This blog originally appeared on the Institute of Development Studies website.
Do we really need debiasing, yet another word? Yes, unless anyone can improve on it, because we need a word to describe a rigorous discipline we development professionals need for grounded realism. This has been coming on me slowly. But now explorations and ‘aha!’ moments in India have accumulated and combined into an epiphany. For me, things will never be the same again. Let me explain.
The biases of rural development tourism are old news. These are biases in brief rural visits from urban centres. They were a collective discovery and articulation at IDS in the early 1980s. They have now receded into the mists of history and been largely forgotten. Few in later generations of development professionals have heard of them. But with rapid change, they are now more relevant than ever.
The biases are spatial (main tarmac road, roadside, accessible from an urban centre…) , project (special villages and places where there are projects, good things to show, contacts…..), person (males, elite, adults, government and NGO staff….), seasonal (during the dry season, not the rains…), professional (questions and curiosity limited to specialised professional mindsets and interests) and diplomatic (being tactful, not inquiring about sensitive subjects) and (an addition since the 1980s) security (confined to places considered safe, and limited to those accessible in daylight….).
The biases interlock and reinforce each other to exclude those people who are most remote, powerless, vulnerable, poor, stigmatised, discriminated against – those whom the SDGs are not to leave behind. With the intensifying capital trap – being stuck in a capital city or urban centre by meetings, emails, visitors, demands for accountability, reporting, and the like – the biases combine now more wickedly than ever.
And there is a new distorting influence to add: competitive campaigns. This is high profile campaigns in which districts and organisations compete to achieve, and to be seen to have achieved, more than others. This last bias is striking with the Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin in India, the impressively massive and hugely ambitious campaign driven by political commitment and priority which seeks to make rural India open defecation free by 2 October 2019.
Systemically, with almost every brief rural visit, there is a special reason for where the visitor is taken, who is met, what is said and what is shown. This is most brazen with atypical model communities such as the Millennium villages in African countries. It is also manifest in visits to successful projects, or where the Government or an NGO works or has contacts, somewhere easily accessible and so on. This leads to a scattered archipelago of islands of special cases and contacts that are seen, studied, quoted, and then quoted again and again back and forth by visitors, with the authority of their personal experience of rural, or for that matter urban, reality.
Visiting these islands is better than not visiting at all. But it results not in representative ground truth but in a take-off through repetition into sustainably biased myth. The expanses of sea between the scattered islands are overlooked, unvisited and unexplored, but are many times larger, and more typical, than the islands. Even those who demand representative rigour in statistics are themselves through such visits systemically vulnerable to grossly unrepresentative views of reality. And all this is accentuated when there are competitive target-driven campaigns.
We need a systematic, timely and cost-effective approach offsetting the biases and for finding and exploring the seas between the islands. Here is what, again and again, I have found works astonishingly well, and far better than one might suppose.
Using this approach here is a tiny sample of what I have stumbled on in India. All happened to be in States or Districts that had been declared open defecation free (ODF). Except for one that was affluent and exceptional being on a main road, all were very far from ODF.
The point of these is not to denigrate the programme but to illustrate how the vast sea can differ from the scattered archipelago normally visited.
So let me invite all, yes all, development professionals who see this to look in the mirror and be wary of visits which systemically reinforce misperceptions and generate and sustain myths. Ring fence days for you to ground truth through de-biasing. It is fulfilling, informative, fascinating and fun, to explore, to meet people casually, to wander, observe, ask, listen and gain new insights. Every single de-biasing visit I have done has made me wonder – will it happen again? Will I learn anything new this time? Will there be aha moments? Or will this be a wasted day? And every time, every single time, I have been startled and provoked by unexpected revelations. This has always happened. The insights have been intense and memorable, and the implications for policy, practice and research significant. The use of time has been extraordinarily cost-effective.
So let me challenge all fellow professionals who are engaged with rural or urban development – in government organisations, NGOs, training and research institutes, academics, the media, and funding agencies – all who have the scope to do so – to de-bias. Let me challenge all who can to encourage or require others in their organisations to do likewise. Escape the cognitive trap and help your colleagues to escape theirs. Be a devil. Straight away ring-fence a de-biasing day for yourself. Be systematically rigorous. De-bias, enjoy and tell others what you did and what you learnt.
Inspired to take up the challenge? For a useful reminder, download and print A systematic approach to debiasing, instructions from Robert Chambers
The Uganda Participatory Poverty Assessment Process (UPPAP) is an initiative of the Ministry of Finance, Planning and Economic Development (MFPED). Its overall aim is to bring the voices and perspectives of poor people into policy formulation, planning and implementation by central and local governments. A first participatory poverty assessment (PPA1) was carried out in 1998/99 in 36 research sites in nine districts. Its findings were used to inform policymaking. This book details the second PPA (PPA2) which has now been implemented, with two main aims: to deepen the understanding of poverty and poverty trends gained in the first PPA; and to investigate people's experiences with selected government policies. Research was carried out in 60 research sites in 12 districts. Work was undertaken in three phases, or 'cycles', between November 2001 and May 2002. The research was undertaken by seven partner organisations - NGOs or research institutions - working with local researchers, usually from the district administrations, and the overall coordinating and implementing agency was Oxfam GB. The book includes sections on: the Uganda participatory poverty assessment process; poverty, vulnerability and poverty trends; livelihoods and the plan for the modernisation of agriculture; environment and poverty; health and poverty; water and sanitation; education; taxation; and good governance and poverty reduction.
This is a midterm participatory evaluation report of a watershed programme in Tiruchirappalli, South India. The project used PRA techniques (integrated with other methods) in the planning and impact evaluation stages. The report includes a detailed background to the programme and quantitative findings. No detail is given on how the PRA activities were carried out as the emphasis is on the information collected, including case-studies on the impact on women's status.
This report is a review of the different participatory methodologies used in development throughout Africa. It includes overviews of the literature on participatory development, and participation in agriculture and natural resource management, forestry, health, credit, literacy, water, and urban programming. Numerous methodologies are outlined (e.g. animation rurale, auto-evaluation, GRAAP, Theatre for Development, RRA etc.). ACORD's experience with participatory methodologies in Burkina Faso, Mali, Uganda and Sudan are discussed in detail. There are annotated bibliographies on ACORD and key general publications relating to participatory methodologies, and lists of key institutions.
This report presents the results of a PRA focusing on natural resources management in Kenya. It contains descriptions of historical background on the locality, natural resources, water and soil conservation, agricultural practices, discussions of key social issues and infrastructure (health and education) and analysis of institutions and local leadership. Problems and opportunities are identified, and a village resource management plan was devised. Action by the community and other actors as a result of the PRA is discussed, and some problems in implementation are noted. The report ends with reflections on PRA and the participatory planning process. Positive reflections include enabling the community to undertake their own analysis, promoting an integrated view of development, and development of the village plan. Problems included insufficient participation by marginal groups and by women, and the feeling that PRA is inappropriate to statistical analysis.
Describes the main process, and explores the problems encountered, during the ACTIONAID-Nepal utilization survey in the Rural Development Area of Sindhupalchowk, in September 1991. Objectives of the survey were: to assess how far the ideas and assets which the community has developed with Action Aid Nepal are being utilised, and the community's perception of the impact of these; to involve the community and thus increase their understanding; to increase AAN's understanding of the conditions of the poorest. The week of survey work was carried out by teams which comprised of the Community Development Committee (CDC) members, other local people and staff facilitators - staff, but not community members, were trained in PRA. Selective tools and techniques of PRA methods were used to gather all the information; the village map (of which examples are given in the appendix) was the most extensively used, semi-structured interviews were employed to collect information on household's participation in activities, and time trend and preference ranking methods were also drawn upon. Problems encountered in the survey were that indicators had not been agreed through a participatory process, the three-day training in PRA techniques was found to be insufficient, and structured questions left gaps and revealed bias. The bulk of the report is devoted to the survey findings
This paper examines a participatory procedure of self-assessment of irrigation system performance by farmers in the Philippines. The procedure was aimed at improving system performance through strengthening irrigators associations' (IA) managerial capacity in planning and decision making regarding operation and maintenance, communication and conflict resolution. The assessment was part of a longer intervention to organize farmers in small groups based on water and task distribution. The first phase involved self-assessment by the original groups of the process of organizing smaller groups and catalysing collective action. In one-day workshops, farmers used symbols and maps to assess the situation. The second phase used a self-assessment questionnaire filled out monthly by IA group leaders, to assess their own performance in a range of management tasks. The experiment showed that participatory self-assessment was quite successful in eliciting candid appraisals of the existing situation. Pictorial analysis was a learning experience in which farmers identified unexpected causes of problems. These problems lay within the farmers' ability to resolve them, so the assessment facilitated follow-up actions to address them, which are listed in a table.