 pages. The first half is a series of reflections on his life as a ‘development nomad’, including a behind the scenes account of his ground-breaking work on the World Bank’s ‘Voices of the Poor’ project in the late 90s (still the best view of what it feels like to live in poverty, in my opinion) and a fascinating account of ‘ignorance, error and myth in South Asian irrigation’.
The second half is about one of his abiding passions – participatory learning. And he’s very good at it. One Indian professor told me last year that she still remembered her first class with Robert. The students filed in to find him sitting in a corner. Next to him was a map of the world, with the South Pole at the top. ‘Professor, you have the map upside down’. ‘Really, why do you think that?’ And they were off.
Reading the book prompts all sorts of personal reflection and self-questioning. Some memorable passages:
On (not) lecturing:
‘To lecture, you have to read and remember what others have written, reinforcing it then through public repetition. I did not know enough of any relevant subject to be able to give a formal lecture during my three years at Glasgow, and am amazed to realize that I have only ever given one in 35 years at the University of Sussex.
Instead I have taken the easier option of participatory workshops, trying, but not always succeeding, to do something new each time. Optimal unpreparedness and trying to facilitate more open-ended participatory learning in place of more closed didactic teaching have helped.
But lack of time and energy, laziness, and finding exercises and sequences which seem to work, have lured me into repetition. In consequence I have deceived myself, constructing through speech and public performance false beliefs, progressively discarding caveats and fitting what I say to the needs of the occasion. I do not think many lecturers realize that giving a lecture again and again is, like a catechism, disabling and conservative, because each time we say something we embed it, remember it better and believe it more, diminishing our doubts, finding it easier to repeat, and to a degree closing our minds.’
On ‘islands of salvation’ (aka Potemkin projects):
‘Three stood out: Sukhomajri in Haryana where my Ford Foundation colleagues facilitated a remarkable degree of equity through allocating tradeable water rights to the landless – it received so much attention that for a time the Ford Foundation rented a place to stay in nearby Chandigarh; the Gram Gourav Pratishthan (GGP), an NGO in Maharashtra with a charismatic initiator and patron, Solanki – the GGP allocated water on a per capita basis (enough for half an acre of irrigation per family member); and most markedly and misleadingly of all, Mohini in Gujarat, where a high profile cooperative system was rewarded with and sustained by a specially reliable water supply and other privileged access. Mohini generated a widely publicized, and almost totally false, impression that there were many water cooperatives in Gujarat and that these provided a model replicable elsewhere.
I confess that was seduced by Sukhomajri and the GGP and urged their adoption elsewhere. Both were much visited: when I went to Sukhomajri I was in trouble because I took the best guide, denying him to a large party of important officials whom I then bumped into doing their circuit with a lower status guide; and the Sukhomajri school had a small forest of Eucalyptus planted by distinguished visitors whose memorial plaques were a who’s who of the agricultural establishment of India and of international organizations.
The Sukhomajri and GGP approaches never spread. Both were far too idealistic, sharing water democratically in ways that could not be reproduced. But for a time, in writing after writing, in workshop after workshop, in conference after conference, in keynote address after keynote address, they were cited as feasible ways forward to a fairer and better future. For myself, I was part of all this, and far too naïve in my optimism. Such is the power of repetition, reinforcement and wishful thinking.’