Centre for Global Development

Annual Lecture 2012: Professional Error and Ignorance in Development

r-chambers-picProfessor Robert Chambers, Institute of Development Studies (IDS), Sussex

A full-house at the Conference Auditorium had the pleasure of hearing Professor Robert Chambers from the Institute for Development Studies (IDS), University of Sussex give the Centre for Global Development’s annual lecture on 18 October 2012.

We were honoured to have Professor Chambers come to speak on Professional Error and Ignorance in Development.

Podcast: download the lecture [MP3: 36MB]

Professional Error and Ignorance in Development

Describing himself irreverently as an undisciplined nomad and a failed manager of rural development, Professor Chambers is of course internationally renowned for the ways in which he has revolutionised development thinking and practice by playing a huge role in the paradigm shift to participatory and people-centred approaches.

His work has been acclaimed by academics and by NGO activists alike and has led to significant changes in the ways that international development activities are undertaken throughout the world. With books like Rural Development: Putting the Last First he turned development thinking on its head and broke the mindset that development is something done to people living in poverty rather than something they can do for themselves.

He pioneered participatory methods such as Participatory Rural Appraisal, widely practised by development researchers and by NGO practitioners alike. A prolific writer, his latest book Provocations for Development (2012) is his 16th, and in this he continues to question and challenge mainstream concepts and conventional practices in development.

His lecture was equally challenging, provocative and wide-ranging in its scope. Professor Chambers looked back over the development decades and examined how professional knowledge has again and again proved to be wrong, not sparing his own work in such misjudgements. In his view, development professionals have been unaware of or neglected major gaps and opportunities.

This has been the case not only in public policies, but also in methodologies, in development practice, inclusive of technical and specialised fields such as agriculture, health and nutrition.

This lecture presented and analysed some of these errors and gaps, and explored the questions:  What do they have in common?  What perpetuates error? What have been our major areas of ignorance? Why do gaps remain unrecognised and unresearched? And most importantly, what can we learn from how errors have been corrected and gaps and opportunities opened up?  What are the implications for us, as development professionals, for our research, teaching and practice?

Despite the importance and significance of the subject, Robert Chambers also interspersed his lecture with the humour and modesty that has inspired development practitioners globally for many years. It was a privilege to be able to welcome him to Leeds.

Biography: Robert Chambers is a research associate at the Institute of Development Studies, Sussex where he is a member of the Participation, Power and Social Change team. An undisciplined nomad and failed manager of rural development, his field experience has been mainly in East Africa and South Asia. His books include Rural Development: Putting the Last First; Whose Reality Counts? Putting the First Last; Ideas for Development; Revolutions in Development Inquiry; and most recently Provocations for Development. Among his current concerns and interests are professional knowledge, ignorance and error, power, and participatory methodologies including community-led total sanitation, for which see www.communityledtotalsanitation.org

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