27 May 2011

Robert Chambers: Revolutionising Development

Today IDS hosted a Reflection Forwards on the work of Robert Chambers. About 100 development luminaries came together to reflect forwards on Robert's work. How are his ideas and ways of looking at the world being taken forward by a host of development practitioners, policymakers and researchers all over the world?

In areas such as community led total sanitation, livelihoods, vulnerability and seasonality Robert has stood things on their head: putting the last first, focusing on relationships, redefining empowerment, developing participatory methods and relentlessly focusing on power.

In my conversations with people as IDS director, I come across 3 types of people: (1) those who know IDS well and at some point in our conversation ask me "and how is Robert?", (2) those who know a little about IDS, but whose eyes light up when they realise Robert works there and (3) those who do not know anything about IDS, but know Robert!

I first read his work in the early 80s as a useful complement or even antidote to the economists Bernanke, Amemiya and Pencavel. I tried to apply his methods to locating food insecurity in India in the early 90s and I worked with him and Jere Behrman in a CGIAR project on agriculture and poverty.

I have only worked in the same place as him for 7 years. He is inspirational, visionary, full of energy and directs his ego into his work and not into his own position. In a room full of gurus at IDS today, he was the guru's guru (although he would deny it).

Please check out the excellent book Revolutionizing Development (use discount code IDS30) that has been edited by Ian Scoones and Andrea Cornwall, which consists of articles reflecting backwards and forwards on Robert's work.

For an open access archive of the hundreds of pieces of Robert's work, here is a link from IDS' British Library of Development Studies www.ids.ac.uk/go/robertchambers


aidnography said...

Thank you for your brief reflections, Lawrence. I would say that I know Robert well enough to know that he would also strongly disagree with Earthscan's pricing policy which seems to have gone more towards 'academic prices' since Taylor&Francis took over. $40 dollars is an unacceptable price for a book that is essentially about sharing and participating. Given Robert's 'brand recognition', I wonder whether an ebook sold by IDS would have been a better alternative to market the book and spread Robert's ideas in a way that he would most likely wished it. As ebook sales have surpassed printed book sales on Amazon, rethinking paradigms should also apply to the channels in which research is published and distributed. Warmest, Tobias.
P.S.: I have written about the issue more generally on my blog in case readers are interested in this subject: http://aidnography.blogspot.com/2011/03/publishing-books-vs-modern-world-ii.html

Calestous Juma said...

If there is anything I learned from Robert Chambers, it was that development was about people--not theories, devices or money. This message resonated with me largely because I had come Sussex having previously trained as an elementary school teacher. In Robert I saw that creative impulse that was driven by insatiable curiosity, passion and respect for others. Not many stars inhabit his orbit and it is going to be a while for another revolutionary of his calibre to come our way.

Doug said...

I met Robert several times in the early formative years of the International Irrigation [now "Water"] Management. He urged IIMI [now IWMI] to focus almost entirely on empowering farmers in canal irrigation systems. The powers that were feared this would not exhibit sufficient "balance" so work on WUAs and later, irrigation management transfer (IMT), remained only one thrust. I think Robert was disappointed, he did not continue his assocation with IIMI/IWMI. But his work continued to inspire the dwindling band of social scientists at IWMI well into the 1990s-early 2000s.

Finally, yes, Earthscan's pricing policies are not conducive to broad sharing of his work--I hope IDS can find a way to make it more accessible especially to our developing country colleagues

Lawrence said...

Tobias and Doug, I have now added in a link to the blog where you can download neary all of Robert's work.

The book is a set of papers by other commentators on Robert's work.

Best, Lawrence

Anonymous said...

Lawrence, thanks for this post. Good to read that IDS has organised an event on Robert Chambers' work. The international development world needs more visionaries and brave people like him. Best, Mila