The moral frame of development research

by David Week on 22 July 2011


I’ve been reading a post by Tom Murphy entitled Aid’s God Complex and Bloggers Groupthink. Towards the end of the post, Tom says this:

Critics of research will decry the wonky conversations that do not address the issues at hand. Some will say that things need to get done and it is a waste of resources and time running an evaluation.

I think Tom’s missing the mark. I love research. I read research books and papers all the time: in psychology, in economics, in sociology, in anthropology. But what passes as research in development makes my skin crawl, and its not because of the reasons Tom gives. It’s because it seems to inhabit a moral frame which is the opposite to mine, and most of the people I work with.

I felt it was time I tried to put some structure around that visceral reaction, and provide a reason why most development research give me the heebie jeebies.

(By the way, Tom’s post triggered this one: but that doesn’t mean I think he holds the views I critique.)

Here goes:

The moral frame

What bothers me about most research in aid is that

Top down and distant

It is practiced “top down”, just like all that “bad aid” we talk about. A bunch of experts in an OECD country get a notion of how to make more “effective” aid, and then go and research it, returning to publish in OECD journals, talk at gatherings of the rich and powerful, and slap each other than back. When Hollywood stars behave like this, we reach for the vomit bucket, don’t we? Don’t we always say that one should ask the poor what they need? Why would this not so in the realm of knowledge, as in any other realm?

I remember being on the road to Ainaro, a few months after East Timorese independence, and stopping at a local market. I asked a guy leaning on our truck what he now needed most, expecting to hear things like clothes, shelter, credit, income… the usual suspects. He answered: “What we need most is up to date market information on coffee prices in town, so we don’t get cheated by the buyers.” People are not naive, stupid, or uninsightful. Above all, the life they are leading belongs to them, not to us. Why are they not included in research conversations? Why are they not the “client” for research?

Objectifying people

The form of the research treats its subjects as objects. It treats them as rats in a classic Skinner Box. Isolate one variable from all others (this is the purpose of randomization), and then by varying the inputs (this is the purpose of the control), see what kind of “behaviour” is elicited by the dear little lab rats. Do they take their immunization like good little children? Do they use their mosquito nets like Mommy wants them to?

Stimulus-Response. This is the tacit mental model of your average (and even not-so-average) development researcher. I think it morally vacuous. Do we not always say that people are the subjects and agents of their own development, not objects to be “developed” by others? Why would not apply this moral precept to the research community, as we would apply to any donor, agency, NGO or worker? Is this not just a moral precept, but a practical one, because the old precept—we can develop other people if we just find out “what works”—simply doesn’t work?

The coal face

The coal face of development is where “our” culture (I’m assuming the reader is from a donor country) meets the culture of the recipient. The coal face is in a thousand meetings and interactions and agreements made daily, between representatives of two cultures. These interactions occur at all levels of governance, from ministries to villages. In a post-colonial world, the interaction between those cultures has to be framed as an interaction between peers.

What I’m saying is that research agendas and methods cannot be decided in back rooms, away from that coal face. To do so is not good ethics. To do so is not effective practice. In particular:

  • Research agendas need to reflect what the “recipients” experience as the obstacles to their own efforts to developing their villages, economies and countries, and not what outside analysts see as obstacles to someone’s development.
  • The research model has to be framed as delivering practical advice to intelligent agents pursuing their own ends, not as advice to foreign program designers attempting to manipulate a population.


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