Book Review: Can We Know Better? by Robert Chambers

Robert Chambers is a role model – in his mid-80s, he has retained all the curiosity, humour, iconoclasm, commitment and originality that has made him a cult figure on large parts of the development circuit, North and South. His latest book, Can We Know Better?, builds on a string of publications going back to 1983 (Rural Development: Putting the Last First).

The new book takes aim at the aid business (both donors and academics), where ‘error, myth, biases and blind spots are deeply endemic; widely accepted and required procedures, approaches and concepts of rigour distort vision and diminish effectiveness; the power of funding often carries conditions that misfit complex realities.’ Recognize any of that?

He follows a fairly traditional format: the first half critiques what the orthodoxy is doing wrong; the second half offers his proposals for ‘knowing better’.

Large parts of the critique will be familiar to regular FP2P readers. The ‘insidious creep’ of ever-more mechanistic methodologies (RCTs) and procedures (logframes).  At both national and international levels, the aid business uncritically embraces mistaken approaches (take a bow, Structural Adjustment Programmes); endlessly recycles mistaken claims until they become accepted as fact (post-harvest losses of 30%, when the real figure is more like 7%), and rejects heresies for far too long, until the evidence becomes overwhelming (e.g. System of Rice Intensification). He does acknowledge progress though, for example on how the sector addresses issues of gender, inequality and power.

These errors rely in turn on ‘strategic ignorance’ (’deliberately not knowing’), which is driven by the yuk factor of things like open defecation; the rewards and punishments of career advancement and funding for research or programmes and the mechanics of the aid business: disciplinary bias, the nature of ‘rural development tourism’ – to approved projects, near the capital city, during the dry season; the need for simple, endlessly repeated narratives, stories and statistics that inevitably oversimplify complex realities.

That last bit caused me some discomfort: simple narratives may do violence to reality, but they are often essential to influencing decision makers and the wider public. Academics endlessly splitting hairs and inventing clunky neologisms like ‘knowledges’ may get closer to an always elusive reality, but they struggle to take non-specialists with them or counter the seductive simplicities of the bad guys.

The book’s chapters suffer from some dense and jargon-strewn abstracts. Robert doesn’t seem to care and acknowledges no trade-offs between simplicity and impact, perhaps because he is less the advocate, more the practitioner – never happier than sat under a tree or in a hut, discussing the context-specific details of sanitation, seeds or health services with people on the ground.

Instead of simplistic narratives, Robert offers maxims; broad, subversive questions (‘Whose Reality Counts?’) and rules of thumb (heuristics) for people wishing to ‘know better’. There are dozens and dozens of these, and some of them are pretty forgettable. But a few lodge themselves in the memory, becoming a reminder of the need to do things differently – the two I use most often in my daily work are ‘handing over the stick’ and ‘uppers and lowers’.

So much for the take-down – what is Chambers proposing instead? He clusters his ideas into three chapters: Redefining rigour for complex systems; an elegy for participatory methods (his life’s work) and then a set of heuristics for knowing better.

In reclaiming rigour, Chambers sets up a crude but effective contrast between linear ‘Newtonian’ and ‘Complexity’ approaches (see table). His ‘canons for rigour’ include ‘eclectic methodological pluralism, seeking diversity, improvisation and innovation, adaptive iteration, triangulation, inclusive participation, optimal ignorance and experiential ground-truthing.’ That list sums up my slight frustration with the way he writes – to the converted, each of these ideas is rich and practical, but taken as a list, it is too easy for your eyes to glaze over at all the insider jargon and word-play.

The chapter on participatory methodologies is wonderful – Chambers sees a veritable explosion of them, his knowledge is comprehensive, his passion contagious. He singles out participatory info tech, participatory statistics and Reality Checks (researcher immersions in communities) as three of the most promising.

His final message is captured in five ‘fundamentals for a new professionalism.’

  • Words and concepts matter because they become a trojan horse for particular ideas, values and behaviours, whether good or bad (e.g. he regards the encroachment of business language into the aid sector as a ‘dysfunctional linguistic trap’)
  • Ground-truthing: ‘being in touch and up to date with ground realities, through direct, face-to-face interactions, listening and learning with people, especially those who are last, in their living environments.’
  • Facilitation as the core skill of the new professional, the way to transform power relations and ‘hand over the stick’: he thinks expanding the number of great, skilful facilitators is one of the greatest challenges facing the aid sector.
  • Reflexivity: ‘critical reflection on how we form and frame our knowledges.’ Chambers puts reflexivity into practice in the book, wrestling with his own biases and prejudices (there’s a great bit in his IDS podcast where the interviewer asks if the real audience for the book is actually his younger, arrogant, colonial administrator self). He quotes Eric Hoffer: ‘In times of change learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.’
  • Principles, Values and Passion: Chambers celebrates (rather than denies) passion and emotion.

Here’s his lovely final para:

‘What we can do depends on who we are and where we are. Innumerable small acts mount up and reinforce one another. From whatever we and others do, large and small, we can strive to learn and find better ways of knowing and doing. Ideals like equality, justice, well-being for all and putting the last first will always be there for us to strive towards. As our unforeseeable 21st Century unfolds, it is a privilege to be explorers looking for good ways forward. The enthralling adventures of our human struggle to know better and do better should have no end.’

And the podcast – highly recommended

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