Debiasing: a systematic discipline and delight for development professionals

Published on 18 December 2018

Robert Chambers

Research Associate

Do we really need debiasing, yet another word?  Yes, unless anyone can improve on it, because we need a word to describe a rigorous discipline we development professionals need for grounded realism. This has been coming on me slowly. But now explorations and ‘aha!’ moments in India have accumulated and combined into an epiphany.  For me, things will never be the same again.  Let me explain.

The biases of rural development tourism

The biases of rural development tourism are old news.  These are biases in brief rural visits from urban centres. They were a collective discovery and articulation at IDS in the early 1980s.  They have now receded into the mists of history and been largely forgotten. Few in later generations of development professionals have heard of them. But with rapid change, they are now more relevant than ever.

The biases are spatial (main tarmac road, roadside, accessible from an urban centre…) , project (special villages and places where there are projects, good things to show, contacts…..), person (males, elite, adults, government and NGO staff….), seasonal (during the dry season, not the rains…), professional (questions and curiosity limited to specialised professional mindsets and interests) and diplomatic (being tactful, not inquiring about sensitive subjects) and (an addition since the 1980s)  security (confined to places considered safe, and limited to those accessible in daylight….).

The biases interlock and reinforce each other to exclude those people who are most remote, powerless, vulnerable, poor, stigmatised, discriminated against – those whom the SDGs are not to leave behind.  With the intensifying capital trap – being stuck in a capital city or urban centre by meetings, emails, visitors, demands for accountability, reporting, and the like – the biases combine now more wickedly than ever.

‘Competitive campaigns’

And there is a new distorting influence to add: competitive campaigns. This is high profile campaigns in which districts and organisations compete to achieve, and to be seen to have achieved, more than others.  This last bias is striking with the Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin in India, the impressively massive and hugely ambitious campaign driven by political commitment and priority which seeks to make rural India open defecation free by 2 October 2019.

Systemically, with almost every brief rural visit, there is a special reason for where the visitor is taken, who is met, what is said and what is shown.  This is most brazen with atypical model communities such as the Millennium villages in African countries.  It is also manifest in visits to successful projects, or where the Government or an NGO works or has contacts, somewhere easily accessible and so on. This leads to a scattered archipelago of islands of special cases and contacts that are seen, studied, quoted, and then quoted again and again back and forth by visitors, with the authority of their personal experience of rural, or for that matter urban, reality.

Visiting these islands is better than not visiting at all.  But it results not in representative ground truth but in a take-off through repetition into sustainably biased myth.  The expanses of sea between the scattered islands are overlooked, unvisited and unexplored, but are many times larger, and more typical, than the islands. Even those who demand representative rigour in statistics are themselves through such visits systemically vulnerable to grossly unrepresentative views of reality.  And all this is accentuated when there are competitive target-driven campaigns.

How to offset bias

We need a systematic, timely and cost-effective approach offsetting the biases and for finding and exploring the seas between the islands.  Here is what, again and again, I have found works astonishingly well, and far better than one might suppose.

  • Ring fence a day. Take a day’s leave if necessary.  Do not have any government or NGO person with you – just a driver, perhaps a colleague, and (in my case usually) an interpreter.
  • Hire an unmarked vehicle.
  • Drive out from your urban centre in any direction for 15-20km.
  • Turn off left or right and drive for 5-10km.
  • Turn left or right again and stop anywhere, perhaps a poor or typical village or other settlement.
  • Wander around on foot, meet people, explain who you are and your interests, notice and ask about things, be friendly and interested, ask what people would like to show you, seek out those we might not meet – women, children disabled, low status, living on the fringes, key informants like teachers, local representatives, masons, health workers and so on.
  • Tea shops can be brilliant. Go to a tea shop and chat. A male bias can be expected, but discussions can be immediately frank and revealing.  You can carry out quick order-of-magnitude surveys based on people’s knowledge of different villages and other questions.
  • Follow up on offers to show you things, or take you to see people or things.
  • Go to several contrasting places during the day.
Men around a table drinking Chai tea in a Chai shop in India
Chai shop, India’ by Axel Drainville, CC BY-NC 2.0

Discover the unexpected

Using this approach here is a tiny sample of what I have stumbled on in India. All happened to be in States or Districts that had been declared open defecation free (ODF).  Except for one that was affluent and exceptional being on a main road, all were very far from ODF.

  • A community of 40 Dalits in government-constructed housing with no toilets. In one was a pregnant woman with both legs paralysed who had to pull herself with her hands and crawl to a road and cross it to defecate. The only toilet in the whole community was just being completed, having been constructed by a woman entirely from her family resources.
  • A mason who boasted that he had demolished over a hundred twin pit toilets (the cheaper and more sustainable type favoured by Government) and replaced them with more expensive and less sustainable septic tanks. This was good for his income but bad for the owners of the toilets.
  • A village where a number of toilets each bore a painted statement that the government incentive money of Rs 12,000 had been spent on their construction. All were raised up because of seasonal flooding.  They had walls but neither roof nor door nor pit!  One was used for urination and stank.
  • In a relatively affluent roadside village, beautifully decorated toilets. A mason said the absolute minimum for a toilet was Rs 80,000.  A woman with no toilet said she could not afford this.  She had to practise OD.  The mason had never constructed a twin pit toilet which should cost less than the Government incentive of Rs 12,000.  No way was a septic tank an option for the poor woman.
  • A village with 175 households, 35 defunct toilets built by an earlier programme, and about 14 septic tanks entirely paid for and built by their owners. In this village it emerged from conversations with the village head, then with a group of men and then separately with a group of women, that they knew nothing or had barely heard about the SBM-G campaign, then near the end of its fourth year.  No one had ever come to the village to tell them about the campaign.  They had never heard of twin-pit toilets.

The point of these is not to denigrate the programme but to illustrate how the vast sea can differ from the scattered archipelago normally visited.

A challenge to all development professionals

So let me invite all, yes all, development professionals who see this to look in the mirror and be wary of visits which systemically reinforce misperceptions and generate and sustain myths.  Ring fence days for you to ground truth through de-biasing.  It is fulfilling, informative, fascinating and fun, to explore, to meet people casually, to wander, observe, ask, listen and gain new insights.  Every single de-biasing visit I have done has made me wonder – will it happen again?  Will I learn anything new this time? Will there be aha moments? Or will this be a wasted day?  And every time, every single time, I have been startled and provoked by unexpected revelations.  This has always happened.  The insights have been intense and memorable, and the implications for policy, practice and research significant. The use of time has been extraordinarily cost-effective.

So let me challenge all fellow professionals who are engaged with rural or urban development – in government organisations, NGOs, training and research institutes, academics, the media, and funding agencies – all who have the scope to do so – to de-bias.  Let me challenge all who can to encourage or require others in their organisations to do likewise.  Escape the cognitive trap and help your colleagues to escape theirs.  Be a devil.  Straight away ring-fence a de-biasing day for yourself. Be systematically rigorous.  De-bias, enjoy and tell others what you did and what you learnt.

Inspired to take up the challenge? For a useful reminder, download and print  A systematic approach to debiasing, instructions from Robert Chambers 

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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