Learning About Learning

“Adults are obsolete children,” is an oft quoted saying of Dr. Seuss. One of the major characteristics that differentiates adults and children is adults actively try NOT to make mistakes. I don’t think this is wrong, I just don’t think it is right. Mistakes are how we learn as children and the amount of mistakes children make are precisely why we learn fastest when we are a child.

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Designing Research to ‘Succeed’

Several brilliant and whimsical verses from Robert Chambers and his new book Into the Unknown: Explorations in Development Practice:

How to Succeed with Irrigation Action Research 

Rural development’s all the rage
and irrigation’s reached the stage
when funds will flow if you can say
action research is on the way.
The title’s new, the techniques old,
the pickings rich for all the bold. 

Success eludes none but those fools
who do not heed some simple rules.
Reconnaissance you do not need
Prepare your programme with all speed.
For what to test no need to care,
choose any dogma that you hear.

Field leveling and OFD,
eight-hectare chaks, warabandi,
lining the channels or rotation
conjunctive use, participation—
pick any action that you will;
if fashionable, it fits the bill.

To choose the site, criteria
are simple, obvious and clear.
The most important one by far’s
a tarmac road for motor cars.
As well, it must be close to town
for rapid transit up and down.

Make sure the water flow is steady.
Have your staff there always ready.
If water’s short at system level
get it first and let the devil
take the hindmost at the tail.
For science, your interests must prevail.

Make sure the biggest farmers gain.
Their PR’s needed to explain
to VIPs on their brief stops
the splendid impact on their crops.
(Small farmers should not be a worry
No one will meet them in a hurry.)

Recruit the bankers to your team
and organize a credit stream
Good fertilizer, HYVs
and pesticides are sure to please.
And if you want to get first prize,
why then it’s best to subsidize.

So when it comes to harvest day
you’ll be all right—thanks NPK!
Crop-cutters, here’s the patch of field
where you will get the highest yield.
And non will know you are a liar
if you make it even higher.

If any area does badly,
cut it out, reject it gladly.
Say special factors made it fail—
a water shortage, pests or hail.
The only truth there is to tell
is found in place which do well.

So all is fine. You have succeeded.
The will to win was what was needed.
The yields are treble, water half,
you at the back, what makes you laugh?—
the farmers, they are satisfied.
It shows how very hard you tried.

Thus achieved the vital task.
In praise and glory humbly bask.
Honored for service and devotion—
who knows?—you may now get promotion.
If others fail to replicate
Poor honest fools, that is their fate.

(Delhi, early 1980s)

Pedagogy for the Powerful

Methodology, reflexivity, agency and making a difference, and power and relationships converge and overlap, and together with parts of my life experience point to the need for a pedagogy for the powerful or (with apologies to Paulo Freire, through I hope he would have approved) for the oppressors, or more tactfully, the non-oppressed. My power, ignorance and ignorance of ignorance as a district officer led me to do harm when I meant to do good and thought I was doing good. In the history of development there are many good things, but the avoidable errors are appalling. Tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions of poor people were deprived, suffered and often died as a result of policies of structural adjustment alone. We need better ways, procedures, methodologies and experiences to enable those who make and influence policy, and ourselves in development studies, to be more aware, to get it right, and to do better. The big priority now is realism, to bridge and close the chasm, which has opened even wider between the incestuous love-hate relationships of lenders, donors and policy-makers in their capital city and five-star hotel meetings and workshops, and the poor people for whose benefit our development industry is said to exit. Recognizing their power in development studies, we can ask too whether we need a pedagogy for funders.

– Robert Chambers in his excellent (and short!) new book Into the Unknown: Explorations in Development practice