fieldwork…and other reflections

In the most recent iteration of “the gypsy life,” I’ve been exploring the other end of the development spectrum. The “other origins” of development, if you will – the world of those who are writing the story for posterity. My personal gateway has been the London International Development Centre (LIDC). This is a wonderful place where researchers and practitioners actually seem to come together (and don’t just talk about interdisciplinary work as a fascinating, faraway possibility). The audience at Tuesday’s lecture by Howard White, for instance, consisted of a wide range of relevant people: bespectacled, purple-haired students; distinguished looking academics; and many Serious Professsionals, talking about annual reviews, who were actually interested enough in the state of the field to make their way over after a 9-5 day.

I knew why I was there. I loved the topic.

“Field-work is easy with your eyes closed. And other reflections.”

As an advocate of “The Listening Program,” I saw the first part and nodded.

“Must remember to keep both eyes and ears open,” I thought.

As a rambler, I saw the second bit and smiled.

“That’s just awesome,” I thought.

As expected, Howard White had sharp insights as well as tangential humour to offer. He went on to talk about the rigidity of economists and M&E traditionalists, but was also careful not to dismiss the importance of some of their work. Mixed methods seems to be the way to go – if both economists and anthropologists can get over their biases and work in the same space, the terms “efficiency” and “effectiveness” could take on new meaning.

Right now, the (very reliable) Wikipedia says: “Efficiency is doing things right, while Effectiveness is doing the right things.” The difference can be illustrated by an anecdote from the lecture, about social funds disbursed in Malawi and Zambia. The theory of change there was that if you bring communities together to work on social projects like schools and hospitals, then social cohesion will be created.

The funds were disbursed efficiently in that physical infrastructure was created by community labour – important buildings like (mostly) schools and housing for teachers. However, in terms of effectiveness, it turned out that the decisions regarding what to do with the money were taken by a select few, with the Head Teachers wielding disproportionate power. After all, the community needed “someone who was not afraid to enter an office” – and those who were in a position to do this didn’t see the point of advertising platforms for participation.

I could see what he meant by the problems of elite capture. Development is about power relations, we know, and how to reconfigure them. But I must confess, I was a little disturbed by the general cynicism about community-led development. Participation is possible, it is, I’ve seen it. It just depends on how things are done. I can’t help feeling there’s something to be said about what he termed the “hippie model;” cannot yet accept that even “illiterate women in India” have huge individual potential that can turn into collective power.

As Dr. White himself said, social change is generally a more “incremental, experiential, experimental process” than those armed with cookie-cutters might think. That’s what makes it still exciting, and still full of possibilities. At the same time, it just makes sense to keep our eyes open, and be a little more realistic than before.

keep eyes open

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