Reflecting on Robert Chambers' work: Testimonials

As part of Revolutionising Development week at the Institute of Development Studies - colleagues and friends have got in touch to share their written and video reflections on the work of Robert Chambers, who celebrates his 90th birthday this year. 

Sara Bagheri and Seyed Babak Moosavi Nejad
Freelance consultants on participatory approaches, Iran

Tracing Robert’s footprints in facilitators’ narratives

For one of the workshops we were conducting for local extension staff around Lake Urmia, we invited Latif and Leyla to come and share their account of using PRA tools. Imagine, two field facilitators from a small private agricultural enterprise telling government extension staff how participatory work is done. Yes, we were a little nervous! But the day evolved into a celebration of how far good, humble facilitation can go in handing over the stick and making local reality count.

There they were, Latif and Leyla, displaying some of the tools they had used to understand local CDR, and talking about:

  • patiently building rapport rather than rushing into ‘work’ items,
  • exposing themselves to farmers’ queries and critique,
  • even the more sceptical farmers coming on board, and
  • how they had adapted the ToR to the farmers’ activities: “We are not behind schedule. It’s just that the ToR sequence and timing does not fit the farmers’ seasonal calendar and priorities.”

And there we were, witnessing the facilitators’ genuine delight at the farmers being empowered, and seeing how the reaction of even begrudging extensionists change into acknowledgement and respect. On that day, chapter 5 of Challenging the Professions came to life in front of our eyes. And, if only for a few hours, we saw what chapter 8 could have been.

Thank you Robert.

Mahmuda Rahman Khan
Senior Program Development Specialist, USAID/Bangladesh

Karen Brown
Formerly: Chair, ActionAid UK, Deputy Chair, ActionAid Interational, Chair Oxfam GB, Trustee, Oxfam International, Chair MAG (2003 – 2021)

Robert’s influence fundamentally shaped my understanding of development and of power.

I first met Robert in 2003 at ActionAid, early in its journey to ‘internationalise’. He generously showed us time and again how to bring to life the principles that we espoused and to make them happen.

What I have learned from him, whether failing or succeeding, has never been far from my mind - at ActionAid International, Oxfam International and Mines Advisory Group (MAG).

Thank you Robert. Always passionate, penetrating, determined, ethical, funny and irreverent, you are a brilliant friend to those whose voice is quietest and to all who want to learn.

Blessing Gweshengwe
PhD, Zimbabwe

Growing up in rural Zimbabwe, I developed a passion for international development. My passion was fuelled by the need to gain a better understanding of the realities of people living in poverty, of what should be done to change their lives and of why poverty persists around the world. Aware of my passion, Mr Coenraad Brand, my undergraduate lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe, introduced me to the work of Professor Robert Chambers on rural development.

Robert’s arguments on ‘putting the last first’ and ‘whose reality counts?’ had a significant influence on my perspectives on approaches to understanding and addressing poverty.

Desirous to learn directly from Robert, I enrolled, in 2011, for an MA in Poverty and Development at IDS, University of Sussex.

Meeting him in person, taking part in his participatory workshops and sharing my research interests with him were some of the best experiences of my professional life. Robert’s experience in different countries inspired me to venture into the Unknown, as I decided to undertake doctoral studies on poverty in Brunei, Southeast Asia. I will be forever grateful for having had the opportunity to benefit from his experience and expertise, which deeply influenced my career development.

Stuart Gillespie
Non-Resident Senior Fellow, International Food Policy Research Institute and Honorary Associate, IDS

Robert’s book: Putting the Last First is one of the most influential books I have ever read. The copy I took with me in 1984 (when I went to live in a remote tribal area of Telangana) survived being chewed by insects, waterlogged by monsoons and buried in a mud wall collapse!

When I met Robert in Hyderabad in October ’84, he encouraged me to stay an extra year and pull my ‘research’ (on seasonality and malnutrition) together as a PhD. On my return, in 1986, he invited me to a workshop on vulnerability (my first trip to IDS) which was another eye-opener in challenging our notions of rural livelihoods, poverty and deprivation. 

All of this was profoundly inspiring to me, shaping the approach I took throughout my later work on nutrition, food and health. More recently, his blog on ‘universal justice’ again crystallised my concerns about the concept of ‘international development’ as we move into the 3rd decade of the 21st century.

Throughout his career he has been relentless in provoking and challenging our comfortable notions of development and knowledge, our perceptions and preconceptions, forcing us to turn things upside down, inside out and keep putting the last first.

Kattie Lussier
McGill University

Suzanne Hanchett
Planning Alternatives for Change LLC

Robert has many admirable qualities, as we all know. I especially appreciate the way he has been able to translate and transform social science in support of ‘participatory development.’ Thanks to Robert, almost every NGO (and government) field worker can enter a new place, meet the people there, and – most importantly – listen to them. All of this, of course, greatly increases the likelihood that a project or program design will suit the people one is trying to help. The Sanitation Learning Hub (SLH) has expanded in brilliant ways to apply these ideas to sanitation, but they work equally well in any sphere of development.

I am personally grateful to you, Robert, for including me in the activities of your wonderful team. Having been institutionally ‘homeless’ during many years of work as a freelance consultant. I have enjoyed every minute with you and your group, especially our book-writing workshop in the resort near Nairobi. We had meaningful conversation and also fun.

We met in Bangladesh, but you kindly invited me and my Bangladesh associates to join your globally significant efforts. Behind that unassuming and modest demeanor is a good leader!

Robert, thank you for these many years of collegiality and friendship.

Sarah House
Independent WASH, Public Health Engineering & Equality and Non-Discrimination (EQND) Consultant

I have stood on Robert Chamber’s shoulders over the past three decades, learning from his work on PRA and continuing throughout the years. I am an engineer and have increasingly worked on building capacities of the global WASH sector, to engage with people who are more excluded and marginalised. I also have Asperger’s, an Autism Spectrum Disorder.

People with this condition, tend to see the world through the details and differently from people who are neurotypical. I have come to understand this is part of why I find the distorted respect for academic-focussed learning, and associated disrespect for learning from life and work in the field, so frustrating. Like Robert, I see clear weaknesses in this stance and the critical importance of learning from people in the communities we work with and from colleagues working in the field on a daily basis.

Robert, through his fantastic book, Can We Know Better? Reflections for Development, eloquently vocalises why we need to re-adjust this perception. Through his thinking and his willingness to share his thoughts, he has helped me have self-confidence to trust my own intuition and to speak out, sometimes against much resistance.

Thank you Robert for being such an inspiration.

Mick Moore
Research Fellow, IDS

Lyla Mehta
Research Fellow, IDS

This is an amazing milestone and such a wonderful occasion to celebrate you,  your eventful and inspiring life and your fantastic contributions to IDS and development studies more generally. I am sorry to be away and miss the IDS celebrations but will be there in thought and spirt.

Happy birthday! Wishing you joy, peace , good health and many more productive years.

Susana Sandoz
Independent consultant in WASH

In one of my meetings with Robert Chambers, this time at an event entitled ‘Using a CLTS Approach and Tools in Peri-Urban and Urban Environments’ in June 2016, he passionately explained to me the research showing the correlation between Environmental Enteropathies, caused by living in a fecally contaminated environment and stunting in children, plus their non-visible effects in reduced neuronal connections and adult comorbidies

He was so persistent that I was ‘converted’ and later used his study results, slides and pictures in all further advocacy presentations to UNICEF staff, donors and even political authorities and local leaders to convince them to buy-into achieving ODF communities.

With good success I have used this in Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Guatemala and presently in DRC, thank you Robert, not just for putting all this research together in such convincing fashion, but for converting many disciples that in turn have been able to convert others.

Never believe you are above or below anyone. Remain forever humble.

Takashi Shimizu
JICA Expert in Sri Lanka

Robert is officially a pioneer of participation and I chose IDS because he is here. It was my honor to participate in and support his workshops at IDS, then I found that he is always interested in something new and does not cling to the past achievements. This is why he always keeps his door open and likes listening to anyone with his bright eyes. I guess he enjoys and learns at his workshops the most out of all participants. He does not stop updating himself nor puts himself first, this mindset has made a significant influence on my work and thought. It always let me do ‘ask them!’

Congratulations on your work, Robert. You have seeded countless participation and social changes around the world. I keep doing my best to be one of them.

Emery Roe
University of California, Berkeley | UCB Center for Catastrophic Risk Management

For me, Robert Chambers is to rural development what Ludwig Wittgenstein is to philosophy. As with the latter, Robert’s writings have early and late periods, he too offered an apology to his colleagues for earlier practices, and Robert’s insights have been cookie-cut by well-meaning disciples and acolytes.

Much less enigmatic in writing, Robert has however shared the same single-mindedness in trying to get to points that matter. In this, Robert is an exemplar, but I recognize like all exemplars, his work is easy for others to criticize and date-stamp. If that, though, is what it takes to get people to read and re-read Chambers, then great! They are certain to find still-timely interventions and provocations there just as in the work of exemplars from other major fields.

Roopal Thaker
Executive Director, ZanaAfrica

ZanaAfrica is a Kenyan organization influencing the uptake of adolescent reproductive health education in conservative contexts by addressing social norms through the lens of menstrual health and the medium of social and behaviour change communication.

Professor Chambers’ research has deeply informed our work, and we’ve seen transformative impact as a result. In 2010 we applied participatory methodologies to a program evaluation, giving power to adolescents and their communities to define the outcomes and data they valued most. Over the following years, this pilot grew into an 18-month school program co-created with adolescents across Kenya.

Our education materials use real stories and comics to address difficult, stigmatised topics such as gender norms, consent, spousal violence, mental health and more. The program was independently evaluated through a pioneering randomized control trial and has demonstrated impact on key drivers of adolescent well-being, including reduced stigma and shame about menstruation, improved self-confidence and resilience, increased knowledge about reproductive health and safety, and shifts to equitable social norms – all of which are difficult to achieve, and we did so in only 18 months.

Kenya is in the process of rolling out a new competency-based national education curriculum for all grades. We are now working with various government agencies to try to incorporate our proven work into the new curriculum, including developing tools with teachers to address the barriers they face (including stigma, shame, trauma and others) when delivering reproductive health education. We hope to reach all adolescents in schools across Kenya by scaling through the public school system, and we are grateful to Professor Chambers for his continued influence on our work. We now co-create all our products and programs with communities, incorporating their lived experiences into the solutions we generate together.

Florencia Rieiro
IDS Alum

Dear Robert, I got the chance to know you when I was a student at the institute and you were facilitating 'the participatory weekends' in which we learnt a lot about you by getting to know the participatory tools and approaches that you shared with us. Those days were fantastic... as well as seeing you around IDS with a cookie and a tea while thinking about new ideas for your books... I was lucky enough to spend some more quality time with you in Nakuru and Stockholm while we were working with the Sanitation Learning Hub... I keep those days, your stories and books as treasures. The wisdom, courage and love that comes out from your experience will continue inspiring my work. Thank you. A strong hug, Flor 

David Archer

Julia Pá
IDS Alum

After graduating from MADev01 I went to work for the World Bank with social protection for 2 years. As I rapidly visited communities in Mozambique during my “missions” from DC before going back to 5 star hotels, Robert Chamber’s teachings about Immerisons were in my mind and heart the whole time. How can we, as development professionals, possibly interfere in another person’s reality if we don’t understand it? And how can we possibly understand it, if we don’t dive in it, live it? So after I left the Bank, I started my own independent Immersions project, and went to live in the houses of rural women in Colombia and in India. 

There I could have a close look at (and even join with beneficiaries) some public works programs and witnessed actual design and implementation gaps. So Immersions proved to be an effective tool for policy making because they allow us to grasp different realities not through a distant theoretical and intellectual approach, but in actual and factual experience. Moreover, Immersions marked a turning point in my personal development, as a professional, an individual and a woman. I learned from those women’s inner strength and resilience. In the development world, we look for ways to help others with our knowledge and our skills. But Immersions showed me that there is as much to learn from their knowledge and their skills. Development should be an exchange process. Immersion approximates separate worlds; it brings the other closer and sheds light on the human element lying beneath the surface. In opening my eyes to these ideas, Robert Chambers is for me not only a master, but an inspiration.

Warren Mukelabai Simangolwa
SNV Netherlands Development Organisation

I met Robert Chambers, the second time in 2015 at an iconic write-shop retreat at the Gateway resort, in  the countryside of Nairobi Kenya. Where, for a week, I was privileged to indulge into Robert Chambers’ soulful and intriguing persona beyond the ‘participatory rural appraisal’ personified development studies guru. My first meeting, as most of my peers, was through his ground breaking work in ‘putting the last first’ in development policy in academic literature.

As an Economist working in WASH and health programming for the ‘last mile populations’, the use of participatory rural appraisal in strengthening market access to WASH products for the poor and marginalised, naturally steered our convivial intriguing interactions. This life changing meet-up with Robert, would later play key roles in my approaches to influencing social protection policies and implementation for the marginalised. In addition, my collaborative work contributions with the Institute of Development Studies through the sanitation learning hub, as a chapter in the ‘sanitation for all’ book and regional sanitation and hygiene research pieces would not have been possible without the influence of Robert’s body of work and Robert as an individual.

Standing at the shoulders of Roberts Chambers and his monumental work with the institutive of development studies, I have been  an astute advocate of centring the poor in solving their own development objectives.  

To Robert Chambers – Your dedication to amplify the voices of the last mile, has given this generation and myriads to come, a blueprint for development.  Your works are befittingly expounded with the Sudanese Proverb, “ …bequest two things to our children – the first one is roots; the other one is wings! 

Fr. Bishoy L. Mikhail
St. Antonious and St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Church in East Rutherford, NJ 

Robert Chambers for me is a father, not a professor only. I remember my years at IDS (2007-2010), when I was overwhelmed because of the 100's of pages to read in one lecture, in addition to the fact that English is my second language, moreover, the articles were very difficult even for those whom English is their first language, Robert highlighted an important theme for me, till now, I am using it in my service at the Church and my life.

He asked me a question, why did you come to study at IDS? I said for more money and to find work, then he said, it is foolish to think in this way! he continued, do you think you will have such an opportunity in your life to come again to do another study with this amount of money? I said probably No. Then he said I want you to have fun in your studies, start to explore the places around, visit the museums, the amusements places, attend seminars even if it is not related, etc. Since that time, I followed his advice in my life in all its aspects. Moreover, since I started to follow his advice my grades went up. I am sharing his name even with my congregation in my homilies.

I remember my wife Phoebe and I came to visit IDS a few years back after my graduation, he saw both of us by the gate of IDS. it is his break time, he stopped and returned back and said let us eat lunch here, he spent the whole hour with us. I remember in my first workshop with him, he asked for volunteers to document the workshop, I volunteered, and at the end, he wrote me a very kind card to thank me. Till today, in my retreats with Junior high and College, I am using his methods of Active participation, flip chart, and markers, and ask them to volunteer and help, his words are engraved in my brain "ask them they know how to do it" " Uppers, Lowers" "Whose reality count?" 

In 2016 I asked him to write a reference letter for my Ph.D. studies, he was not hesitant for a second and he wrote it. I found in him not a founder of participatory approaches, nor an academic professor, I perceived him as a mentor to my academic, social and spiritual life. He is the type of person whose “deeds speak louder than their words.” I am so proud that I am his student and he is my father, and mentor and he lives what he preaches and teaches.