By Melissa Leach, STEPS Centre director

I first worked with Robert Chambers as a research assistant when I was little more than an undergraduate myself. In the book ‘Revolutionising Development’, launched last Friday, I write about the specific piece of research we did together, and its legacies.

However, over twenty years as a colleague at the Institute of Development Studies, Robert’s work has influenced mine far more widely than this. In particular, four themes in Robert’s remarkable body of work link to challenges that we are now pursuing in the STEPS Centre: the importance of the ‘material’; the politics of access; complexity, dynamics and unpredictability; and the framing of goals.

The first is that the material matters. Robert’s work has always brought the technical and the physical into development, from trees (on which I first worked with him, and write about in the book) to water, seeds and now shit and the microbes it carries, in his current work on community-led total sanitation. Equally, he has always drawn attention to the social in the technical (that is, the social arrangements that enable technologies to work). With some notable exceptions – including the recent renewed attention to agriculture – the technical is often surprisingly unfashionable in mainstream development. But we talk of politics, economy, institutions, flows of money and power and governance without acknowledging material and technical issues at our peril. We miss opportunities, expose ourselves to risks, and nature bites back – as it has arguably in a big way with climate change as a product of patterns of capitalist development.

The second theme is that the material matters – but the politics of access to it matter even more. Climate change has returned questions of material resource use and ‘nature’ to centre stage. But with it comes the obligation to ask – as Robert always did – who gains and loses, who has access to resources, and how (to paraphrase the book I first worked on as his Research Assistant in the 80s) to get water and trees ‘to the hands of the poor’. Paradoxically, just as resource ‘crunches’ and climate change are turning development attention back to questions about nature, new global markets for carbon and food, emerging patterns of commoditisation, investment and speculation by actors old and new, are threatening emerging kinds of land, resource and green grabs. In this brave new world of resource trading, we need to understand and intervene in the politics and political economy of resource access towards greater distributional justice.

A third theme is the need to take complexity, dynamics and unpredictability seriously. Financial, food and epidemics crises as they have played out in different contexts (eg climate change) over the last few years remind us that the world involves complex systems: systems in which economic, ecological, social and technical and political elements interact in ways that are often non-linear and non-equilibrial, involve combinations of shocks and stresses interacting across multiple scales, and include a host of uncertainties and surprises.

Robert recognised this in his work with Gordon Conway on agroecosystems analysis and has since maintained an interest in complex systems thinking. This, of course, now involves a vast array of work in complexity science, evolutionary economics, resilience thinking, sustainability science and so on. Much of this has proceeded outside development and development studies. Robert has been amongst and supportive of the handful of people trying to bring it in, and to recognise that ‘development processes’ are themselves complex systems which interact with other system elements in unpredictable ways, so plans don’t work as intended. Instead, we need different forms of understanding and action: emphasising keywords like flexibility, adaptability, iterative learning, reflexivity – and a big one of Robert’s – humility.

Part of the paradigm shift here is also about challenging power: a mainstream development which often goes on portraying and planning for a world as if it were much more stable and certain, and a matter of controllable risks. Incumbent institutions often face imperatives to control situations, or to appear to do so. These are often backed up by bureaucratic processes – for instance aid bureaucracies and what Robert would term ‘normal professionalism’ are simply not geared to dealing with complexity and uncertainty – and by currently resurgent moves towards audit culture and results-based management. Opening up to embrace dynamics, and empower institutions, infrastructures and forms of practice geared to these, is a growing challenge.

A final theme I term framing the future. We can talk about systems and dynamics, but who defines the system and the goals of change? Sustainability of what, for whom? In the STEPS Centre we are working to link questions of system dynamics firmly to those in a more constructivist and participatory tradition to recognise that there are always a multiplicity of ‘framings’ of systems, goals and values for change – and power relations in which particular perspectives and priorities get to prevail. The politics of knowledge, of framings, justify some pathways, turning them in effect into motorways, while relegating others to bush paths.

Such an analysis traces a direct line from Robert’s work on ‘whose reality counts’. I suggest that we need to move the emphasis now towards ‘whose future counts’. In food, for instance, what kinds of food security, for who, where? What are the visions for peri-urban futures? In energy, what will be the balance between different kinds of low-carbon infrastructures? How do we avoid lock-in, and open up to a plurality of possible imaginaries, goals, values?

Inspired by Robert’s revolutionary work, there is room, I think, for a whole new round of methodolological and political revolution that will foster the democratic political debate and deliberation, and perhaps more collective forms of politics and action, that will build just pathways to sustainable futures. The STEPS Centre and our partners will be working to take forward many aspects of this challenging agenda in the years to come.

>> Buy the book from Earthscan (30% discount)
>> IDS News story on Revolutionising Development

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