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

September 6, 2012 26 By admin

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?