If you missed the round-table discussion on Humanity Journal’s blog discussion on the changing nature of knowledge production in fragile states, below is an overview with key quotes from the essays and links to each author’s contribution. The series began with an essay from Rebecca Tapscott and Daval Desai, previously highlighted on this blog. Below are the responses to it.

Lisa Denney and Pilar Domingo, “Turning the Gaze on Ourselves: Acknowledging the Political Economy of Development Research.”

“The fact that we are talking about “evidence,” rather than research, is itself telling and underscores a shift in the development industry in the last ten years. Speaking about ‘evidence’ rather than about “research” suggests something much more concrete and indisputable. Evidence is taken as proof. But surely research is also debate.”

“…a limited pool of experts that shape world: “this is related to the narrow pools of thematic experts that donors often draw on. Problematically, these ‘pools’ are often self-referential and self-contained with relatively monolithic forms of knowledge emerging, limiting genuine debate.”

“Policy makers are ultimately interested in evidence that is generalizable enough to be widely applicable – that is what will help them program better. While context specificity is recognized as important, more important is knowing “what works.” “What works” is then adapted to what we know about the context. The problem is that this treats evidence as acontextual.”

Michael Woolcock, “Beyond the question for ‘policy implications’: alternative options for applied development researchers.”

“My nomination for development’s ‘Most Insightful, Least Cited’ paper is Ariel Heryanto’s “The development of ‘development.’” Originally written in Indonesian in the mid-1980s, Heryanto’s gem been cited a mere 79 times (according to Google Scholar), even in its carefully-translated English incarnation. For me, this paper is so wonderful because it makes, in clear and clever ways, two key points that bear endless repetition, especially to today’s junior scholars. The first point is that inference from evidence is never self-evident: significance must always be interpreted through theory […] Heryanto’s second key point is that we are all captives of language, of the limits of any given tongue to convey the subtleties of complex issues.”

“The first point of departure for those self-consciously seeking to reconcile them is being explicit with one’s funders, supervisors, subjects, and audiences, and ultimately with oneself, about the serious challenges (and, if necessary, trade-offs) involved in making methodologically sound and ethically informed decisions. The second, perhaps, is seeking to change the central tone and terms of debate in applied development research, and seeking less to influence an abstraction called “policy” – which is (and should be) largely determined by domestic political processes – and more to helping those charged with implementing it in those communities that surely need it most.”

Morten Jerven, “Evidence based policy or policy based evidence? Supply and demand for data in a donor dominant world.”

Yemi Kale at the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics told me in an interview in 2015 that donors provide about 70 percent of his budget. And the provenance of this money is not always clear and transparent. Most development agencies cannot cover recurring expenditure or regular salaries. The funds thus go to cover ad hoc projects; new surveys; per diems and associated costs; and, if channelled by a clever director of statistics, occasionally new capital investments in cars and computers. This creates an awkward set of principal-agent dynamics for NSOs. In effect NSOs are often survey agencies for donor hire (frequently through arcane and opaque funding sources) rather than more—or less—independent actors in, and providers of facts for, the domestic political system.”

“Interventions that use information instrumentally to evaluate success or failure are likely to backfire in a system where the knowledge production system is part of its own complex political economy.”

“Local demand for data needs to come into focus. A statistical office is only sustainable if it serves local needs for information. The development community needs to remember that demanding evidence for policy means investing in accountability of the evidence-makers. Obtaining data is not a technocratic exercise but rather one of building institutions.”

Alex de Waal, “Policy to Research to Policy in difficult Places.”

“…we should be deeply wary of rejoicing in a thicket of numbers rather than despairing at the sparseness of the data points we had before. Patrick Ball provides salutary caution about using crowd-sourced data for social phenomena in difficult places: the increase in the number of data points may just magnify the biases of data collection, with the outcome of amplifying error rather than correcting it (Ball 2015).”

“The process of ‘policy-based evidence making’ consists, I suggest, of senior decision makers formulating policy based on their own intellectual capital (acquired years or decades earlier), their experience of decision-making under stress and uncertainty, and their reflections on the dilemmas faced by others in similar circumstances. Perhaps a newspaper or magazine article may also prompt their thinking about a broader issue such as global health or climate change. Their junior aides then dress these policies up with a semblance of rigor by seeking out the abstracts of academic papers that appear to support their approach.”

“The way out of this thicket, I suggest, begins with the challenge of making research accessible to those who are its subjects, and who are supposed to benefit.”

Holly Porter, “The alchemy of relationships and the production of evidence.

“… most people I interact with in the course of research are less obsessed with “what development agencies might want to hear” than the “supply chain” framework seems to imagine. They may indeed consider such things in brief encounters with international researchers (particularly those who ask questions pertaining to their material needs), but over the course of longterm relationships such a sustained concern with international policy is unlikely to be at the forefront of people’s minds. Moreover, most have seen international researchers come and go with little if any tangible impacts seen on the ground. What seems much more likely (if there is a cost and benefit analysis) is that they shape a narrative to create the relationship they want with the researcher sitting opposite them.”

“It is a fantasy that a ‘pure’ product exists if we spend enough time to get it. I value long-term engagement—but in the course of such engagement the researcher enters and alters the story. Authenticity of a life story is always necessarily changed by the researcher who becomes part of that story. Knowledge, in this case cannot be an ‘alienable commodity.’”

Deval Desai and Rebecca Tapscott, “From methods to market: some thoughts on the responses to tomayto tomahto.”

“Today, researchers and their ‘subjects’ have a concrete understanding of what research is as well as how it should be done. We propose that we should take this as our starting point—and in doing so, recognize the implications it has for ethics, method, and politics. It is not enough to wish them away or to try to account for them. We must recognize research as an institution and treat it as such, rigorously accounting for how the practice of research structures the information we produce. And we can only do so by recognizing how research has changed, and reimagining how we might allocate responsibility for its effects.”

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