Entries tagged with “development practice”.

Resilience is a term that permeates development and adaptation conversations alike. However, it is often used without clear definition, and the definitions assumed or elaborated generally misrepresent the dynamics of human-dominated systems.

TL;DR: We’re doing resilience wrong, and it is screwing up the lives of people who are supposed to benefit from resilience programming.

To address this problem, I recently wrote an article seeking to address these conceptual issues and make resilience a useful, constructive concept for development and adaption. The key points:

  • Socio-ecological resilience is an outcome of projects steering diverse actors and ecological processes toward human safety and stability in a manner that preserves the privileges of those in positions of authority.
  • At even moderate levels, disturbance in socio-ecologies is not a source of transformation, but instead produces rigidity that limits innovation and transformation in the name of safety and stability. When a resilient system provides safety in the context of a disturbance, the system and its attendant social orders and privileges are legitimized. This is why many development projects fail: they gently disturb a project, which rejects the intervention in the name of safety and certainty, and returns people and activities to their initial state.
  • Disrupting resilient socio-ecological projects, whether through extreme disturbance or interventions associated with development and adaptation, opens space for transformation, but creates risk by removing existing sources of safety and certainty. This is another source of project failure, one where the intervention blows up the existing project, but what comes together in its wake leaves some or all of the people involved more vulnerable to existing stresses, or vulnerable to new stresses that leave them worse off than they were before the intervention.
  • Reinforcing existing socio-ecological projects, such as through interventions aimed at stabilizing existing activities, reduces opportunities for transformation by legitimizing their practices and social orders.
  • Interventions seeking to build resilience while achieving transformative goals can catalyze change by easing stress on livelihoods. In the context of reduced stress, the side of these projects aimed at maintaining existing structures of authority relaxes, allowing space for innovations by actors who are otherwise marginal to decision-making.

There is a lot going on in this article, and I intended it as much as a provocation as a path forward. If any of this is interesting or challenges the way you saw resilience in the world, feel free to read more deeply – the article is here.

Tom over at A View from the Cave has a really interesting observation at the end of his post on the Mortensen scandal the other day:

I have been conducting interviews with the Knowledge Management team with UNICEF and the one today go to discussing the access of information. I was struck when the gentleman I was interviewing said, “There are hundreds of offices and thousands of people in UNICEF. Any idea that I come with has likely been already done by 50 people and better than what I had imagined.” We need to access this information and share it with each other so that a story like this will not go the same route.

I know that this is not a new observation – hell, it is practically the mantra of the ICT for development crowd – but I want to point out something that gets lost in its common repetition: optimism.  The interviewee above was not disparaging the idea of access to information, but instead showing tremendous humility in the face of a vast, talented organization.  Tom’s point was to move from this humble observation to (quite rightly) point out that while great ideas may exist within the organization, until they are accessed or shared they are just potential energy.

This is the same thing I tried to leave readers with as one of the takeaways from Delivering Development.  As I argue:

We probably overlook significant problems every day, as our measurements fail to capture them, and we are likely mismeasuring many of those we can see. However, this is not failure; this is hope. If we acknowledge that these are, indeed, significant problems that must be addressed if we wish to build a sustainable future, then we can abandon the baggage of decades of failure. We can open ourselves up to innovation that might be unimaginable from within the echo chamber of contemporary globalization and development . . .

This uncertainty, for me, is hope. There are more than 6.5 billion people on this planet. Surely at least several of them have innovative and exciting ideas about how to address the challenges facing their lives, ideas that might be applicable in other places or be philosophically innovative. We will not know unless we ask, unless we actively go looking for these ideas and empower those who have them to express them to the world.

In short, Tom’s interviewee sees 50,000 people as a hopeful resource.  I see the nearly 7 billion people on this planet in the same way.  I am optimistic about the “potential energy” for addressing global challenges that exists out there in the world.  That said, it will be nothing but potential until we empower people to convert it into kinetic actions.  Delivering Development provides only the loosest schematic of one way of thinking about doing this (there is a much, much more detailed project/workplan behind that loose schematic) that was presented to raise a political challenge the the status quo focus on experts and “developed country” institutions in development – if we know that people living in the Global South have good ideas, and we can empower these people to share their ideas and solutions, why don’t we?

Sometimes optimism requires a lead blocker.  I’m happy to play that role . . . hopefully someone is following me through the line.

So, today I was challenged by an old friend, and a very well-known senior scholar in my field, about working for USAID.  He did so on two of the largest listservs in my field – admittedly, because I had just posted an offhand follow-up to some AID job postings to the list inviting people to apply.  Ben is great guy, and one of the founders of what might be thought of as hazards research – he’s also got his own political positions (which are evident below).  I like him a lot – he pushes me all the time, which I find very, very productive (and that is his intent).  I think his challenge, and my reply, help articulate why more people ought to be straddling the academic and practice worlds in development.

First, Ben:

Dear Ed,

I am sure all of us involved in Africa specialty group as well as the CAPE discussion list would benefit by hearing more detail about why you feel that the land tenure team at USAID has “an outstanding reputation” and why you believe “USAID is dead serious about its goal of becoming an intellectual leader in development…”.  Furthermore, if you are correct about the agency’s dead seriousness, what are the constraints and obstacles that have to be overcome?

From my point of view, until USAID is removed from its current position within the Department of State and made an independent agency like DFID in the UK or GTZ in Germany, everything done in the development field by anyone, alas, even you dear comrade, falls under the shadow of US geopolitical special interest.  There is also a case one could make that, in particular, all research on issues of resource access, land tenure falling into this category, needs to be free of ALL national and international development assistance agencies because of their usual commitment to what UNDP calls “alignment with host country interests.”  So, for example, to follow up on the World Bank’s recent report on land grabbing, it is doubtful if any development assistance partner (USAID, DFID, GTZ, UNDP, FAO, etc.) would criticize the corrupt practices in many countries leading to land grabbing.

Those seem to me to be macro and meso challenges to your optimism and jolly invitation to join you.  Finally, at the micro scale, it would seem, a fortiori, that those of us who work in the mode of participatory action research, something as you well know from your excellent past work demands a great deal of trust, can ask our friends and informants in various parts of rural Africa to put aside generations of mistrust of the great powers that ravaged their continent with surrogate conflicts during the Cold War and which continue to prop up corrupt regimes with development assistance.

Your scholarly credentials and intelligence are so obvious to those who know you, I am sure you must have good reasons for your sojourn at USAID and for your widely disseminated invitation to others to join you there.  Please share them with us.

All the best,


Dr. Ben Wisner

Aon Benfield UCL Hazard Research Centre, University College London, UK

Environmental Studies Program, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio, USA

And my reply:

Hi Ben (and all):

One of the things I love most about Ben is his ability to pin me down – whether arguing about the modeling community or agreeing about the tragedy that was the Spanish anarchists in Catalunya during the Spanish Civil War.  There’s no such thing as an offhand invitation!  So I am happy to elaborate, at least as much as I can in a generally-circulated email – and please note, I am speaking for myself here.  No official agency messages coming from my mouth . . .

First, I am at USAID out of a serious desire to bridge the absurd and growing gulf between the academic and practitioner communities in development – we all know that the practitioner community is not reading the academic lit (and indeed they are not, though the reasons for this are complex, and include the fact that the agencies do not have subscriptions to the journals because they have difficulty justifying the expense [yes, this is absurd]), but the academic community does not spend a heck of a lot of time reading the practitioner stuff either – except mostly to throw (intellectual) stones without actually understanding the institutional context of the various documents they are critiquing.  Let’s be honest, the number of development geographers out there that have actually worked in a development agency (not just consulting, but actually in the organization) is tiny, which means that most of us (including me, at least until about 6 weeks ago) are critiquing something we understand very poorly, at best.  The result: two parallel literatures, and very little productive interplay.  So I am learning about how to translate between these communities to facilitate greater communication and cooperation.  It seems there is tremendous mistrust on both sides of this divide, for good reason and for not so good reasons.  I suppose I am trying to parse through those reasons as well.

That said, you certainly can call the “authenticity” of my experience into question.  I occupy a unique space here at USAID.  I am a fellow, which gives me freedom to move around beyond my obvious job description and to challenge things that I see as problematic.  Further, I am on leave from South Carolina – I did not surrender my position or my tenure.  So, I have a lot of security – I don’t worry about speaking up in a meeting (or responding to an email) in a manner that might have repercussions for my career – the worst that can happen to me is to be sacked before my fellowship is up and sent back to my tenured position.  So I cannot say that I fully understand the pressures that some of my colleagues must feel on a day-to-day basis.  Then again, I know my positionality and, trained as a poststructuralist, I’ve long thought that authenticity was sort of crap, anyway . . .

At another level, I fear that I (and perhaps many on this list share this feeling) was at risk of becoming the new extractive industry.  Speaking for myself, I found that I was going to various places in the world, doing serious fieldwork, writing it up and trying to push the literature forward . . . only to watch that work gain no traction at all in the policy and practice world. The same mistakes just kept happening.  So, all that my research really did was get me promotions and pay raises.  Going to a place in the Global South, gathering a resource (in this case knowledge and information), and then redistributing that resource in the Global North to my financial benefit?  Sounds like extraction/expropriation to me . . .  I found that untenable, and I am actively looking for ways to make my research “do something”.  Yes, this is fraught and intellectually dangerous territory.  But I found the alternative unacceptable.

Second, your critique of USAID’s position vis a vis US foreign policy is to the point – we are absolutely constrained by State’s vision for the world, and this does limit us somewhat.  That said, there is a lot of critical awareness of these limitations at USAID (much, much more than I’d expected), and significant efforts to push back and shift the views that are seen as problematic.  For example, there is excellent work on environment-conflict connections coming out of my bureau that aggressively challenges the absurd “water wars” mentality that seems to drive some corners of our foreign policy, referencing really good academic work on the nuanced, difficult connections between environmental change/resources and conflict.  Hell, they have Homer-Dixon thoroughly beaten.

At the same time, I don’t want to fall into the position of arguing from one end of a continuum (“thoroughly compromised”?), with academic research implicitly at the “free and untainted” other end.  There are a hell of a lot of unacknowledged politics in academic research (though I know from our conversations you are quite aware) – for example, NSF sets priorities all the time which are shaped by Congressional funding and partnerships with various agencies in the executive branch (CNH sound familiar, there CAPE-ers?), and we all run off to apply for these funds as if they were apolitical – a terribly naive position.  Put another way, one could argue that it is much easier to be critically aware of one’s position, role and influences when they are clearly articulated in a memo.

To answer fully, and with illustrations, your concerns for issues like land grabbing and “alignment with host country interests” is impossible in a public forum.  First, I don’t speak for the Agency.  Second, examples would invoke countries, and that is a bad idea when you can be seen (incorrectly, in my case) as speaking for US foreign policy.  Third, there are really good people here in the Agency who are actively working to address the very things you are worried about in a lot of different ways . . . many quite subtle.  It is not fair for me to place them in the spotlight without their consent.  You will have to trust me on this – which is hardly evidence in and of itself, but you do know me well.

The desire to become an intellectual leader in development seems sincere.  Sure, broad public statements may or may not have much meaning.  However, I have been struck by the pride folks have in the mission of this organization – and the rage they feel over the ways in which the Agency was downsized and stripped of many of its best thinkers over its recent history.  This is not merely a front office “feel good” thing – I see this as a feeling that permeates the agency, from the administrator down to the line offices and the field missions.  To that end, they are staffing up – and they seem sincere about bringing highly qualified people in to develop cutting-edge programming.  How this will play out if those highly qualified people start pushing back against existing programs and policy, I have no idea.  But this agency is not a monolith, and a lot of people I interact with are very open to criticism and respond very quickly and positively to it – again, to an extent I have found surprising.

And it is from this that I issued the invitation – either to apply for these jobs, or to consider taking an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship, or for you more senior types (am I more senior?  Nah) a Jefferson Science Fellowship, and serve a sabbatical or leave year at AID.  They want good people.  Most of the folks I work with want to be challenged constructively.  And if those of us who have the training, experience and critical faculties don’t apply for these opportunities, we cede the field to a bunch of people with MAs in Political Science who for their research likely ran massive regressions on the relationship between conflict and natural resources without bothering to contextualize either the type of conflict or the natural resource in question (yes, I have actually seen this very project proposal – structured because they could not get a large enough N to regress if they parsed by natural resource.  Mercifully, the researcher in question is not here at AID).

Finally, your point on addressing generations of mistrust is an excellent one, and one that I have no good answer for.  USAID is particularly challenged in this regard because it implements so little of its own programming – basically, most of the agency’s programs are contracted out, and AID staff are generally limited to monitoring the contractors and their products.  This creates a major problem for the agency – I think there is a real gap between what people in the agency know about what is really happening in the world, even at the level of the field missions, and actual events in the world.  This was a central point of my book <<plug alert>> (Delivering Development – forthcoming from Palgrave MacMillan in February, available for preorder at all major booksellers now!) and it seems to be borne out by my experiences thus far.  But given budgetary constraints, likely to be tightened starting roughly a week from today, USAID will never be allowed to staff up to levels necessary to implement its own programs, and therefore get that handle on what really happens in the world.  I will be interacting with country missions quite a bit over the next several months, and I suspect I might pick up some insights along the way . . . or at least I hope so.

I’ve spent way too much time on this response, and anyone still reading at this point probably wants the last 10 minutes of their lives back.  Ben, I am genuinely thankful for you and the challenges you pose – you make me a better thinker and person.  And one with less sleep, dammit.