(The Humanitarian Social Network)
I originally put this on my blog and would like more thoughts on this (there's a poll and everything). Here it is reposted.
Last week I attended a project management training workshop. The course ran from 9.30-3.00 for five days and was organised partly by my organisation and partly by Intrac. As this was the first such training that I had been to, I was pleased that it started with the basics but didn't feel the need to hammer them home; if you work in this industry, you have to learn fast. From what some more experienced friends in the industry say, getting the opportunity to learn in a structured, planned way - as in a workshop or induction - is all too rare. All too often, agencies as a whole and, particularly, new staff are required to learn their lessons at the same time as actually trying to do their jobs.
We skipped along touching on sector specific academic thinking on topics like: results based management, project cycles, organisational structures commonly found in the world of NGOs, the basics of monitoring and evaluation in a project context. Later in the week we focused more on the how of such things - how or why to apply that theoretical learning from earlier in the course. This was very useful and I'm pleased to have been able to get access to something like this before I actively have my job, career or, worst of all, projects and beneficiaries on the line.
Something that was a noticeable motif throughout the week were the words "but in reality..." as we moved on from looking at the academic side of one topic or another and onto how we could apply those things in reality. Because the trainer was a former NGO practitioner, one of the great strengths of a specialist training company, he wasn't presenting a series of pie in the sky best practices, most of which will never get implemented because a) you'll never be given the time to do them and b) you'll never be given the funds. There aren't donors lining up around the block desperate to hand over extended deadlines and bloated admin cash after all.
There's always a disconnect between academics and their counterparts in implementation (obviously this is not a black and white distinction) with politics being a good example - the neo-liberal policies of Western politicians in the 1980s were pioneered by predominantly Harvard based academics 5 to 10 years earlier. When Nozick and Hayek et al were calling for a new type of conservativism to be enacted by the conservative politicians of the USA and Western Europe they were more interested in, respectively, the crisis of a generation shaping scandaland the struggles of post-imperial statehood. But is this delay untenable when the whims of largely comfortable electorates don't need to be sated?
In a sector where learning quickly is a must and where crisis response happens even more quickly, can development professionals afford a 5-10 year delay in learning the lessons of academia? While two of the most well known development types are professors - Sachs and Easterly- the discussions/bitch fights between are at such a high level that they rarely seem that applicable to the actual day to day work of development peons like myself. The gap between discussion and action, between academia and agencies, between theory and implementation, seems extremely wide to me.
Is this really a big problem? Am I simply to far down the food chain to be involved in the right discussions or is their a gap in the industry for a greater collusion between theorists and activists - maybe something like 'Academics Without Borders' where such experts are parachuted into agencies to help shape and direct their policies more effectively?
Good post. I was just saying the other day to a group of aid worker friends that I didn't think there was a single area of social science (or other discipline for that matter) where academia and practice differed as much as it does in "Development".
Ask any currently enrolled postgraduate, who also works in the field, what they think of their lecturers' knowledge of What Really Happens In Practice!
How does this sort of thing get fixed? Is M&E the way in which academia starts narrowing the gap - those in the field will always complain of constraints making any narrowing on their part impossible.
I'm not sure anything needs to be "fixed". We might even live in parallel universes.
In Development we may have reached The End of Theory (to paraphrase Fukuyama) in any case. Field workers don't need Theory: "Try and find what works, gather evidence, scale it up" doesn't need a holistic world view or an ideology to be successful, or to be better understood by other practitioners.
Academics have trouble coming to grips with this, and placing any field results (if they ever bother doing field work) into an all-encompassing Theory. The end of the Cold War meant the end of a whole suite of ideologically-driven projects to understand the world. When was the last time you saw a really useful theoretical analysis of Development? Were there ever any?
Academic researchers are also at a tremendous information disadvantage - their grant might cover a couple of trips to interview 60 poor farming households in Madagascar on their single research topic, but my rural development project team in Cambodia produces results continually from 10,000 households over four years.
Maybe the best solution is for the practitioners to storm the lecture halls. :-)
Great post. As a student, this is something we discuss pretty much daily. So full disclosure: Yes, I'm in postgrad and am a complete noob on these matters.
All the same, it doesn't seem accurate to paint academia with such a broad brush. Some of my classmates are coming into the program off of 10-20 years working in the field, and the prevailing commentary I hear from them is that they feel like they've been making it up as they go along, and they wish they'd had some of these courses earlier. Of course, for us noobs, their real-world perspective in class is highly valuable.
The academics I've met are keen to spend as much time in the field as possible. I picked my program because I'll be spending the second year away from the university, conducting field research and writing a thesis. One of my lecturers has been working with the same Maori community for 12 years. I think that kind of depth of engagement is useful when so many aid workers get hired into 1-2 year contracts in disparate places. Anyway, am I wrong in thinking that both camps are supposed to level that critique at the bureaucrats? I spent a scant 3 months in Cambodia, and it boggles my mind that the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Cambodia gets to submit a report based on 16 days of meetings.
As for the relative merits of any big-time Theory in practice, I won't pretend to be able to speak to that-- there are wise folks here actually suited to that challenge. It just seemed to me that many NGOs make big assumptions in the course of their field work, and that's part of what prompted me to go to school. Project plans can get set by untested assumptions that probably have more to do with the nature of the organization itself, and less to do with the meat of the issue at hand. That's where academia's critical eye and backlog of research may be useful.
I absolutely agree that practitioners should storm the lecture halls. My Policy course is led by 2 practitioners and 1 academic, which makes it far more bearable. I think that rather than dismissing academia altogether, both sides could benefit from much greater interaction and cross-over.
As one of the practitioners who (occasionally) storms the lecture theaters -- I work as a sessional lecturer in urban health and social medicine -- I often wonder why I don't see more of my colleagues do this. However, I am afraid the answer is actually fairly easy: the profiles required to be an effective aid worker and an effective academic are just a bit too far removed. The result is that I am more than a bit of a strange bird in both worlds.
Isn't the idea that an effective aid worker and an effective academic (in Development) are too different kind of the problem?
Quite possibly, but sadly it is an idea that is soundly based on reality. I have a very strange background for both worlds.
Good post. This distincton came up quite nicely at this year's DRI conference organized by Bill Easterly - I blogged about it here: http://kmonadollaraday.wordpress.com/2012/03/29/planners-evaluators...
Basically aid workers and aid researchers often have very different skill sets and attitudes. In fact there might even be three different mindsets at work - those who like to plan stuff (and write project documents, fundraise etc.), those who like to research and evaluate stuff, and those who like to just get on and do stuff on the ground. All are important and it would be good if they could work better together but I think there is often a gulf of understanding both due to different skills and training and the fact that they also attract different personality types.
For me one of the frustrations of development related academia and studies is how little it prepares you for the day to day work of an aid worker - while it is helpful to know which programme interventions are more likely to work, but it's generally much less helpful in preparing people to deal with the day to day challenges of aid work (such as project management, personnel management, political acumen, dealing with cultural differences, understanding what beneficiaries want).
Ian, nice summary of the conversation at DRI. I agree with what was said about the different skills and attitudes. Many aid workers would make poor researchers and many researchers would make poor aid workers and there is nothing wrong with that. All are necessary and have different purposes. Question that needs to be thought about in my opinion is how to get those different groups to work together more effectively for the benefit of the communities/beneficiaries. Many fields do this a lot better than aid/development and don't allow the typical misunderstandings between practitioner and researcher to cause the sort of gulf we see in this field.
If the only reason to do the advanced degree is to be able to conduct research, then the answer is a very clear 'no'. You don't need the one for the other and there are quite a number of people out there conducting research without having or pursuing a PhD. Learning to do research is not limited of doctoral programmes.
Learning how to do field research/work is one aspect of many PhD programs. But many if not most programs are trying to prepare you to create knowledge, think critically, advance the discipline, and teach others. Many of the top research universities are trying to gear you to be a professor b/c it helps their reputation as well, but faculty positions aren't the only career path that PhDs take. In my program, we had people end up in: faculty positions, at the UN, at think tanks, in consulting, head their own NPO, etc. etc. So it depends a lot on the program. I would talk to alums from the program that you are interested in and see where they ended up. That's usually a good indicator.