Can We Know Better?: Reflections for Development

Published on 4 September 2017

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This book is intended for all who are committed to human wellbeing and who want to make our world fairer, safer and more fulfilling for everyone, especially those who are ‘last’. It argues that to do better we need to know better. It provides evidence that what we believe we know in international development is often distorted or unbalanced by errors, myths, biases and blind spots.

Undue weight has been attached to standardised methodologies such as randomized control trials, systematic reviews, and competitive bidding: these are shown to have huge transaction costs which are rarely if ever recognized in their enormity. Robert Chambers contrasts a Newtonian paradigm in which the world is seen and understood as controllable with a paradigm of complexity which recognizes that the real world of social processes and power relations is messy and unpredictable. To confront the challenges of complex and emergent realities requires a revolutionary new professionalism. This is underpinned by a new combination of canons of rigour expressed through eclectic methodological pluralism and participatory approaches which reverse and transform power relations. Promising developments include rapid innovations in participatory ICTs, participatory statistics, and the Reality Check Approach with its up-to-date and rigorously grounded insights. Fundamental to the new professionalism, in every country and context, are reflexivity, facilitation, groundtruthing, and personal mindsets, behaviour, attitudes, empathy and love.

Robert Chambers surveys the past world of international development, and his own past views, with an honest and critical eye, and then launches into the world of complexity with a buoyant enthusiasm. He draws on almost six decades of experience in varied roles in Africa, South Asia and elsewhere as practitioner, trainer, manager, teacher, evaluator and field researcher, also working in UNHCR and the Ford Foundation. He is a Research Associate and Emeritus Professor at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, his base for many years.

Can We Know Better? is essential reading for researchers and students of development, for policy makers and evaluators, and for all those working towards the better world of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Praise for this book

‘This book is a salvo against smugness, much needed at a time when the Sustainable Development Goals are beginning to gain traction.’ Gita Sen, Director of the Ramalingaswami Centre on Equity and Social Determinants of Health, Public Health Foundation of India.

‘Robert Chambers is a global public good, a true development guru that all should follow. In his latest work, he explores our claims to be able to distinquish between what is true and false – we do we “know” and why do we so often get it wrong? Drawing on almost 60 years of relentessly questioning orthodoxies and standing up to those excluded from power and decisions, Robert Chambers asks us to fundamentality question the nature of such “knowledge”, it boases and blind spots. Then with his customary energy and optimism, he shows how we can “know better” and thus “do better”. A indispensable book.’ Duncan Green, Strategic Adviser, Oxfam and author off How Change Happens.


Cite this publication

Chambers, R. (2017) Can We Know Better? Reflections for Development, Rugby, UK: Practical Action Publishing


Robert Chambers

Research Associate

Publication details

Chambers, R.
978 1 85339 945 9


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