Every development research paper I ever absent-mindedly skim pore over with fascination seems to end with NMR (needs more research) – a blatant piece of self-justification, but usually justified (anyone got any candidates for areas where we need less research? Anything
involving cross country regressions or ‘discourse analysis’ perhaps?) But research on what? Research funders are ever-hungry for the next big idea, preferably a few years in advance in order to allow the research machine to lumber into action in time to produce some useful results when they are needed.
So when asked recently for my suggestions to add to the customary list (governance; food security; civil society; technology; beliefs and values; risk and resilience; urban etc) of possible focus areas for research, I tried a change of tack. Rather than thematic areas, what about some cross-cutting ones, for example:
1. The role of shocks in triggering change: research papers are usually written as if policy changes are decided in some University Senior Common Room, by enlightened leaders who debate the evidence and then calmly decide on the necessary changes. In reality, the political process is far more chaotic than that, and big shifts are often linked to big shocks. Examples from the UK include women’s suffrage (World War One) and the creation of the Britain’s National Health Service (World War Two). In the developing world, natural disasters often lead to political change (Ethiopia, Nicaragua), as do wars and civil conflict (Rwanda). So how well do we understand the situations in which different kinds of shocks do/don’t trigger change?
2. The limits of measurement: the metrics fundamentalists are in the ascendant at the moment, arguing that Einstein was wrong and everything that counts can be counted. That may be true in theory (discuss) but in the real world of harassed civil servants, spending cuts and intense pressure for Value For Money, the easily measured (vaccinations, schoolrooms, roads) is highly likely to squeeze out the tricky-but-vital stuff (rights, empowerment, well-being, insecurity). The current debate is unhelpfully polarised between true believers and angry rejectionists, so how about a more distanced look at what measurement can/can’t achieve in a world of limited resources. How far have we got in developing cheap and practical ways to include the tricky stuff in our metrics? What alternatives are there to crude metrics that can help us judge the success/otherwise of a particular intervention, and provide similar levels of accountability?
But I’d be interested in hearing from you guys – what development topics have you been reading/thinking about that might warrant that awful cliché ‘out of the box’. Candidates from this blog include obesity, ageing and disability, interestingly all issues that transcend old ‘North-South’ distinctions. What others have you got up your collective sleeves?
And yes, I realize that this obsessive search for funky new ideas is a bit of a problem if the real obstacles to development are the age-old themes of poverty, skewed land rights, lack of health and education, gender injustice, discrimination etc. All very boring, unless you happen to be experiencing them directly. It’s harder to get research funding (or academic credit) for ‘more of the same’, even if that’s what needs doing. Anyone seen any good advice on how to dress up old issues as new ones in order to secure funding?
Honourable mention (and who knows, maybe massive injections of funding) for the best suggestions. I may even take it to a vote……