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Beyond the quest for "policy implications": Alternative options for applied development researchers

Humanity Journal's picture

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.

Indonesia fills out form on riceMy nomination for development’s ‘Most Insightful, Least Cited’ paper is Ariel Heryanto’s “The development of ‘development.'”[1] 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.[2]

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.

Turning the gaze on ourselves: Acknowledging the political economy of development research

Humanity Journal's picture

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.

IBM Research - Africa Scientists at Riara School, NairobiWhile 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.
 

Tomayto tomahto: The research supply chain and the ethics of knowledge production

Humanity Journal's picture

Pre-test of Rural Household Survey, PakistanThis 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.[1] 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.[2]

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.

The potential of reforming state broadcasters in divided societies: Advancing an unfashionable argument

James Deane's picture

BBC Media Action's Director of Policy and Learning argues for an urgent rethinking of what is often considered a relic of the past - the state broadcaster - to encourage discussion, dialogue and understanding across communities in fragile states.

Young child listens on a mobile telephoneMost commentaries on 21st-century media focus on the impact of new technologies, social media and, above all, the increasing global ubiquity of mobile telephony. Such commentaries highlight how in many, if not most, societies, the majority of people are under the age of 30 and are reinventing how humanity communicates with itself. The focus is on innovation, on digital replacing analogue, on an old order of mass, vertical forms of communication being supplanted by horizontal, digitally enabled networks.

Speaking personally, I have advanced at one time or another all these tenets and continue (mostly) to do so. This blog, however, marks the publication of a set of BBC Media Action policy and research outputs I’ve commissioned which collectively advance some unfashionable arguments.

We focus particularly on the role of media in fragile and divided societies and especially on what can be done to support media that transcends, rather than exacerbates, divisions in society. We argue that, for all the innovation, dynamism and potential that exists, there are growing signs that publics are less and less trusting of the media that is available to them. Media environments appear more dynamic, interactive and complex, but much of media – both traditional and social – exists to advance particular agendas or interests in society rather than to serve a public. 21st-century fragmentation of media environments has often been accompanied by an associated fracturing of media often owned, controlled or heavily influenced by particular political, factional, ethnic or religious interests. Such fracturing often applies to both social and traditional media.

Optimism about Africa’s demographic dividend

Kaushik Basu's picture


Based on new data and research, there is reason for optimism about Africa’s demography and development. Population growth rates may continue to be high for some more time, but some underlying signals of approaching widespread fertility declines indicate change is in the offing. And, along with incipient changes in the economy, there is reason to expect Africa to be on an upswing. Growing up in Calcutta, we were brought up on Rabindranath Tagore’s magisterial Bengali poem, Africa, in which, referring to the forces of colonialism, the poet talked about how this continent full of potential is repressed by “civilization’s barbaric greed.” The time has now come for Africa to seize the moment.

Building evidence-informed policy networks in Africa

Paromita Mukhopadhyay's picture

Evidence-informed policymaking is gaining importance in several African countries. Networks of researchers and policymakers in Malawi, Uganda, Cameroon, South Africa, Kenya, Ghana, Benin and Zimbabwe are working assiduously to ensure credible evidence reaches government officials in time and are also building the capacity of policymakers to use the evidence effectively. The Africa Evidence Network (AEN) is one such body working with governments in South Africa and Malawi. It held its first colloquium in November 2014 in Johannesburg.  



Africa Evidence Network, the beginning

A network of over 300 policymakers, researchers and practitioners, AEN is now emerging as a regional body in its own right. The network began in December 2012 with a meeting of 20 African representatives at 3ie’s Dhaka Colloquium of Systematic Reviews in International Development.

Making Research Relevant to Avoid a Megadisaster

Simone Balog's picture
 Earthquakes from Roger Bilham (Science, 2006); Population from Landscan (Oak Ridge Nat. Lab., 2004)
Graphic from Ross Stein (USGS, 2013) and Volkan Sevilgen (Seismicity.net, 2013); Earthquake data from Roger Bilham (Science, 2006); Population data from Landscan (Oak Ridge Nat. Lab., 2004)

Without concerted action, the world will one day see a megadisaster—a disaster resulting in over 1 million casualties.

The forces of population growth and rapid urbanization are dramatically increasing exposure to disaster risk. Over 600 million people, for example, live in the Ganges Basin of India, Nepal and Bangladesh. Due to the meeting of the tectonic plates with the Indian subcontinent shifting under the Eurasian continent, this area is at a large risk of seismic activity. And indeed, the Ganges Basin has seen earthquakes over magnitude 7.0 in the past 500 years, as illustrated by the graphic above.

As practitioners, we can help reduce disaster risk and build resilience to potential catastrophes through smart development practices. These practices, however, require targeted research that can inform which levers to move, and how to move them. Sadly, this kind of research is difficult to come by in the disaster risk management community, and harder still to communicate to those that need it most.

Weekly Wire: The Global Forum

Roxanne Bauer's picture

These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.

Aid Transparency Index 2014
Publish What You Fund
The 2014 ATI results follow the trends observed in previous years. A lead group of organisations are making significant and continuous improvements to the information they publish on their current aid activities – and many others have taken steps towards improving their publication in 2014 – but the majority have not made significant progress and continue to lag behind.
 
12 ways to communicate development more effectively
The Guardian
From fundraising to behaviour change, communications is key to development work. Our panel explain how to do it better. Sina Odugbemi, senior communications officer (policy), World Bank, Washington DC, USA, @WorldBank:

  • Make a case for development spending: Polls in Europe consistently show that support for development is wide but shallow. This is due to the limited power of emotive campaigns. People need to know if any of their money is doing permanent good or whether the cynics are right. That kind of case-making is, sadly, not done consistently and rigorously.
  • Avoid promoting quick fixes: What that does is provoke disillusionment down the road. We need to discourage young people particularly from thinking complex problems can be solved with a rush of energy and cool new tools. We need to be communicating that many tough challenges will require stamina and sustained effort and commitment.

Looking at Poverty…Through the Eyes of a Child

Bekele Shiferaw's picture
Looking at Poverty…Through the Eyes of a Child  - Photo© Curt Carnemark / World Bank


“I am always hungry, as oftentimes my family and I skip meals. I want to go to school like my friends, but my parents always say it is too expensive. If I go to school, then I can’t work to help them buy food, and then I am hungry again. I am helpless when it comes to changing my situation, I have no voice and there are few people that see things the way I do.”

Women and girls are the answer to innovation in Africa

Maleele Choongo's picture
4 Will You Take On... Take On Extreme Poverty 2:11 / 2:11 Poverty and Hardship in the PacificWorld Bank1:02:02 Rwanda: A Model for Building Strong Safety NetsWorld Bank4:32 My New Life: Primary Education for All in IndiaWorld Bank4:39 Applis mobiles pour
Women in Senegal traditionally have few chances to acquire computer or programming skills. A young woman from Dakar has set out to change that. Binta Coudy De has created a tech hub, Jjiguene Tech Hub, that trains young women in computer and programming skills, preparing them for a career in the high-tech sector.

According the World Bank’s latest report on the state of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) research in Africa, African researchers produce only 1 percent of the world’s research.

As shown in this video, unlocking the talent of women and girls could improve the quality and quantity of scientific research and tech innovation in Africa.

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