When and how to (not) make a difference

By Joern Fischer

Studying the intersection of food security and biodiversity conservation in a place like Ethiopia brings up a whole lot of challenging moral and emotional dimensions (some of which were previously discussed here). When we speak to local people, they ask us almost every day about the solutions we will bring. How can we deal with this?

First, I think it’s worthwhile to understand this sentiment a bit more, of wanting us to bring solutions. By definition, it is only people who themselves feel powerless who wait for outsiders to improve things. Both knowledge systems, and systems of taking action, have for a long time been very top down in Ethiopia. The sense of awe for “those who know better” permeates throughout the country – government experts are eager to absorb western knowledge on modern farming technologies; model farmers are eager to absorb knowledge presented by government development agents; and poor people look at all these knowledgeable people and seem to feel that they don’t know enough – nor have enough – to get out of their misery. Action, similarly, is expected to come from “the government” if you’re a community member, or perhaps through international investors if you’re the government.

So that’s the first point – in a culture where everyone looks to someone “more knowledgeable” to find solutions for their respective dilemma, it is natural that we would be asked for solutions. Knowledge in this context seems to be seen as a thing you have: when you have it, all is good, and indeed, obtaining it sometimes seem to be seen as all that is needed to bring about change. (None of this is to discount the possible importance of outside knowledge or action; I’m simply stating that it is valued extremely highly here, sometimes perhaps at the expense of local knowledge or action.)

Second then, having understood a bit more what the role of knowledge is, we can perhaps understand our role a little bit better. As sustainability researchers, we can engage with real-world problems in two main ways.

On the one hand, we can build an understanding of the complexity of the challenges in the system. That is what we came to do in this study. To maximize its real-world usefulness, we can generate information, and we can try to widely share this information. We can also invite stakeholders to re-conceptualise some of the problems, or we can bring problems to the fore that they had perhaps not considered very much. This approach – providing knowledge, and sharing it widely – is essentially what we did in our previous work in Romania. The aim here is not to provide ready made solutions, but to provide new ways of thinking about problems at hand, perhaps in a more holistic fashion, or from a different perspective.

On the other hand, we could try to solve an actual problem at hand. This kind of problem solving is often what people have in mind when they think of sustainability science; they think that being of use implies there being tangible, immediate benefits. Perhaps a community might install solar panels, or be introduced to a new farming technique. This type of sustainability science is certainly valuable, but it’s not always as powerful as it might first seem: ultimately, many of the changes that are required for sustainable development are deeper than anything that could be addressed quickly; plus, of course, you need certain formal governance structures in place to effectively work with communities, which simply aren’t there in many parts of the world.

From all this, I usually take with me two thoughts of how I hope our work can make a difference. On the ground, we do our best to share our findings with authorities at different levels, and in different formats, much like we had done in Romania. But the bigger contribution, I think, happens at a more abstract level – through publishing work with a certain “flavour” on the topic of biodiversity conservation and food security, we help to shape a global discourse, hopefully nudging it away from highly technocratic towards more holistic. This will take a lot of nudging… but ultimately, shedding light on spots not adequately lit is probably all that science ever does. The question is largely one of which spots we choose to shine a light on.

5 thoughts on “When and how to (not) make a difference

  1. Thanks very much for this excellent reflective piece. Having undertaken research in similar environments where such questions are routinely asked, I am glad you have taken up this emotive issue. Whilst I agree with you on the conclusions you reached, I wish you could have addressed more directly the challenging issue you raised in paragraph 3: that outside knowledge is valued extremely highly, sometimes perhaps at the expense of local knowledge or action in the contexts you described. My question is, if sustainability science is framed as a solution oriented discipline, shouldn’t the emphasis be on how to empower local communities to appreciate and see value in the actions and knowledge they already possess where applicable? Although I appreciate the approach you advocated i.e. sharing findings with authorities at different levels, and in different formats and through publishing, I am wondering how these can be beneficial to local communities and help build long lasting partnerships with local people. I think scientist, especially sustainability scientists’ need to take up the question “what solutions we will bring” more seriously. Thank-you.

    • Hi John — thanks for your thoughtful comment. I agree with you in principle, with the one caveat that empowering local communities often is not easily possible. As an example, let me contrast the two main projects I mentioned above. In the one in Romania (https://peisajesustenabile.wordpress.com/), we tried quite a bit to empower communities. In fact, we are still working with NGOs there in a “backcasting” approach, to help them turn ideas for a better future into action. But this wasn’t possible in the short term — it took us something like 5 years to build relationships with these NGOs, in a way that I think by now is of truly mutual benefit. In Ethiopia now, we’re simply not that far; and many short projects will never be in a position to “properly” get that far. (Which is why long-term projects are so good!) Also, the governance situation in Ethiopia is such that everything is extremely hierarchical — communities can’t really “do stuff” without involvement of government. Or put differently, the only genuinely transdisciplinary project we could realistically do in our study area would be with government actors as the main partners. Perhaps this would be better than what we’re doing, but it would again cause other problems — by implicitly reinforcing the existing power relationships that put government above everything else.

      I guess in summary, there is no single right approach to this — but the real value is in taking the right kind of attitude (one of wanting to be of use, but recognising this is not going to be obvious, direct, or simple), and then adapting it to local circumstances. Thanks again for engaging with this topic! — Joern

    • Hi John. Your question about supporting communities to appreciate the knowledge and resources they already have – though not at the expense of desiring more – reminds me of the ABCD (Asset Based Community Development) approach. Are you already familiar with this? It maps and mobilises groups around what they already possess, such as particular skills, longevity of relationships, certain physical resources, etc. It’s a powerful counterbalance to traditional, deficit-based development models and I believe it has been used to great effect in South African rural communities. Cheers Rebecca

  2. Hi Joern. Thanks for another thought-provoking blog. This issue of what development impact sustainability / action research should have is something myself and colleagues at Bioversity International (a CGIAR centre) have been discussing a lot lately. What I find hard is something you point to in your reply to John – the fact that it takes a long time to build up relationships in new places that can bring about positive change. Since most research projects are funded for 1-3 years, at least the ones I come across, I can’t help but ask myself whether the way work on sustainability is conducted in developing places is unethical. We get academic papers, we get stimulated from seeing new parts of the world and ways of living, we form new friendships with people, and do this with the comfort of cars and decent hotels, while asking local people – many of who in the places we are discussing are, by all measures, living at the bottom of the human wellbeing scale – to welcome us and give up there time (often for free) to talk to us. In return we share our findings, re-enforcing the idea that our knowledge is valuable, however these are not always perceived or indeed expected to be useful to the people that were kind enough to participate in the research. If we provide tangible solutions, as we are also frequently asked to do and which does make it feel like a more ethical exchange, these can cause more problems that solutions because as you say, sustainability challenges are usually complex and need local interest, acceptance, governance to work. But I think we should seek mutually beneficial ways to conduct action research from the outset, and this should be the norm – even if it can be hard to know how! When is having NGOs or government as partners in a project going to ensure local benefits? Building intervention funding into project proposals? Employing local community as research assistants?

    I am also aware that there is a specific need where I work in Burkina Faso and Ghana (but probably can be generalised to elsewhere in Africa) to break the idea that I, as a white person, westerner, and scientist, have better ideas than any local person – which is often how I feel I am perceived. Or that I don’t / shouldn’t be exposed to the same (low) living standards as anyone else – that it’s normal for me to have more comforts in life. I think we have a responsibility as researchers to break these types of negative preconceptions – we should not be apolitical in contexts where entrenched beliefs prevent people from valuing their own voices and capacities. It matters where we choose to sleep, eat, how to travel, in addition to how and what we actually do with the research.

    I would say part of the solution is for sustainability research projects in developing countries (and anywhere, probably) to be led by local researchers, who understand a lot of the subtleties outsiders miss, and can get to the “good relationships” stage much faster. Also, one really positive outcome I see of working on sustainability overseas are the collaborations with researchers in local universities and government. It has taken a few years to develop these in Ghana and Burkina, but I now have relationships that are mutually beneficial for sharing ideas, funding, tools, data. That kind of impact may be as important for sustainability researchers as what happens on the ground.

    Sorry it’s a bit long – but thanks for getting me thinking!!

    • Many thanks, Sarah, for your detailed response! I think you’re right with, well … everything, basically. Indeed, what is ethical and what is not is a fundamental question here that we can never fully get away from. I think if we engage honestly, openly, and as good people; and on top of that, work with locals as students, assistants, or collaborators, we’re probably doing more good than harm. And my second point — that a major contribution we can make is to contribute to literature — not local solutions — to help shift the general “game” away from technocratic top-down nonsense. This one we won’t achieve overnight, and it won’t bring tangible benefits to any local people, but still I see it as crucially important. Again — thanks for engaging, it’s much appreciated! — Joern

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