Revolutions in Development, Reflecting Forwards from the Work of Robert Chambers
While championing Community-led Sanitation in this Monday's Guardian, Robert Chambers writes: 'We have so many "revolutions" in development that only last a year or two and then fade into history. But this one is different. In all the years I have worked in development this is as thrilling and transformative as anything I have been involved in'. Working in the field of development where trends are predicted on a regular basis, it can be difficult to take notice of such observations but when they come from Robert, you sit up and listen.
To celebrate his work, the Institute held a day-long workshop and book launch on the 27 May; recollecting his time as a colonial official in Kenya through to his most recent work. Over 120 of Robert's colleagues attended; everyone there in some way touched or influenced by him. A new book on Robert's work titled Revolutionizing Development: Reflections on the Work of Robert Chambers (pdf) has been published in his honour. Edited by Andrea Cornwall and Ian Scoones and released in April, the book contains 32 chapters from authors intimately involved as collaborators, critics and colleagues of Robert.
Robert Chambers is the best recognised development professional from IDS, known everywhere from the irrigation fields of India, and the semi arid lands of Ethiopia to the major donor capitals of Europe and Washington. He's cited in more academic journals than any other member of the IDS community. Robert inspires and educates, learns and networks; he is embedded in both an unshakeable commitment to improving the well being of poor people, combined with a good humoured belief in learning and progressing. His vivid vocabulary comes in enduring terms: gaps, nets, ratchets, handing over the stick, optimal ignorance, uppers and lowers, embrace error to name but a few.
Four panels at the workshop examined and reviewed the issues around Robert's contributions to development. One panel on Participation and Development, looked at Robert's greatest achievement, that of stimulating and developing participatory methods. These methods have broken the fixed mindset that poor people cannot contribute knowledge and understanding of their own situation. Thanks to this work, what followed was a change of behaviour in directing development programmes that was so simple that it now seems quite bizarre that so many interventions were, and sometimes still are, designed without proper consultation and direction from the poor themselves. Robert's contribution has been to promote this change in behaviour, and to add the issue of power to the poorest to make sure that all stakeholders come to the table to debate the future.
Another panel on Methodological Revolutions provided some heated debate on how professionals approach gathering information about rural lives. Robert has highlighted how the choices made over methods and approaches turns us into different sorts of people. Agriculture as a key driver in development is enjoying a resurgence in popularity and the panel on Agriculture, Livelihoods and Rural Development thrashed out the current challenges facing agricultural development under pressures of climate change, food and inputs price spikes, and increasing pressure on water and land. There are new big challenges but the processes and re-engineering of mindsets pioneered by Robert Chambers are needed more than ever to ensure that agriculture serves to reduce rural poverty.
The day wrapped up with a session on Revolutionising Development: how far has Robert's work challenged development paradigms? There was some vigorous debate over the success or otherwise of the development 'project' and how the interconnectedness of the causes and issues of poverty in all countries, north and south. Several participants agreed that we are 'in the twilight of Third World Development Studies' and that Robert's philosophy, methods and mindsets apply the world over. One long term colleague summed up the basis for all Robert's work: 'he listens to everybody with respect'.
Richard Longhurst is a Research Associate with the Vulnerability and Poverty Reduction Team at the Institute of Development Studies
Use this flyer with code to receive 30 per cent off your discount copy of Revolutionizing Development: Reflections on the Work of Robert Chambers (pdf)
We have recently launched an archive of Robert Chambers publications on 27 May which you can find at The Robert Chambers Archive. There are more than 400 references in the archive, almost 80 per cent full-text, dating back to the 1960's. The archive is fully searchable on Google and Google Scholar.
Creation of the archive was part of a larger project which BLDS is jointly developing with IDS Communications. We are currently in the midst of setting up IDS OpenDocs, a repository (of which Robert’s archive will be a part) to host all publications and other materials (for instance podcasts) published by IDS staff and Research Centres. We will be requesting submissions from research teams once we have worked out how best to resource and manage the repository.
IDS has a Facebook page dedicated to Robert with many comments, memories and photos
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