No matter how much you study something you can still never get a real feel for what is actually happening from the perspective of the people engaged in what you are studying. And feel matters. This is a tremendous dilemma for international development policy making. Experts will have all sorts of research, analysis, and ideas. But do they have a real feel for the issues on which they are recommending action?
To reflect on how vital is the "feel" factor, think about your own home community. You will have a really good "feel" for the community dynamics - sensitive issues, leadership struggles, historical touchpoints, etc. How often have you just nodded, acknowledged, and walked respectfully away from other people providing advice and ideas on what your community needs to do...thinking...they just do not understand?
This is not to say that all development issues can only be addressed by the people who are part of the issue - but to ignore their "feel" for that issue as part of the policy process is to significantly diminish the impact and value of those policies.
If anyone doubts this principle, I invite them to review the entries for the first Institute for Development Studies Journalism Award presently being conducted through The CI platform. Now, this is a judged competition. I am not one of the judges, and I have no influence at all over their decisions. The selections below are no indication of the quality of the journalism. The full collection can be reviewed here (you need to be logged in to the Development Networks website and a member of the Awards: Media Reporting on Development Group - click "Join" - to view all of the awards submissions. Please feel free to join, read, and submit comments on the articles - this is all part of the awards process.)
How, on reading these journalists' reports, could any policy maker ignore the "feel" that local people have for their own local priorities when developing appropriate policies?
Just the titles of the headlines of these journalistic pieces indicate that different feel:
- A canal of misery
- Big infra spending fails to lift plight of the poorest
- Evicted from forests, the Batwa are destitute
- A life changing business: Rabbits provide lifeline
- Of still births, bad roads and malnutrition in Kokmar
But it is the perspectives reported that add so much to the policy debate and formulation process when properly and respectfully incorporated.
(A quick reminder that you need to be logged in to the Development Networks website and a member of the Awards: Media Reporting on Development Group - click "Join" - to view all of the awards submissions. Please feel free to join, read, and submit comments on the articles - this is all part of the process.)
On the effects of economic development in "Ancestral Land Grab": "Traditionally the Batwa have lived in tiny communal pockets in forests in the Congo Basin as hunters and gatherers, and occasionally using forests products in exchange of essentials from agricultural communities. But unlike their neighbouring farming communities' the Batwa land rights are not recognized. Their minimal impacts on forests due to their eco-friendly lives and sustainable management of their 'birth-places' - forests - has led to an illusion falsely created that the forests in which they live in are uninhabited. This phony impression is neatly spelt out in both state and customary laws affecting farming communities."
On food supply in "Urban agriculture proves lucrative": "Who said agriculture is for the rural only? WATIPASO MZUNGU JNR has been up and down Blantyre City and he tells the story of how urban people now grow their own crops not only for consumption, but for sale, too. He writes: It has long been believed that agriculture and urbanisation are incompatible activities competing for land otherwise designated for infrastructural development. People have long regarded farming as the main occupation for rural masses. The labels "urban" and "rural" fall far short of capturing the dynamism and diversity of reality."
On substance abuse in "Drug addiction grows among women in Pakistan": "She said teenage girls are likely to abuse substances in order to lose weight, relieve stress or boredom, improve their mood, reduce sexual inhibitions, self-medicate depression and increase confidence. Women who seek treatment for alcohol and drug problems report a connection among domestic violence, childhood abuse, and substance abuse."
On trade negotiations in "Benarsi silk gets it sheen back": "According to a study by the Varanasi-based People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR), between January 2003 and March 2007, 47 weavers committed suicide mostly due to malnutrition and inability to pay loans and hunger. During the same period, 46 children were found malnourished. Similarly between March and August 2008, 67 patients were diagnosed with tuberculosis (caused by breathing in fibres and fabrics they work with)."
These are just a few examples of perspectives - a feel for local conditions and dynamics and an understanding of the driving processes - that it is vital to understand. Sometimes you get it from research, but why take that risk? Reporting on these dynamics and insights adds hugely to the policy development process.