International Development, Aid and Social Transformation: ARJ Special

In this couple of videologues we introduce the new special issue of  ARJ on International Development, Aid and Social Transformation. Guest Editors Kent Glenzer and Alfredo Ortiz did all the hard work of pulling it together and in addition to five lead papers, they also pull in practitioners’ responses on each of the articles.

I started into this topic (ofInternational Development, Aid and Social Transformation) as someone who is an outsider to the world of International Development and therefore wondering “how does action research actually make a useful difference for the international development community?” To be pragmatic, what can an action researcher usefully say to a donor of Development Aid funds who is typically more used to an expert model of change (called “log frame”/logical framework approach) in advance  of any field work. This means typically engagement with stakeholders happens after goals are specified, making stakeholder engagement an afterthought.

This way of doing things is, to an action researcher’s mind, close to backwards. If stakeholders are not deeply involved, the chances of reaching (pushing!) the goals you have is limited.  We’d think, this is an expensive set up for failure down the road. Precisely because action research is about engaging stakeholders in the design of the work and the doing of the work, the AR approach might work better?! But action research also tends to be a slower process, more emergent. Harder to trust…

I asked Kent – whom you see on the first video clip explaining why he is so passionate about the contribution of action research to International Development – to clarify the value of action research.

His short answer: “a more systematic action research approach to the logical framework (logframe) ramps up the speed and quality of ongoing learning about what’s working and not working in the project. It allows those involved to develop the knowledge/understanding needed about local conditions that permit the articulation of an effective logframe to begin with.”   In that sense we see action research as a complement to conventional development approaches.

I asked Alfredo what he saw as key in the work and we heard from action researchers Marina Apgar and Anastasia Seferdis who brings it all alive with their rich descriptions.  Listen in. Better yet read the papers. Available for free download from the AR+ blog.

Kent also summarized: “Action research in the aid enterprise…

  1. Builds people’s ability to understand and articulate their own projects within the larger palette of donor strategies/priorities;
  2. Develops deeper critical thinking capacities among the communities/people your strategies target, which…
  3. Allows you to leverage better those communities’/people’s knowledge of their own circumstances, which…
  4. Improves the pertinence of the logframe’s end goals, and intermediate objectives to people/communities, which….
  5. Increases ownership of and commitment to those ends, which…
  6. Leads to smarter and more precise ongoing adjustments of the project logic, which….
  7. Further leads to much more rapid course corrections (small failures) and fewer large failures, and…
  8. Generates future cycles of action-reflection… “

He also spoke about the use of the Theory of Change (TOC) models in International development that are popular now: Theory of change is exactly what it sounds like – it invites a person to explain how they think change will occur given what they are doing…as such the theory of change approach is simply what a smart use of a logframe has always been.  It’s just that logframes have been used soooooo poorly over the years.  Deployment is what really matters rather than the framework itself.

“So let’s start at the most basic level when we think about development. Let’s ask:  what makes you think that [e.g., multi-party elections; women’s empowerment] are going to change anything here?”  I’d then frequently reveal cases from around their continent or elsewhere in which such mechanisms of democracy led to a) greater inequality, b) worse divisions between wealthy/poor, c) worse conflict, d) worse ethnic & gender relations.  And then we can go into a discussion about how the exact same tools/mechanisms, in vastly different socio-politico-historical contexts, can lead to very different results.

And from there….we’d develop our “theory of change” for the specific community/region/country  we want to work with.  We’re asking, ideally with stakeholders:  “What do we know about this context and how change can/will happen, that will make democratic mechanisms lead to the results we desire?  It is only after all of that we start identifying concrete results, timelines that we start to truly design well. This last exercise is – in essence – if we want to use our new vocabulary in one sentence – putting a looser kind of logframe around the theory of change as influenced by action research with stakeholders.

Unfortunately today “theory of change” is just a relatively good/smart use of the logframe. We need to see the value of action research which always beings stakeholders voices into the process, where it’s appropriate. So we are not doing the work to, but with, people.  You;d be amazed how much of a difference that makes.  And how difficult but ultimately fruitful this is! I am more hopeful that I have been in my 30 year career that action researchers can make our process more clear, more inviting. We can “untame” the development and aid community by seeing our eyes firmly on the social justice of inclusion.”

Now go read the special issue y’all.

And attached is the opening editorial essay to the Special Issue by Kent Glenzer and Alfredo Ortiz.