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Robert Chambers - Research Associate

Participation Power and Social Change
T: +44 (0)1273 915723

Richard Douglass

Thematic Expertise:
Agriculture; Nutrition; Participatory methodologies; Participation Power and Politics; Poverty; Water and Sanitation.

Geographic Expertise:
Sub Saharan Africa.

Trained in interdisciplinary Development Studies, I am a scholar-activist.  I have alternated between my academic role at IDS and various development practitioner roles in the international NGO sector.

I am from the UK and have lived and worked in Colombia for several years, and also in Spain, Uganda, Mozambique, Central America, Bolivia and Brazil. My PhD research, based on rural ethnographic fieldwork, explored poverty and social policy in Colombia.  I believe that one way that societies and polities can change for the better is by people becoming more reflective, self-critical individuals, practitioners and members of organisations, institutions or processes, making more focused efforts to learn from their own and others’ experience. I apply this belief in my work in international development and aid. 

I joined IDS in 1999. My initial work here was on participatory poverty assessment methodologies. From 2000-2003 my focus was on promoting and supporting the participation of civil society organisations in policy processes. Research and advisory work with donor agencies and NGOs on participation in Poverty Reduction Strategy formulation and monitoring led me onto more critical conceptual and empirical work on the spaces available for CSO and citizen participation in policy processes. I managed a large-scale applied research project on poverty knowledge and policy processes in Uganda and Nigeria, in close partnership with co-researchers from NGOs and research institutes in each country.       

Since 1997 I have held several posts in the international NGO Christian Aid, as a policy researcher on gender and on participation, an advocacy officer and a programme manager. Most recent was my posting as Country Representative in Colombia from 2003-6 while on leave of absence from IDS. Reflection on that experience is captured in an article about the challenges of working at the aid and advocacy frontline for a large international development NGO. In my current IDS role I continue to work for Christian Aid as well as other international development NGOs including Trócaire, Plan International, Plan UK, CARE, World Vision, ActionAid and Amnesty International. Several team relationships with INGOs converged in 2008-9 in a process of collective reflective learning that the PPSC team convened with representatives of eight Big International NGOs, looking at their role in supporting progressive social change in a changing world .

Four often overlapping themes are now central to my work: 

Accountability and power: From the early 2000s, accountability became ‘the new participation’, in the words of my colleague Prof John Gaventa. From seeking ways to enable CSOs and citizens to participate in policy processes, I joined the movement of southern community and youth groups, NGOs, users’ associations and social activists seeking to hold to account states and aid agencies. Looking into these citizen-led and social forms of accountability brought me up against the tension often encountered between accountability as commonly understood - usually to donors - and learning, for improved performance and more equitable, accountable development outcomes. Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) and impact assessment approaches can either reinforce or mediate this tension (see below). Ultimately, accountability initiatives are about shifting power. A Review of the Impact and Effectiveness of Transparency and Accountability initiatives which John Gaventa and I led for DFID in 2010-11 highlighted the challenges of demonstrating this sort of impact, as well as the need for more learning-focused approaches to design and implementation. In several projects with the International Budget Partnership I have explored and supported civil society advocacy on budget policy and practice. In other projects I have looked at aid transparency , accountability initiatives in fragile settings assumptions and realities about the citizens who engage in ‘citizen-led’ accountability initiatives, and power and rights analysis in NGO programme planning and learning. In 2012 -13 I worked on a collaborative project with HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation (HSI) which was designed to contribute to learning on accountability initiatives in fragile contexts by exploring the dynamics and enabling factors within three ongoing accountability projects.

Understanding and assessing impact: My recent M&E and impact assessment assignments have involved navigating the tensions between accountability and learning objectives and somehow reconciling them. Putting into practice the abovementioned research and thinking on accountability programmes and power, I have led qualitative evaluations of large, multi-site, complex governance programmes for Christian Aid and the International Budget Partnership. Colleagues and I are about to start work on an evaluation for the Swedish International Development Agency using a methodology based on reality-checks. I have developed a participatory impact assessment framework for Christian Aid’s Latin America and the Caribbean region based on Most Significant Change and reflective learning. 

Citizenship in violent settings: During my various periods of residence and work in Colombia I have researched and managed development and human rights programmes in violent and highly insecure settings. Learning from this was channelled into my work in the Citizenship Development Research Centre’s research group on Violence, Participation and Citizenship, which explored research and action methodologies for use in violent settings. With colleagues at IDS, I maintain an interest and some involvement in work in and on violent settings, including a planned action research project on Power, Violence and Citizenship, for which I hope to lead a Colombia component.    

Citizen engagement and CSOs as change agents: How do advocacy campaigns and movements for change achieve and sustain their goals? Gaventa and I explored this question with scholar-activists in eight diverse but mainly middle-income countries, producing an edited volume of analytical case studies of Citizen Action and National Policy Reform: Making Change Happen. More recently, I have advised on civil society support programmes for a number of official aid agencies in a range of political and governance contexts. 

Teaching and learning

From 2012 I convene the MA Participation, Power and Social Change. I supervise MA dissertation candidates in my areas of expertise and currently have four doctoral supervisees. I have designed and delivered Reading Weeks and training courses for NGO and aid agency personnel on themes such as accountability, and working with power and rights-based perspectives.  

This collaborative project between IDS and HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation (HSI) was designed to contribute to learning on accountability initiatives in fragile contexts by exploring the dynamics and enabling factors within three ongoing accountability projects.

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Promoting greater citizen participation in local governance through international dialogue and exchange.

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Exploring approaches that work to strengthen rights and meaningful citizenship for poor people

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This programme will assess the impact of new interventions and policy options across a range of policy areas.

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A global network of practitioners from civil society organisations, research institutions and governments created to stimulate and support civil society organisations and networks to engage in citizen participation and social control of public policies at the local level.

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Making All Voices Count: A Grand Challenge for Development (MAVC) is a four-year $45 million fund to support innovation, scaling-up, and research that will deepen existing innovations and help harness new technologies to enable citizen engagement and government responsiveness.

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Promoting a rights perspective to the challenges of poverty, inequality and insecurity.

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This collaboration between IDS and the Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC) aims to bring appropriate participatory methods into quality assurance within SDC. It will also bring new levels of rigour to the principles of participation, poverty orientation and empowerment in the work of SDC and its partners.

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The 'Power, Violence, Citizenship and Agency' (PVCA) project is an action research project designed by researchers at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) and carried out with a number of institutional partners.

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The Big Push Forward is an informal network of practitioners, creating the space for discussion, debate and the exploration of appropriate approaches for assessing transformative development processes.

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A new partnership between the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and IDS has been formed with the aim of supporting SDC’s ‘Democratisation, Decentralisation and Local Governance Network’ (DLGN) between 2012 and 2014. IDS’ contribution will seek to improve DLGN’s effectiveness and impact of policy strategies and operations.

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This is the image for the book ' Explorations in Development Practice'.

Into the Unknown: Explorations in Development Practice

Robert Chambers reflects on experiences, which led him to examine personal biases and predispositions, and he challenges readers to examine the pervasive significance of power in forming and framing knowledge. Into the Unknown reflects on the journey of learning, and encourages readers to learn from observation, curiosity, critical feedback, play and fun. More details

Non-IDS publication

Good Practices for Effective Participation in Social Protection Design and Implementation

This short article looks at how participation can provide some answers to overcoming the tendency for elite capture in social protection programmes. More details

Non-IDS publication

Sanitation and Stunting in India: Undernutrition's Blind Spot

The puzzle of persistent undernutrition in India is largely explained by open defecation, population density, and lack of sanitation and hygiene. The impact on nutrition of many faecally-transmitted infections, not just the diarrhoeas, has been a blind spot. In hygienic conditions much of the undernutrition in India would disappear. More details

This is the image for the book, 'Who Counts? The Power of Participatory Statistics'.

Who Counts? The Power of Participatory Statistics

Local people can generate their own numbers – and the statistics that result are powerful for themselves and can influence policy. More details

This is the image for 'Provocations for Development'.

Provocations for Development

Provocations for Development is an entertaining and unsettling collection of writings that questions concepts, conventions and practices in development. More details

IDS publications on international development research

'Lukenya Notes': Taking CLTS to Scale with Quality

This document is a summary of the key recommendations from the IDS meeting of CLTS practitioners held in Lukenya Nairobi in July 2011, immediately after the AfricaSan3 meeting. More details

IDS Research Summary

Paradigms, Poverty and Adaptive Pluralism

This paper explores participatory methodologies (PMs) associated with a paradigm of people, contrasted with a dominant paradigm associated with things. More details

IDS Working Paper

Paradigms, Poverty and Adaptive Pluralism

In earlier analysis, two paradigms were identified in development professionalism, thinking and practice: one, often dominant, associated with things; and one, often subordinate, associated with people. More details

IDS In Focus Policy Briefing

Beyond Subsidies – Triggering a Revolution in Rural Sanitation

This In Focus Policy Briefing asks how can we maximise the huge potential for transforming rural sanitation that this approach offers? What has worked? What hinders progress? What should be done? More details

IDS Research Summary

Who Counts? The Quiet Revolution of Participation and Numbers

This Research Summary shows how Working Paper 296 documents a quiet revolution, unrecognised in professional mainstreams, that has been taking place in the past decade and a half. More details

Front cover of the In Focus Policy Briefing 7

Towards a New Social Justice Agenda: understanding Political responses to crises

Food riots across the developing world in 2008 sent powerful messages about the limits to people's tolerance of acute economic insecurity. More details

Handbook on Community-Led Total Sanitation

The CLTS approach originates from Kamal Kar's evaluation of WaterAid Bangladesh and their local partner organisation - VERC's (Village Education Resource Centre is a local NGO) traditional water and sanitation programme and his subsequent work in Bangladesh in late 1999 and into 2000. More details

This is the latest paper by Robert Chambers

Going to Scale with Community-Led Total Sanitation: Reflections on Experience, Issues and Ways Forward

Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) is a revolutionary approach in which communities are facilitated to conduct their own appraisal and analysis of open defecation (OD) and take their own action to become ODF (open defecation-free). More details

IDS Working Paper

Who Counts? The Quiet Revolution of Participation and Numbers

Participatory approaches and methods can generate quantitative as well as qualitative data. Mainly since the early 1990s, a quiet tide of innovation has developed a rich range of participatory ways, many of them visual and tangible, by which local people themselves produce numbers. More details

IDS Working Paper

From PRA to PLA to Pluralism: Practice and Theory

PRA (participatory rural appraisal) and the more inclusive PLA (participatory learning and action) are families of participatory methodologies which have evolved as behaviours and attitudes, methods, and practices of sharing. During the 1990s and 2000s PRA/PLA has spread and been applied in most countries in the world. More details

IDS Working Paper

Poverty Research: Methodologies, Mindsets and Multidimensionality

After defining key words and listing biases and limitations, this paper seeks to explore linkages between methodologies, mindsets, concepts and perceptions in research on poverty. More details

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