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September 6, 2012

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September 6, 2012

Robert Chambers – why don't all development organizations do immersions?

September 6, 2012
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Following on my review of Robert Chambers’ new(ish) book, ‘Provocations for Development’, I’m posting a couple of edited-down excerpts CLTS workshop in Mombasa_P Bongartzthat caught my eye. Today, immersions –  written in 2007 and a nice illustration of how Robert combines both the politics and practicalities of aid work.

Immersions can take many forms, but an almost universal feature is staying in a poor community, as a person, living with a host family, helping with tasks and sharing in their life. The overnight stay is vital for relationships, experience, and relaxed conversations after dark and talking into the night. There may be activities like working with and helping the family, listening and dialogue, learning a life history, keeping a reflective diary or trying to explain your work and its relevance, but the essence is to be open much of the time to the unplanned and unexpected, to live and be and relate as a person. The unplanned incident is so often the most striking, moving and significant. Much is experienced and learnt, but what that will be is hard to predict.
Agreement seems universal that immersions give insights and experiences that are not otherwise accessible. Those who participate learn in a personal way about people’s lives, livelihoods and cultures and the conditions they experience. The world can be seen the other way round, from the perspective of people living in poverty.
Quite often there are stark and startling insights and impacts. Ravi Kanbur had an immersion with SEWA in India as part of the preparation for the World Development Report 2000/2001 for which he was Task Manager. He spent three days in a remote village, Mohadi. Parents were keen for their children to learn to read and write but the schoolmaster only came once a month. But he turned up on the second day when he had heard there were visitors. He launched into a litany of the difficulties of teaching the village children whom he described as ‘junglee’(from the jungle). This “Master of Mohadi” incident, Kanbur wrote, ‘encapsulated for me the gap between macro-level strategies and ground-level realities’.

All this is enough to justify immersions over and over again. If this were all, the case would already be overwhelming. But people repeatedly say they gained much more than just useful insights and knowledge. They stress, and often give more importance to, the experiential learning, the personal and emotional impact. Fred Nunes writes that [former World Bank President] Jim Wolfensohn “wanted managers who had heart as well as intellect”. The aim was to “rekindle the staff’s passion for poverty reduction”. For Taaka Awori:

“All of me was learning, not just my mind, as is usually the case. The immersion allowed me to stop analysing people living in poverty as objects of development, but rather just to be with them and allow the learning to emerge.”

Why did immersions not take off earlier?

If these experiences mean so much, and can make such a difference, why have they not spread more and been more widely adopted? They cost less than going to a workshop. They take little time – usually not more than a week. It is not as though most organisations lack money: training and capacity-building funds for professional development are frequently underspent.

Three clusters of forces stand out.

The first is personal. It is easy to make excuses, especially being too busy with important work. There is time for a workshop, within our comfort zones, but not for an immersion which is outside, unfamiliar, threatening. For myself, I am reluctant to give up what is known, cosy, and controllable for the unknown, perhaps uncomfortable and uncontrollable. I fear behaving badly and making a fool of myself. And here I and others must thank Ravi Kanbur for his “I don’t think I want to go to that temple any more”: he asked twice to visit an inviting-looking temple before realising that his host family were excluded from the temple because they were lower caste. This makes it easier for me to acknowledge my own shameful mistake, so hurtful to our host lady in Gujarat, of going to bed instead of meeting the people who had come across the desert to meet us. And then there are other arguments that can be mustered: ‘I know all about that. I grew up in a village (or slum). I don’t have anything to learn about that’.

The second cluster of forces is institutional. These are so many: values and incentives that reward writing good memoranda and reports and speaking well in meetings with important people; and the low value given to listening to the unimportant poor. There are senior staff who regard immersions as frivolous, useless or voyeurism, and/or feel personally threatened by them. There are normal pressures of work and other perceived priorities. Bureaucratic culture looks inwards and upwards, not downwards and outwards.

A third force is rhetoric about development relations. For staff of lender and donor agencies, there has been the convenient political correctness of government ownership. For international NGOs there has been increasing reliance on the insights of partners who are supposedly close to poverty. To seek direct personal experience through immersions could then be thought of as untrusting and interfering.

These personal, institutional and rhetorical forces combine. Any organisation or individuals who want excuses for not pressing for immersions have no difficulty finding them. It is not difficult, then, to understand why until recently effective demand for immersions has not been strong.

Why now?

The case is stronger now than ever for three reasons.

First, the conditions, awareness, priorities and aspirations of poor people are changing faster than ever before. There is a continuous and intensifying challenge to policy makers and practitioners to keep in touch and up to date.

More educational than a powerpoint?

More educational than a powerpoint?

Second, a new simplistic certainty has been infiltrating development thinking and practice. The downside of the Millennium Development Goals and of the inspiring movement to Make Poverty History, has been the belief that ‘we know what needs to be done’ (especially on the part of non-Africans about Africa) – and that the solution is more money. The issues are not so simple; nor in most cases are the solutions. Immersions provide one means of checking against the complex and diverse realities of poor people.

Third, the grip of the urban offices, capital traps and elite activities has tightened – for government, aid agency and NGO staff alike: more and more emails, meetings, negotiations, reports, often with fewer staff; participation in the pandemic of incestuous workshops, many of them about poverty; donors’ budget support, sector-wide programmes, and harmonisation on policy issues, all of this in what Koy Thomson calls our “self-referential universe.” Qazi Azmat Isa speaks for other agencies too when he notes that ‘increasingly World Bank staff are confined to government departments in capital and provincial cities, removed from the reality of poverty and from our ultimate clients – the poor of the country’.

Immersions are means to offset these biases and trends: to keep up to date; to be in touch; to escape the self-referential trap. It is fitting and fortunate that they are rising fast on the agenda. They are now better understood, more talked about and easier to arrange. More organisations – EDP, SEWA, ActionAid International, Praxis, Proshika – are providing them for others. More people and more organisations are setting them up for themselves. The increasing numbers of those who have experienced immersions and the conviction, commitment and authority with which they can speak, encourage others. We appear to be approaching a tipping point of a critical mass of stories, buzz, communications and enthusiasm.

What would those living in poverty want us to do? Would they, as Koy Thomson has asked ‘express their amazement that people who are experts in poverty don’t even bother to spend time with them’. As he observes ‘For a development organisation to see four days simply being with people living in poverty as a luxury is a sign of pathology’. The question is not whether the direct experiential learning of immersions and reality checks can be afforded. It is whether anyone in any organisation committed to the MDGs, social justice and reducing poverty, can justify not affording and making space for them.

Well that was written five years ago, and there doesn’t seem to have been an immersion tipping point since then. Any thoughts or personal/organizational experiences from readers?


  1. I guess for me the question will always be – and why I haven’t yet argued for them in the INGO where I work – can you learn enough in 3 days to be any better a “representative of poor people” or are we better off finding stronger ways to enable and encourage people living in poverty to speak for themselves – including to us. And persuading power to listen.

    Or is it an either-or?

  2. There’s something about immersions that I don’t quite feel comfortable with. I think the risk is that people in poverty are used to “extract” information or knowledge, the NGO or aid worker spending a few days and then heading back to his or her comfy office safe in the knowledge that they are closer to understanding the reality of people’s lives and can therefore design projects that will better meet their needs.

    I admit this is an overly-cynical viewpoint. But rather than extracting information from people in poverty, surely we need to go further today and think how we can build long-term partnerships with people in poverty that are the result of a long-term commitment with the population. This cannot be achieved through an immersion but rather long-term proximity, enabling knowledge to be co-constructed. This is what can give rise to the participatory processes we need to develop anti-poverty strategies, at the micro and macro level that correspond to the lives of people in poverty.

    Organisations such as my own, ATD Fourth World, or those part of the Slumdwellers International network for example, are looking at this process of co-producing knowledge between people in extreme poverty and poverty “experts”. It is possible to undertake because it is borne out of a long-term presence with the population that gives time for the trust to develop that can lead to such partnerships.

    The short-termism driven by the need to show results to funders concerned with immediate impact makes this commitment to build meaningful partnerships with people in extreme poverty ever-more challenging for NGOs.

  3. Sir Duncan and Mr. Chambers,

    What is described here is similar to what U.S. Peace Corps does. I know that Peace Corps volunteers are frowned upon for acting upon their undeserved right to help those in need, but they do spend two years learning local language while living in communities.

    Also, and beyond Peace Corps, I feel that NGOs and developmental agencies may find that it is more cost effective to stay, integrate, and learn what specific communities needs are over time as opposed to doing a quick needs-assessment and then bringing funding.

    Does this topic have anything to do with developmental workers not willing to stay in remote/rural communities for long periods of time? I don’t think so. I for one thrive being in the African bush for long periods of time rather than in Dakar or Nairobi.

    Or, did I miss the point of the post?

    Thanks for posting.
    Travis Warrington

  4. Hello Duncan, this is not to this post especially but to the new look of FPTP. On my screen it appears in red background with black and (the links) green lettering on it. Is this intended? I’m asking because this is impossible to read without damaging eyes and brain.

    Thanks, Tillmann

    1. You need to tweak ur computer Tillmann. Goo to mondays ‘links I liked’
      post and follow instructions at top. Let me know if u still have probs.

  5. This is a very interesting and inspiring post and a very appropriate reminder of the value of immersions. It is true that the tipping point has not been reached, despite the fact that the importance and relevance of immersions has only increased. My 5 cents to the debate would be that immersions are indeed very powerful individual experiences, but that the link with organisational learning has been too often missing. If the link can more strongly be made between immersion as personal challenge and its relevance for improving organisational performance, maybe it can become a more permanent feature.

    I have argued much the same point, as well as describing practical suggestions on how to do this, in an article published just a few weeks ago in Development in Practice, vol 22, no 7: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09614524.2012.696579?journalCode=cdip20#preview (let me know if the pay wall is an obstacle). At least it shows that the immersion debate has not gone away completely.

    Rinus van Klinken, SNV Tanzania

  6. I was involved in a recent immersion programme in Tanzania. It seemed like a useful exercise for the people involved.

    But I’m concerned that they are a sticking plaster over a bigger problem. NGOs and aid agencies have become more and more distant from the communities that they exist to support. Understanding of context is vital, yet many NGOs and aid agencies prioritise technical specialisation over local knowledge. I think that’s a mistake.

    If NGO staff were more representative of and/or rooted in these communities, there would be no need for immersion visits.

    I realise it’s asking a lot for NGOs to have this kind of relationship, but I don’t think immersion visits can come anywhere close to having the same effect.

  7. I’ve been visiting a rural community in South India every few years for the past 18. We work in the fields and alongside those who live there and have watched as their lives have changed and developed. When I first went, polio was rife, now it isn’t and those who have survived have grown up and got jobs and families of their own. 12 years ago there was no internet and we gave one family a camera to start a photography studio. They also got a lap top to help with emails. Today that studio is thriving and is helping design websites for businesses across the state. The studio no longer operates a telephone exchange as so many people have mobile phones (you’d be amazed who will suddenly produce one as you are sitting in the dark in the latest power cut). Our friends can skype and email no problem. But they are still rescuing and caring for children abandoned at birth and left to die outside the local temple. Meanwhile the drought is severely affecting livelihoods – and paddy fields are dry and empty as they were last time I visited – reminding me of the real impact climate change can have. People are over grazing the land and draining the limited water supplies. They are forced to grow vegetables in place of rice to try and earn more of a living and simply to eat. More and more young people are heading for the cities leaving farms short of the labour needed. And the monkey population just keeps growing – thanks to the generous pilgrims who make their way in increasing numbers to the temples – a by-product of increased domestic tourism. So I’m not sure if that is what is meant here by immersion but every visit sticks with me and shapes my attitudes to development. And reminds me that the people I meet and their experiences sometimes feel a world away from discussions here.

  8. Dear Duncan and Mr Chambers,

    No body can deny the fact that process of realisation is very much required in the field of development work. Does it happen only by immersion? Is the immersion trigger for better planning for development “projects”? These all notions came due to the so called prescription syndrome, when people having a six days experience of living in the quarters or huts of villagers think that they have the real knowledge of how the poverty can be ameliorated and most of the time take charge of developing rather then giving charge to the clients. Sometimes I feel like are we playing with buzzwords, PRA replaced by Immersions. I have the firm belief that if a person wants to change his fate, yes if a person you only need to guide them instead of prescripting.

  9. Interesting, reading these comments there is a ‘best should not be the enemy of the good’ theme emerging. People say ‘immersions are OK but this is much better’or ‘doesn’t compensate for other flaws in the aid system’. Wonder what it is about immersions that make us reach for those comments – are we anxious about the prospect of endorsing aid tourism? My take from all this is that we need a bit more good stuff (the best stuff can come later), and immersions overall, if well designed look very good indeed for making us more responsive, nuanced and aware of the lives of people living in poverty. So what are the barriers to them happening more widely?

  10. Duncan–

    Thanks so much for this post — fascinating! Is is inappropriate to say that I heard Ravi Kanbur speak at a civil society consultation on the WDR 2000 and that I remember his seeming vividly impacted by the lived reality of having spent time directly with impoverished people? I have always remembered that moment, just as I vividly remember moments from my own “immersions” — or rather, the immersion-like experiences that younger aspiring development professionals usually have. Getting these experiences to take place in the lives of development professionals in general, and senior and influential ones in particular is, in my view, invaluable. In any case the post has sparked an interesting conversation.

  11. I agree with Travis – Peace Corps really does do this very well and are worth working with or learning from. Its curious that there’s a concentration on what we could learn from an immersion experience, the dialogue is still all around the westerner. Perhaps it would be better to consider what might be shared during an immersion experience – it can and should be a two way thing.

  12. ActionAid has been organising immersions for a while now, and it has been challenging to support participants’ understanding that this is not going to answer all the questions they have about poverty nor provide long term solutions, but is an incredible, and unforgettable, opportunity to remind themselves of how decisions they are taking affect real people’s lives. Living with, and learning directly from people living in poverty is powerful and humbling and gives us a touchstone for when we are intellectualising decisions that we are talking about real people and their daily lives.

    Why haven’t they taken off? I think the challenges that Robert outlined in his original article are still there. There are also greater financial constraints in all organisations, and until those at the top of those organisations recognise the value of spending time with people and learning directly from them, the money will continue to be spent on expensive training programmes, conferences and seminars – which of course have their place, but could be well complemented by an immersion experience.

    I like the comment from Kate that it is 2 way learning. The sharing of experiences, exchanges of cultural differences, and ordinary, unstaged conversations are what make immersions so impactful, and memorable. I’d encourage others who have been on immersions to post their thoughts here as if those making decisions can see longer term impacts of an immersion experience on those who have participated, I’m sure that that tipping point could still be reached.

    I certainly always think of the incredibly resilient family I stayed with in Ghana whenever anyone mentions Climate Change who have to beg for seed on a regular basis when the rains have failed, or the inspiring family in Sierra Leone when conflict is mentioned who lost their eldest son to the rebels and are still struggling to make sense of what happened.

    Surely these small reminders are what can motivate us all to build better partnerships, make thoughtful decisions and to continue to support communities to find solutions to end their poverty?

  13. Could it be that if development or aid work was done from the grassroots up by organisations that grew organically, there wouldn’t be so much talk about immersion? I guess such organisations or groups would be having an intimate understanding of contexts,posses a community owned perception of poverty and possibly what they percive to be solutions.

    On a more commentary note, I think the persistence of poverty irrespective of the genuinely heroic efforts of many stakeholders probabily requires extraordinary measures ( and Immersion is probably one such)hence it is worthy investing efforts in. Aid agencies need to do more than they are currently doing to promote such concepts.

  14. As an anthropologist who has worked in applied research for development (water management) for 30 plus years,I must say that I am always shocked when I meet people who have never live in a poor community but who have firm opinions on what “they” need. A few days with a family is not much for us anthropologists, but I think it is a lot better than nothing. But NONE of my USAID friends would come and stay in the Pakistani village with my wife and me overnight when we were doing our research. I hope Oxfam requires this of its people– the donors and banks should as well.

  15. As another anthropologist who has worked on applied research, I absolutely have to agree with Doug, we have been doing “immersions” since the beginning of the discipline. My first experience was as a student doing my master thesis research in Pakistan, where I spent 4 months “immersed” in a village in the Northern Areas.
    The issue is complex though, and by no means are any one (or even two) of the dimensions/experiences/competencies described above constitute a magic bullet. The business we are in (not sure what to call it) is complex, and all the different things make me a better practitioner in it:
    I am a southern national, and have done cumulatively many years of work in poor and marginal locations imbedded in the context, and have worked with grassroots organizations and traditional and conventional institutions…
    …I am from a middle class and well educated background; I am fluent in an international language, am trained and educated internationally and have worked with mutli-lateral organizations and international NGOs.
    Which of these gives me a privileged position to be an expert on poverty? None in themselves, but all of them combined possibly do.
    The key then, perhaps, is to take bright, intelligent, committed individuals (southern, northern, western, eastern…hell, the issue is so complex I would take people from middle earth!) and equip them with all the tools, skills, experiences, competencies that we can lay our hands on. So if that means that there is a bright, well educated, articulate and dedicated northern individual who has never had the opportunity to experience what poverty is really like first hand, then we send them on an immersion experience. Just like if we have a really bright and dedicated person from a vulnerable and marginalized group who does not have the skills to convincingly present to international audiences, we train them to that.

  16. I worked on the World Bank’s South Asia Village Immersion Program for their senior economists. Week-long homestays were combined with discussion visits from civil society, social leaders, civil servants, provincial government, etc.

    After several successful tours, we started to see the impact on the gap between the grassroots and the macro policy. Cultural changes, teamwork, planning and policy all changes because the output of the staff started to reflect their individual immersion programs.

    One of the greatest moments for me was when a particular approach was being discussed at a meeting, and one of the immersion participants (a senior economist) spoke up and said, “That’s a very good idea, but it wouldn’t have worked in my village”, and proceeded to explain his experience.

    Immersion programs, when done properly, can have an impact on both corporate culture, strategy, and programming.

  17. I wish I could say that simply imagining employing people in NGOs ‘nearer’ to the grassroots was a solution. Being employed in a formal entity grants status, at every level, that can subtly detach you from your constituency. I noticed this first when working in South India on issues of mental health (which generates remarkable barriers of prejudice of its own) where village workers in disability were systemically not ‘seeing’ it. The adjustment of their attention came from ‘without’ (specialist workers) and ‘within’ encountering the mentally ill themselves. Grassroots are remarkably diverse, entangled and sometimes need perspective to be seen…

    Immersion can help because it takes different viewpoints into a community situation including the potential for challenging the ‘host’ NGO and its purported ‘connectivity’ to the said community. My own living for two weeks with a micro-finance client in the Philippines was personally invaluable in reconstructing my thinking of what I thought we as an organisation was doing, shifting the emphasis from credit to savings, from ‘making entrepreneurs’ to building resilience and social capital in ways that positively changed what we were offering the communities we worked with.

    Incidentally, I still exchange Christmas cards with my host family 15 years on and the accompanying family letter has been a vivid chronicle of how a particular family has demonstrated extraordinary resourcefulness in adapting to change: positive and negative (as well as being fun)!

  18. thought-provoking discussion!

    I think the aim of immersion should not be to provide the “answers” to an issue, but to remind people that issues are generally complex and it is real people with their human frailties and strengths and differences that are being dealt with, so beware of simple answers!

    I am disappointed that many people working in aid never even take local transport!!

  19. How far into an organisation should the offer of immersion trips go?

    I work in the IT department of a large NGO in the UK. I don’t need the knowledge gained from an immersion trip to help me in my daily struggles with SQL programming, but I would like the opportunity to go and I’m sure it would improve my motivation hugely. In my case, I think I should have to pay for my travel and other costs, but should it be counted as work time or vacation (which is actually all taken with child care)?

  20. I am rather surprised at some of the comments, that state, more or less, “Well this is all very good, but it won’t solve the world’s problems!” I fear the authors are right, that there are all sorts of excuses for not getting out of your comfortable world and spending time in another’s world. How many marine biologists do you know that don’t swim? I do agree however, that perhaps nothing may come of it. It is indeed very, very much an individulat experience. I also know that I have gained valuable insights and knowledge (wisdom?)that would have been impossible without it. I taught experiential learning in Tanzania for 4 years. In addition to living for extended periods in the bush with various local communities, I arranged homestays for my students while in town. It should be no surprise that some got more out of it than others. For those that say that little or no benefit can be had, you are probably right. You yourself may get little benefit, but that may be more a reflection of your individuality that of the intrinsic value of cultural and situational immersion. Bottom line – you never know until you try it.

  21. As an afterthought, I am reminded of the old joke of the fellow looking for something lost under a streetlight at night. Another fellow steps in to assist him, and after they search in vain for a while, the newcomer finally asks, “So where again did you think you lost it”? To which the first fellow replies, “Way over there”. The second fellow asks incredulously, “So why are you looking here”?! To which the first replies, “The light is better”!
    The moral of the story should be clear. It may be easier not to venture off into the dark, but that may be precisely where you find the things of value.

  22. A good question is how long does an immersion need to be, to be effective at giving an insight to actual problems. I would maybe suggest that it is problem specific, for farmers & their communities often immersion would need to be at least from one growing season to the next to get a good idea of problems. I still feel living & working in a country for many years with friends in local communities is the best way to appreciate the complexity of problems that beset poor communities. I spent 5 years in Namibia, it was an eye-opening experience.

  23. Good post about an issue that I feel is overlooked. I started my work in Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer and lived for 3 years in two different villages with Senegalese host families. I cannot overstate the profound influence this experience had on me and my subsequent career in the aid field. It allowed me to understand the nuances of rural life in farming villages. It also allowed me to see firsthand the impact of Big Aid on people. There really is no substitute for speaking the language, sharing food and sticking around. The experience didn’t give me a lot of tech skills, but it did give me something a lot more valuable – a sense of humility about the limits (and potential) of an outsider’s presence in other people’s lives.

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