AR wisdom for International Development/Large Scale Change. A review of Burns and Worsley

On this collaborative review forum we review new (and classic) action research materials. Cultivating the collaborative intent of action research means here that we invite comments on the reviews. We also invite you to review others of the multiplying resources in the field of action research. We hope this space is helpful for bringing awareness to those useful resources.

Let’s start with a review of “Navigating Complexity in International Development: Facilitating sustainable change at scale,” by action researchers Danny Burns and Stuart Worsley. Publisher: Practical Action Press.

A key message of this soon to be published book is that conventional, techo-rational decision making models, referred to as “log frames” (logical frameworks) among international development planners, fail. They can fail spectacularly. My favorite example from the book had to do with Osama bin Laden. Or rather his capture by the US military in Pakistan and the unintended consequences for public health and polio vaccination efforts there. It turns out that the US military pinpointed bin Laden’s whereabouts after they gained DNA information from blood samples gathered during vaccination efforts. The information allowed the military to pinpoint bin Laden (whose children had been vaccinated). In turn there was a backlash against public health efforts in Pakistan and vaccinations plummeted. In the language of system dynamics – by which the authors simply mean how systems act over time – this is quite an unintended consequence which will have generational repercussions. Public trust was not considered part of the decision to release DNA information. Or perhaps it was but the political ramifications could not be quantified. We’re taught that we simply can’t know in advance what unintended consequences there will be with plans that adhere to linear decision making matrices. Life is too complicated. Interdependence among conditions that give rise to poverty and violence is so rife that we must look elsewhere for guidance. This is why the principles and concepts in this book are so useful.

Exasperated by the grand scale waste of money and peoples lives that conventional development efforts seem cursed to produce, this book offers a different way of acting, a way that places action research sensibility at its core. Story after story of wasted resources in the book might even be comical, were it not about people’s lives and patterns of donors negative impact. The stories follow a familiar pattern – basically that millions of dollars are spent on a plan that produces exactly nothing because key stakeholders were not involved. If I cut rudely to the chase, in fact it’s because action researchers and our sensibility for collaboration with stakeholders are not involved in the planning!

The timely message of the book then is that we must adopt a collaborative systems orientation when dealing with the complexity inherent in international change endeavors. We must also be keenly aware of how and whom to involve. But this systems approach is not our fathers’ orientation to systems (full only of dispassionate numbers and logical models). Rather the book offers a systems orientation that is anchored in the realities of human participation. This book is about action research in the development context specifically. It highlights systems thinking as figural for action research. In the background, equally important, are the key principles of action research, namely collaborating, being practical, seeking to meet people’s needs. It is the action research portion, I think, that makes the difference for international development practitioners. For too long they have relied on the speculations of techno-rational frameworks as a cognitively dependable way of deciding what is to happen with donors money. That dependability simply cannot stretch to lived experience. Not that action researchers don’t wish to be logical. The problem is that dependence on this speculative abstraction leads experts away from the often illogical ways in which real people conduct their (our!) lives, lives shaped by cultural (often religious) practices inherited and unconsciously reproduced but difficult to change. Moreover experts shy away from being in touch with those actually affected by the development. So often this means shying away from impoverished women, children and disempowered men. Resulting experts’ speculations, so good on paper, too often miss the mark. Truth is, it can be cheaper, but harder to measure, better designed, systems oriented participative intervention.