This is not an impartial review – Robert Chambers is a hero of mine, part development guru, part therapist to the aid community. His ideas and phrases litter the intellectual landscape. Or ought to: if you don’t recognize some of his major contributions to the development lexicon – ‘hand over the stick’, ‘uppers and lowers’, ‘whose reality counts?’, participatory research methods or seasonality, (there are dozens of others) you have seriously missed out, and Provocations for Development, a greatest hits collection of his speeches, writings, reflections and one pagers should definitely be on the top of your reading pile.
Chambers is also playful. ‘Fun is a human right’ he announces in the foreword, and the book duly starts with a beginner’s guide to bullshit bingo, that essential way to survive particularly mind-numbing meetings. He even provides handy photocopiable bingo tables for you.
His more serious intent in this first section is to highlight the power of words in development. Treacherous, slippery jargon that embodies and transmits certain views of the world, power relationships etc, often subliminally (think about the implied power relationships in the phrase ‘capacity building’). He sees words as being used to legitimize actions (‘partnership’), maintain dominance through obscure jargon (‘disintermediation’, ‘conditionalities’), camouflage realities (‘defence spending’; ‘donors’ rather than ‘lenders’) or sanitize, stereotype and stigmatize (‘freedom fighter’ v ‘terrorist’).
The book’s second section covers perhaps his most significant contribution to development thinking – participation. Robert’s work was central to developing methodologies such as Participatory Rural Appraisals (PRAs) and Poverty Assessments (PPAs) and highlights the uncomfortable reality of the disparities in power within the aid industry. ‘Whose reality counts?’ Aid workers are in a position of power, but they can do something about it, starting by ‘handing over the stick’ to poor people (to point out things on a blackboard, not to beat each other). I have consciously had to tell myself to hand over the stick on numerous occasions (and I’m still rubbish at it – handing over the powerpoint is even harder).
One of his major contributions was through his involvement in the ‘Voices of the Poor’ study, a watershed piece of World Bank research in the mid 90s, led by Deepa Narayan, which interviewed thousands of people in dozens of countries to try and grasp the complex multidimensional nature of poverty as experienced by poor people themselves (rather than defined by outside ‘experts’) (see diagram – compare that to the empty precision of $1.25 a day).
Chambers’ work has certain recurring themes, in addition to the power of language. Turning the tables (as in the subtitle of one of his most influential books, ‘Putting the Last First’); a complete absence of cynicism (even his bullshit bingo is somehow turned into a positive learning experience); an unquenchable curiosity about the lives of poor people; the use of visuals, diagrams, do it yourself methods with stones and sticks to reflect those lives; an honest appraisal of the lives, work and career paths of development professionals – he’s one of the few to address how people actually feel when they are ‘doing development’. And he is relentlessly quirky – the one part of his work that I really struggle with is his fondness for dashing off some pretty dire rhymes about the aid business.
Chambers’ abiding interest in excrement, for example (graphic accounts of his first disastrous encounter with a high tech Japanese toilet – he pressed all the buttons) has found its outlet (sorry) in his most recent enthusiasm, the Community-Led Total Sanitation movement. It’s a brilliant participatory, human, low tech response to the all the high tech magic bullets that hog the headlines.
Given all this, Chambers could be forgiven for being a bit pompous, but he isn’t. Not even slightly. He’s great company, a mischievous zen master to the aid community. I could go on. And I will – I’ll post on a couple of particularly resonant chapters in the next few days.