This post, written by Michael Woolcock, is a contribution to an online symposium on the changing nature of knowledge production in fragile states. Be sure to read other entries by Deval Desai and Rebecca Tapscott and Lisa Denney and Pilar Domingo.
My nomination for development’s ‘Most Insightful, Least Cited’ paper is Ariel Heryanto’s “The development of ‘development.'” Originally written in Indonesian in the mid-1980s, Heryanto’s gem has been cited a mere 79 times (according to Google Scholar), even in its carefully-translated English incarnation. For me, this paper is so wonderful because it makes, in clear and clever ways, two key points that bear endless repetition, especially to today’s junior scholars. The first point is that inference from evidence is never self-evident: significance must always be interpreted through theory. Consider the seemingly obvious fact that the sun rises in the east every morning, he writes. What could be more universally and unambiguously true? The problem, of course, is that the sun does not rise in the east; instead, despite every piece of sensory evidence to the contrary, the earth rotates counterclockwise on its axis and revolves around a stationary sun, making it appear as ifthe sun rises in the east. But we only know this – or, more accurately, claim to know this – because today we happen to have a theory, itself based on more complex forms of observation and theory, that helps us interpret the prevailing evidence, to reconcile it with evidence from analyses of other cosmic phenomena, and thus draw broadly coherent conclusions and inferences.
Heryanto’s second key point is that we are all captives of language, of the limits of any given tongue to convey the subtleties of complex issues. From this premise he proceeds to unpack the clumsy, alluring yet powerful word that in English we call ‘development’, noting that in Indonesian there are at least two very different interpretations of its meaning, and with this, two very different words – perkembangan and pembangunan – connoting two very different teleologies and policy agendas: the former a natural, ‘organic’ process akin to flowers blooming (“software”); the latter to an overt, intentional and ‘constructed’ political project of nation building (“hardware”). When translated into English, however, both perkembangan and pembangunan are typically rendered simply as “development,” thereby collapsing into a singular popular conception what in Indonesian discourse is a distinctly pluralist one. In the opening week of my class at the Kennedy School, which typically has 50 students who between them speak around 30 languages, we begin with a lively discussion of what “development” means in Arabic, Hindi, French, Turkish, Spanish, Swahili, Swedish… It turns out to mean all sorts of things.
I open this way because I think the next article we need in this “genre” – though hopefully one that quickly transcends it because it is both highly insightful and highly cited! – is something akin to what Desai and Tapscott have begun with their ‘Tomayto Tomahto’ paper. In short, echoing Heryanto, we need more development research on development research. Such scholarship, however, would go beyond providing a mere chronology of changing professional styles, methodological emphases and funding characteristics (scale, sources, time horizons, expectations) to explanations of how and why such changes have occurred. Such explanations would be grounded in analyses of the shifting historical experiences and geo-political imperatives different generations of researchers have sought to accommodate, the particular ideas these experiences and imperatives rendered normative, and the concomitant gains and losses these changes have entailed for those finding themselves managing the “trade-offs” (such as they are) between scholarly independence and public utility.
This post by Lisa Denney and Pilar Domingo is a contribution to an online symposium from Humanity Journal on the changing nature of knowledge production in fragile states. Be sure to read other entries, beginning with Deval Desai and Rebecca Tapscott's piece.
While researchers (ourselves included) now consistently underline the importance of understanding the political economy of developing countries and donors that support them in order to achieve better aid outcomes, the research industry remains largely ambivalent about questions of our own political economy. Desai and Tapscott’s paper is therefore a refreshing attempt to start unpacking this and the ways in which ‘evidence’ is produced within the development industry.
Here, we offer reflections on three stages of this process: building evidence, translating evidence and dislodging evidence. But a word of caution is also merited upfront. The fact that we are talking about “evidence,” rather than research, is itself telling and underscores a shift in the development industry in the last ten years. Speaking about ‘evidence’ rather than about “research” suggests something much more concrete and indisputable. Evidence is taken as proof. But surely research is also debate. While there are, of course, things for which largely indisputable evidence can be found (the effects of vaccines on disease, for instance), the use of this terminology, particularly in the social sciences where little is concrete or universal, suggests that final answers are discoverable. It can, thus, be used to close down debate, as much as to encourage it. Research, on the other hand, recognizes that most findings are contributions to knowledge that helpfully allow to move us towards deeper understanding and greater awareness but do not claim to be the final word on a given topic.
This post is the first in a symposium from Humanity Journal on the changing nature of knowledge production in fragile states. It was written by Deval Desai, a Research Associate at ODI, and Rebecca Tapscott, a PhD Candidate at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.
Aid in the 21st century is increasingly evidence-driven. Between 2000 and 2006, the World Bank spent a total of $630 million on research. By 2011 the World Bank was spending $606 million per year, or about a quarter of its country budgets. In September of this year, by signing up to the Sustainable Development Goals, the global community enshrined a commitment to “increase significantly” a range of high-quality data over the next 15 years, to facilitate qualitative as well as quantitative understandings of growth and progress.
As the international community seeks to tackle the “hard problems” of development—fragility, conflict, endemic poverty—qualitative research is ever-more important. These problems are not amenable to best-practice solutions but must be tackled through deep contextual understanding of their drivers. Or so the policy story goes. As a result, conducting qualitative research today is different from the days when Geertz set out for Bali. Gone are the intrepid individuals setting off to explore and explain an untouched environment, unaware of the demands of policymakers.
We argue that while practice has changed, the ideology of qualitative research has not. Qualitative research is generally understood as the individual exercise of research methods to produce knowledge about the world, knowledge that can then be taken up by governance actors of all stripes. By contrast, we believe that today we must understand research as asystemic intervention, within the broader context of globalization and international development. Therefore, we should start with the political economy of contemporary research—an iterative, professionalized and increasingly saturated practice—to rethink the political and ethical implications of the research that we do.
As a first step to this end, we contrast two stylized frameworks for understanding qualitative research in fragile contexts: The “fragility research” framework, which we argue dominates the current debate; and the “research supply chain” framework, which we offer as a new framework and a provocation to discussion. We discuss each in turn, first considering how fragility research frames knowledge production in fragile or conflicted-affected states, identifying some assumptions the fragility research framework rests on, and critiquing some of its key conclusions. We then discuss the research supply chain as an alternative framework to explore the relationship between knowledge generation and policy. Finally, we raise some questions based on the new framework’s implications.
One of the many baffling aspects of the post-2015/Sustainable Development Goal process is how little research there has been on the impact of their predecessor, the Millennium Development Goals. That may sound odd, given how often we hear ‘the MDGs are on/off track’ on poverty, health, education etc, but saying ‘the MDG for poverty reduction has been achieved five years ahead of schedule’ is not at all the same as saying ‘the MDGs caused that poverty reduction’ – a classic case of confusing correlation with causation.
So I gave heartfelt thanks when Columbia University’s Elham Seyedsayamdost got in touch after a previous whinge on this topic, and sent me her draft paper for UNDP which, as far as I know, is the first systematic attempt to look at the impact of the MDGs on national government policy. Here’s the abstract, with my commentary in brackets/italics. The full paper is here: MDG Assessment_ES, and Elham would welcome any feedback (es548[at]columbia[dot]edu):
"This study reviews post‐2005 national development strategies of fifty countries from diverse income groups, geographical locations, human development tiers, and ODA (official aid) levels to assess the extent to which national plans have tailored the Millennium Development Goals to their local contexts. Reviewing PRSPs and non‐PRSP national strategies, it presents a mixed picture." [so it’s about plans and policies, rather than what actually happened in terms of implementation, but it’s still way ahead of anything else I’ve seen]
Measuring good governance can be tricky, but 'orderly traffic' can be used as an indicator since it offers insights beyond its limited definition.
As hard as it is to define ‘governance’, we have plenty of indicators to measure its quality: quality of key public services, extent of corruption, ease of doing business, etc. One of the challenges with these indicators is the distance between the process and outcomes, in particular, the assumptions involved in the translation of certain process into tangible outcomes. It follows that by mixing up indicators for processes and outcomes, we risk, well, measuring what doesn’t matter, and not measuring what does matter.
So as the title of this post suggests, could ‘orderly traffic’ be a good measure?
A familiar context: I live in Nairobi (and prior to that, in Delhi) and spend a considerable time waiting in traffic. What often makes traffic a problem is a complete lack of coordination amongst motorists on the road. However, I don’t think the onus of coordination at an intersection should rest on motorists – there are traffic lights or traffic police whose job it is to enforce discipline to ensure orderliness on the road. In many cities though, this is plain theory. In reality, traffic lights may not exist, or be broken; the traffic police may be absent, or just be incompetent. Motorists joust with each other every day and often end up creating gird-locks that hold everyone up. Please note that I am not talking about slow traffic caused purely due to long stops at intersections waiting for the lights to change. I am specifically concerned with the ‘orderliness’ of the flow. People waste time, fuel and a lot of their good humour (unless you are in a zen state) when they are in these gird-locks. It is usually more than evident to everyone whose fault it is and what the solution should be – and that usually only serves to raise tempers on the road. On days when the traffic flows smoothly, everyone seems happier. Zipping home after work is often the high point of the day.