Way Beyond Poverty and Injustice: Action Dialogue with John Gaventa and Marina Apgar of IDS

I spoke with John Gaventa and Marina Apgar of IDS Institute of Development Studies about their action research in the international development arena. With a vision of equal and sustainable societies, where everyone can live secure, fulfilling lives free from poverty and injustice, John and Marina help by bringing participatory practices into work with stakeholders. We caught up between their many travels while at their offices near Brighton, not so very far from London, England.

Hilary: I invite you to take a moment to reflect. What’s calling your attention these days through your travelling and work?

John: I’m working on a large research consortium on building citizen engagement and empowerment in fragile and violent conflicts settings. It builds on our work over the years on the role of action research as a way to strengthen citizen engagement. We have held an assumption for many years that if we worked more democratically and collectively we could deepen spaces for democracy and participation. But, what we are seeing today is the closing down of space for people to engage in collective action inquiry. So, we live in difficult times and have to rethink some of our assumptions.

Marina: I’m reflecting on how we do this work in regressive times. Last week I was delivering a professional development course on Participatory monitoring and evaluation for learning for NGOs, donors, consultants, and people who came to learn about new methodologies, and systemic and action oriented research as part of that practice. The central theme was to think about how to build understanding of change for the most marginalized as non-linear and complex. And we ended up spending a lot of time reflecting on the politics of doing evaluation differently within closing spaces. Many are experiencing a closing down of space to think more deeply about power as part of the change process. But, as you say John, people do find ways, and have courage to open up space for more radical practice, some do it ‘under the radar’.

John: An example of that is work that Marina and I are involved in with the open society foundation trying to help them think about how they bring participation into economic policy and economic justice. Over the years much of my work has been on participation around governance and institutions and societal spaces, but less so those really closed spaces where decisions about the economy are made. Economic policy making remains one of the last bastions of closed spaces, where the doors are closed to most of us, macroeconomic policies that are really shaping the world now and strengthening inequality are simply not open spaces. So, while there’s closing down in certain spaces and certain places, we do also see a broadening out and opening up of this whole belief in a more transformative participatory world to new arenas such as the economy.

Hilary: Our vision of a more transformative participatory world is more fragile now? How hopeful can we be?

John: We have to always look at how power is operating in new ways and not assume that our past approaches are going to work in the same context. For over 40 years I have worked on power and participation, and understanding the links between the two. And I think we often assume we know how power works and we don’t look at the new manifestations of it. So, for instance, in the digital space we saw it as one for strengthening citizen voice and while it can be in certain cases, we also have evidence of how it is becoming a space for misogyny and manipulation and is deeply undemocratic. So, unless we’re really aware of the new forms of power in that space, we will use the same old approaches that will fail. So, while we still believe very much that the route to change is through more participatory approach we know it also has to be transformative. But the challenge we all face, is how do we really transform multiple small steps into larger systemic change?

Hilary: So, in meeting this new frontier with your deep commitment to a participatory approach, I am curious what is your own experience? How are you resourced at a deeper personal level to keep responding to this challenge of transformation?

Marina: I guess for me it goes back to some of the basics of action research. So it is about, first person reflexivity, how I appreciate and feel the different forms of power and they are shifting. Feeling that is visceral, you have to engage within as you engage with the world. Much of my work is around embracing complexity theory as a way of understanding and making sense of the world and change. It helps me to think about my role in the change process as nudging and facilitating and not managing or controlling change. And we live in a time when actually there is an openness to  complexity concepts, but in practice we have to go back to the basics of action research. We have to be able to put ourselves in the process.

Hilary: I’m curious how you locate more visceral resources when you have to confront something difficult.

John: You need to tap in to that feeling of what’s going on in the room [in the stakeholder workshops]. And today we have great resources that we didn’t have 20 or 30 years ago. A huge body of experience has opened up in the world around action research. It’s been such a fertile area that many have contributed to. I still remember the first workshop. I was invited to come. It was the first workshop on participatory action research. In Yugoslavia, 38 years ago now. I think we could pretty well name all the people that were there. And now there are hundreds of us, there is more openness and celebration of these experiences. Yet we still struggle to capture and learn from all this experience.

Marina: Our reality today is that the world is much more interconnected – in some ways we have too much information and connection. It’s hard to know which bits to hold on to. So to me it feels that we are forgetting faster every day, because there is so much going on.

Hilary: That matters a lot, I’d say. So if AR+ wishes to be a network for networks, or a community for communities, and we know there are many communities who work with the action research orientation,  we have to ask about connecting up.  To make it concrete, how do we connect up what you are doing at IDS and what others are doing?

John: My old adage is that you go back to the grass roots, you go back and find where are the cutting edge examples. And you try to connect them because that’s where we draw inspiration from, the new cutting edge examples. When it becomes so institutionalized that people are competing or having to protect their institutional interests they are no longer connected to where is that energy of the grassroots. One of our big challenges is recognizing how you learn across north and south experience because many things have divided us historically. What has been the division between the rich north and the poor south or the colonizing and colonized. But increasingly people are realizing that these things are relevant in both of those societies and we can learn from them across those big divides.

Marina: Adding to the idea of keeping it all real and connecting it to the work that’s going out there. We need to connect the big ideas around transformative change with the nitty gritty of what we want to do. How it’s tangible. And, people have to engage at a personal level. And it’s when people connect person to person that I think you can overcome the lack of time and hyper connection. So the question is how do we bring people together in a way that enables them to connect personally?

Hilary: AR+ tries to connect up communities around particular transformative experiments which documenting our stories and ideas for practice in an attractive way. We want the work to proliferate, not just be a bunch of great ideas. That’s how I think of Cooking Action Research.  We call it the “Cookbook” for short. Marina’s international development work is part of that. (Yay!) But help me reflect on how does this community of action researchers do more of that. We also have to recognize that some, maybe many, academic communities are not always so open minded about action research.

John: Lots of people are interested in the closely related transdisciplinary work.  As action researchers we can engage in an academic debate on, for example, transdisciplinary approaches and what do they mean and how are they different or similar to participatory approaches. It can be an interesting conceptual theoretical discussion, but if it does not include the experience of people who are struggling then we are missing something crucial. One of the questions I had when I read what you sent about this idea of connecting up 100 communities & universities is how transformative that will be. But only if they themselves are in that transformation work for themselves and deeply connected to broader communities.

Marina: Actually maybe those things are already connected.  What if we mapped what the system looks like? Being able visualize the system and the connections can be quite helpful in terms of seeing where they might be key links that we could facilitate that would make a big difference. But it’s so big and so dispersed and connected in so many ways, do we need a strategy for purposeful network weaving?

John: What connects all these diverse efforts is people’s stories of change in their own lives, their own places and a story of change. I would try to unite people around is how change happens on knowledge issues in their own spaces.

Marina: In appreciating change we can look at people’s stories and work backwards to understand how change happened – so you get people moving away from their theories of how they think change happens to their own experiential theory of change.

Hilary: And so how do we accomplish more together? Do you have any thoughts on how you think the Chalmers Transformations Gathering can be useful to you and make AR+ come alive?

Marina: For me it would be helpful to have the personal connection we were talking about.

John: I think the mapping of stories is a beginning point, but simply retelling the stories isn’t enough. What are we learning? Modify those, what and how do we develop new frameworks or new understandings of what kinds of approaches are likely to work in what kind of settings?

Marina: One way to think of that is in building mid range theory, theory that is good enough and helpful but not high level academic theory.

Hilary: Let’s see what we can accomplish together then. You have me thinking that a leverage may be also with the journal Action Research. Marina is part of the associate editors board there, so let’s pick up some of the questions you’re raising as we consider how the journal can better serve our collective efforts toward a sustainable world. And I look forward to seeing you and mapping stories and experiences. We will do some of that at the AR+ Transformations Gathering

Comments are closed