Farming may be cool, but who will farm in Rwanda?

SungKyu KimSungKyu_Kim200

Last January I attended the 4th annual research conference of the Institute of Policy Analysis and Research (IPAR) in Kigali, Rwanda. The terms ‘economic transformation’ and ‘inclusive economic growth’ figured prominently in the presentations and discussions. At one level this is not surprising given that they appear in almost every development policy document and poverty reduction strategy papers since the country’s Vision 2020 (a statement of the government’s development goals and aspirations) was first introduced in 2000.

According to the dominant narrative, the ‘new vision’ of Rwanda – i.e. becoming a mid-level income country with vibrant, diversified, and innovative economic sectors – necessitates first a transformation of the agriculture sector in which a majority of rural poor are employed.

The speakers did an excellent job in presenting the past trends of agriculture sector development and offered some insights to future trends. However, they seemed to avoid the important gap between the current and the envisioned (transformed) agricultural sector, and said little about how this gap could be bridged. I develop this argument by looking at two particular sectors: agriculture and education.


Over 80% of Rwandan households are engaged in agriculture production to some degree, and for 56% of them agriculture is

Rural children in Rwanda. Credit: SK Kim (2010)

Rural children in Rwanda. Credit: SK Kim (2010)

their sole economic activity. What will agriculture transformation and inclusive economic growth mean for them? From the perspective of policy makers, it primarily means increased productivity through science, innovation and technology (i.e. modernisation) and commercialisation. Ideally, professionalised, tech- and market-savvy farmers will lead the current subsistence farming sector into a promised land of efficiency and profitability. In order for this to happen, policy makers believe farmers will need to be linked, engaged, skillful, well connected and informed about resources, markets and support services.

If this is the goal, let’s look at the baseline profile of an average Rwandan farmer today. According to the National Agriculture Survey (pdf), which was the last comprehensive agriculture survey conducted, the agricultural population represented 84% of the total population (among which 52% were women). Forty-five percent of the rural head of households (of which 73% were male and 27% were female head of household) were illiterate. Thus, the current agriculture population would appear to be a long way from the ideal, and will require a substantial amount of effort and resources (and time) to learn, acquire and most importantly, adopt the modern agricultural methods, knowledge, skills and practices. More likely it will take a generation of (new) farmers to achieve these goals. But is that new generation of farmers already in the making?

Education: jobs and youth aspirations

One of the presentations at the conference highlighted the school-to-work transitions of young people in Rwanda. The study revealed a number of important facts and trends in relation to youth aspirations and job expectations. For instance, the two most popular fields of studies among Rwandan youth are commerce/business (27%) and engineering (24%). Agriculture (4%) was the least popular. Shouldn’t this be a concern to policy makers and planners who envision a transformation of the agriculture sector? If young people in Rwanda are not interested in agriculture, how will the planned transformation come about? Will large commercial farms replace family farms? Perhaps this is one way to transform subsistence agriculture, but would this approach also be pro-poor?

Bridging the gap: young people, agribusiness and farming?

The Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources announced in February a new private-public initiative called “Farming is Cool Rwanda.” As the name suggests, it aims to change young people’s attitudes toward agriculture by promoting modern technology and gearing financing services towards young people. True, agriculture in Rwanda may be in need of new branding, but promoting agribusiness as the key to agricultural transformation seems to address the issue only partially. Farming may be cool, but who will (actually) farm in Rwanda?

Moreover, the government’s current approach to economic growth and transformation (through agriculture and young people) will likely miss the point if market- and technology-driven solutions alone are expected to make agriculture sector ‘sustainable.’ Agriculture is much more than optimising productivity and maximising profit. It is deeply social, cultural, historical and personal for many smallholder farmers in Rwanda, for whom farming is their main livelihood, means of survival and a way-of-life. I argue that while the market- and technology-based approach is indeed important and has a role to play, it should not be the sole (or simply assumed to be the best) policy solution.

In the current debates on sustainable agriculture in Rwanda too much emphasis is being put on economic growth and environmental productivity (e.g. land carrying capacity) and too little on social dimension of agriculture. Whist listening to different presenters’ views on ‘economic transformation’ and ‘inclusive economic growth’ I was left wondering how different the transformation process might be if it truly embraced the three dimensions of sustainability (economic, environmental and social).

SungKyu Kim is a PhD candidate within the Rural Futures Cluster at IDS.

How a week in Western Cape helped change my life, and other related stories

Syed Abbasabbas

Two weeks afterwards, I am still excited about the week I spent in Cape Town in the beginning of this month at a workshop of health social science researchers. But before I talk about the workshop and why it had such an influence over me, I guess I should tell you where I am coming from.


I started my PhD at IDS in January last year after working for more than six years as a researcher at the Public Health Foundation of India. While I had been doing policy research around health policy for several years, this was the first time in a social science environment.


Chapel window at Goedgadacht, the venue for the workshop

It took a while getting used to newer ways of reading and writing. I got exposed to words I had never considered before: Reflexivity; Participatory; Narratives; Ideational; Governmentality; Deconstruct; Problematize; Critical approaches; Realist approaches, and so on…

Instead of the tightly structured journal articles and technical reports I had been used to reading for my research, I had to now familiarise myself with navigating shelfloads of books as primary references for my literature review.

However, gradually, despite the newness of IDS, I have started thinking of it as an intellectual home for me. Here, I have the opportunity to engage in research topics that have real-life implications. At the same time, I have the freedom to take critical or alternative stances to these issues.

Experiences at Western Cape

However, coming back to the workshop, this was a week-long gathering of researchers co-organized by Chris Colvin at the Division of Social & Behavioural Sciences at the University of Cape Town and Hayley MacGregor from IDS and supported by the British Council and the South African Social Science and HIV (SASH) Programme. It was organized between 9-13 March at the rural retreat of Goedgedacht in Western Cape.

The workshop aimed to bring together a gathering of young researchers using social sciences approaches in the topical area of health from UK and African institutions and discuss the importance of taking a critical stance to our work.

I met researchers from different continents and topical areas. I shared a room with a historian from Tanzania researching STDs and held interesting conversations with a budding social science theorist working on clinical trials! I met humanities scholars working in schools of public health and several doctors transitioning into medical anthropology.

I managed to meet doctors engaging in political mobilization in the UK. I also met anthropologists working on health issues who were willing to discuss my research interests without presupposing a comprehensive understanding of literature and with whom I could have a comfortable discussion around my understanding of the literature without feeling vulnerable.

Maybe because this seemed like a safe place and because any of us had followed similarly meandering career pathways, I had a chance to hold engaging discussions with many participants. I felt that I could relate with many of these experiences of ‘researching at the interface’ even if I hadn’t experienced them myself.

I could understand when someone recounted her experiences of working as a social scientists in a public health settings where many discussions seldom went beyond the justification and relevance of her work. I could also understand what it could feel like for a doctor to feel singled out in an anthropological discussion about health and illness.

Besides the discussions on the sidelines, we also had interactions with established researchers on writing, publishing, building a career in research, combining research with activism. Some of the other speakers included Judith Green, Christina Zarowsky and Steven Robbins.

Life changing?

So how was this a life changing experience for me? IDS as well as the University of Sussex have provided a comfortable and an intellectually stimulating a space for me to explore developing newer ideas about my research interests.

However, I guess you need a critical mass of people to drive certain conversations. The opportunity to interact with so many people working on health research from social sciences perspective proved to be a really useful experience for me in many ways.

It helped me realise, that I am not alone in my experiences. There are others who are facing similar dilemmas as me and many others from similar background who have successfully went on to develop their careers. Also, importantly, there is a value of my individual experiences and perspectives and not to discount their importance.

While these might seem intuitive at one plane, it doesn’t hurt for to get a little reinforcement now and then!

Syed Abbas is a PhD candidate at IDS, working within the Health and Nutrition research cluster at IDS.

Whose Code counts? The Future Implications of Technological Abundance

Hani Morsi

Futurist Roy Amara once observed that “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate t370070a7323903499461b911e9b98647he effect in the long run”. This quotation, which came to be known as “Amara’s Law”, seems to hold true as one ponders the implications of the increasing technological profusion of our world, where connectivity and accessibility continuously proliferate. The Internet was (and still is) heralded as the great flattener, and yet systemic inequality still seems to be the defining characteristic of our world. To understand why Amara’s Law can be a useful future heuristic for thinking about the relationship between technological change and international development, consider the following two examples:

Example 1: Access to academic knowledge

The Internet provides the perfect knowledge sharing and distribution platform, yet the true potential for a revolution in academic openaccessknowledge production and sharing (despite the growing popularity of the Open Access movement) continues to be hamstrung by the regulatory hegemony of aging knowledge distribution business models conceived – and were valuable and important – in a world that pre-dates the Internet. Herein lies the rift between what could be and what is, as evident in the first half of Amara’s observation. We have the technological tools, platforms and infrastructure necessary to revolutionise how knowledge is created, shared and accessed, yet our business models and intellectual property legislation are lagging. Technology’s fullest potential is not being realised. The promise of an egalitarian ethos of knowledge starkly contrasts with the current reality.  Stanford scholar Lawrence Lessig’s observations on the legislative properties of code (software), especially with respect to copyright law, ring true.

Example 2: 3D Printing


Low cost prosthetics made possible by 3D printing. Image credits:

There is a quiet revolution happening in how we design and create things, and it is called 3D printing, which is the process of creating a physical model from a digital file. The technology itself is not very new, but the cost of making and buying 3D printers has massively gone down in recent years. The implications of this for democratising innovation are enormous. There is already talk of 3D printed housing for rapid-response to disaster stricken areas, and the technology is already helping people in developing countries create innovative solutions to meet their local needs at very low costs. For Sci-Fi fans, we are one step closer to Star Trek’s famous replicator. The barriers of prohibitive cost and access to tools for creativity and innovation are collapsing rapidly. In a way, we are indeed living in the future and we’re not even noticing. When it comes to 3D printing, the second half of Amara’s Law holds true.

Critically investigating the promise of Digital Abundance

The above two examples in relation to Amara’s Law bring us to the following question: How can we conceive of the social, economic and political implications of an exponentially accelerating pace of technological change in a hyper-connected world? Our laws and regulations as well as values and ethical considerations evolve much slower than technology, and thus gaps emerge between technology’s potential and the extent to which this potential is realised in ways that provide tangible and measurable benefits to people around the world, especially the most marginalised. We could pose this question differently: What are the parameters necessary for understanding our future of computational and technological abundance? As digital networking and ubiquitous computing permeate politics, economics and culture, new forms of power are normalised. The late programmer and hacktivist Aaron Swartz cogently noted that “On the Internet everybody is entitled to speak, the question is: Who gets Heard?” In a world where (immaterial) software has significant (material) consequences, which define who gets heard, who produces knowledge and under what assumptions, not only do we have to engage in critical examinations of the realities that shape processes of development, but we also need to ask: Whose Code Counts? Hani Morsi is a PhD candidate based within the Power and Popular Politics and Digital research clusters at IDS.

Using Open-Source Tools for Data Collection: Experience from Research in a Refugee Camp

As part of the research for my PhD thesis, I collected a household survey of 600 Palestinian refugee households from Nahr el Alia_Aghajanian200Bared camp in Lebanon in 2012. My thesis looks at the consequences of returning home, and my case study is Nahr el Bared camp, a Palestinian refugee camp that witnessed a destructive war in 2007. All residents of the camp were evacuated and displaced to a nearby camp as the Lebanese military fought with Fatah el Islam. The camp was almost completely destroyed and required a large reconstruction effort, leaving around 80% of households to still be displaced 5 years after the war, at the time of my field work.

I have written a previous blog about how this data was collected, but I thought it might be useful to share my experience of using Open Data Kit (a set of tools used for mobile data collection) on tablet PCs in the field.

Data entry

The main advantage of using tablet PCs was the fact that data was entered once only, as opposed to the case of using paper and pencil interviewing (PAPI), where responses are first recorded on paper and then entered in digital format into a computer. In the case of PAPI, entering the data twice increases the likelihood of data entry error, especially when written responses can be illegible or misinterpreted – even more so if the data is not entered by the same person who wrote the responses, as is usually the case. This also sped up the data collection process, skipping the data entry stage, which in the case of a 600 household survey was estimated to have taken up to two weeks.

Data Validation

Another benefit of data entered immediately onto the tablet was that we were only a simple step away from observing the data. At the end of a day of interviewing, the data was transferred from the tablet PCs to my laptop (through a USB cable) and then compiled into an excel sheet through ODK briefcase (this could have been done through a server if internet was available, but that would have been too expensive in Lebanon).

Once I had the excel file I could look for outliers among the variables. I also looked out for any logical inconsistencies, such as those concerning education levels and age, or employment status and age. At the end of each day I prepared a report of these inconsistencies and met with the teams early the next morning before setting out for the next day of data collection.

Skipping patterns

The questionnaire used for this household survey was quite complicated as the sequence and inclusion of questions depend on the response to a previous question. In this case the skip codes can be automatically included into the ODK form. Data collectors saved time as they did not have to carefully think about which question to answer next. In addition, mistakes where data collectors miss a question or answer the wrong question were avoided.

Battery life

The tablets that we used had a short battery life and need to be recharged after three to four hours of interviewing. While we alia_bloghad set up two offices in Nahr el Bared camp and Beddawi camp for data collectors to recharge their tablets, they found that if electricity was available, respondents allowed them to charge their tablets while conducting the interview. In some settings where electricity is not readily available (or respondents are not as hospitable and cooperative), battery life can be problematic, and investing in long lasting batteries or extra batteries might be necessary. As I was taking the tablets back with me each day, I ended up charging all the tablets overnight as well. Lots of electricity sockets are a must if this is how you do it!

Back up

Data collectors were also worried that there was no back up to their interview other than the digital files on the tablets. A slip of the hand might delete a questionnaire, or the loss or theft of a tablet might mean the completed questionnaire would be lost forever. To avoid losing data like this, we had to transfer data to my laptop as soon as possible, and then back it up on Dropbox or a hard drive. Luckily no questionnaires were lost this time, but it might be worth having an internet connection so that forms can be sent to the server as soon as the interview is over.


A justifiable concern prior to fieldwork was that respondents, or potential respondents, might be intimidated by the electronic devices. While several respondents initially asked if they were being recorded, data collectors did not feel that respondents were intimidated. Interestingly, respondents were quite curious to know more about the devices and how they would be used in the interview. This curiosity served as an icebreaker in many interviews, and in others a starting point to explain the research project.


Unfortunately, being on a tight budget as a PhD student meant that I could not afford very good quality tablets, and I relied on 2nd hand tablets that had been used for data collection by my PhD supervisors in Maharashtra, India. After shipping the tablets from Mumbai to Beirut and uploading my form, I realised that the tablets did not display Arabic font! After a couple of days of worrying about this, I decided that we could use Latin characters transliterated from Arabic. This was not too much of a problem as most of the enumerators were used to using these characters on their mobiles or computers for sending messages, emails or chatting. In fact, one enumerator said she found it much easier.

The use of this open source technology was a huge (if not necessary) bonus on many levels, specifically in relieving the data collectors of the responsibility of following complicated skip codes and in aiding data validation. It was also interesting that the tablet PCs served as an icebreaker in this context, and I would love to know if this has been a similar experience for others.


Alia Aghajanian is a PhD student based within the Conflict and Violence research cluster at IDS.

A version of this post was first published on the Open Data Kit blog on January 6th 2015.

The Practice of a New Paradigm: Development Cooperation among Fragile States

By Ricardo SantosRGS_photo

Time and time again, the debate on aid and cooperation receives the news of paradigms being changed, of new actors entering the field, threatening or heralding the breaking of the old rules and the instatement of new ones. “Traditional” donors, especially those that seek to place (or keep) themselves in the leadership of either financial donations (such as the World Bank, OECD-DAC,…) or development thought (here again the World Bank and OECD-DAC but also countries like the US and the UK) have recently devoted resources into academic research to better understand the role of the Rising Powers in Development.

In the shade, however, an indeed revolutionary way of cooperating for development is taking shape. Stemming from the OECD-DAC’s acknowledgement that development aid to “fragile states” was facing unsurmountable challenges and successive failures, given the specific nature of these countries and under the leadership of the fledgling country of Timor-Leste, Sierra Leone and Liberia, a new group was formed. The G7+ group of conflict afflicted countries started from their own acknowledgement of fragility. It started also with the affirmation that such specific status, never experienced by the almost totality of donor countries, made the G7+ countries the “experts” in their own development path. This was a powerful statement! It also made each G7+ country a solidary peer of the others and potentially, given its own capacities, history and learnings, an actor of development cooperation. This, even if eventually borrowing inspiration in the Non-Aligned Movement, is, indeed a different paradigm in development cooperation! In the last months, Guinea-Bissau experienced such cooperation from a fellow G7+ country, Timor-Leste.

G7+ cooperation in practice

In the 12th of April 2012, democratic legitimacy in Guinea-Bissau was disrupted by a military coup. Most of the international community that promptly reacted (including the UN, African Union, US, Brazil, Russia, China and Lusophone Community) did not recognize validity to the exposed arguments for the coup, nor to the “transitional government”. However, ECOWAS did recognize it, creating a diplomatic stand-off. Only in January 2013 and in what was probably the first coordinated act of the Lusophone Community (CPLP), ECOWAS and the “transition regime” were driven to accept former Timorese President and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate José Ramos Horta to lead the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in Guinea-Bissau. Arguably, the Timorese experience of transition into regular political functioning after a 2006 civil strife that almost victimized Ramos Horta himself, was one of the reasons for his nomination.

Just recently, in the weekend of May 18th 2014, two years after the coup, an intense, peaceful and with record participation period of parliamentary and presidential elections was completed, returning Guinea-Bissau to institutional normalcy, without significant political contestation of the results. Throughout the preparation, most of the public narrative mimicked that of Timor: the need for openness between parties; the right to peaceful campaigning, highlighting contending parties’ rallies that occurred simultaneously, at close distance… and in peace; the need for transparent electoral process but also to an acceptance of the results by all parties and the military. During the same period, a Timorese blog, linked with the Timorese Presidency reflected on the governance aspects of regimes led by military juntas, using Latin American countries as case studies. Timor-Leste was probably reflecting on a process it was trying to assist.

A true diplomacy of solidarity

The process is just in its beginning. Meanwhile, Timor-Leste will lead CPLP from mid-2014 and is already intensifying the diplomatic and cooperation ties with other Portuguese Speaking Nations in Africa and even Portugal, the former colonizer, to which they offered to buy some of its rampant national debt (in a humbling turn of events for the European country). This small country’s diplomacy of solidarity, an expression that Brazilian President Lula da Silva used so many times, is taking shape. It is not a proud display of “successes” to share, like Brazil is doing, be it Bolsa Familia, ProSavana or the new project World Without Poverty, “a joint initiative focused on learning from the implementation of and innovations in poverty reduction programs in Brazil and sharing lessons from Brazil’s experience with the rest of the world”. It is not a “mutual benefit” Chinese model that invests in economic infrastructure such is recovering and widening railway routes linking original sites of raw natural resources to main ports (a model as old as industrial era colonialism). It isn’t conditional, paternalistic, nor seeks to impose the “right process of development” as so many times the “traditional” “Northern” aid model still finds itself being. It stems from shared challenges, the recognition that only positive collaborative relations can strengthen countries “in development” and the willingness to assist when need occurs, as the Timorese Resistance was assisted, namely by the African Portuguese Speaking countries and later Portugal and Brazil in the fight for independence.

At that time, some of the poorer countries in Africa assisted a weak and silenced effort of resistance that ultimately won. That ethos of cooperation and solidarity widens now the bonds between Timor, other CPLP countries and the G7+ countries. Maybe, this is a paradigm worth to learn more about… and foster.

Ricardo Goulão Santos is a PhD candidate working on education and employability in a post-conflict setting within the IDS Conflict, Violence and Development of the Vulnerability and Poverty Reduction research team. He is also a visiting researcher at the National University of Timor Lorosa’e (UNTL).

Women’s ways of knowing?

By Alfredo Ortiz Aragón

A Ortiz side room blogIn my last post I shared how an organizational leader, “Ana”, called out my co-researcher Juan Carlos and me for not following through on problematic machista (male chauvinistic) behaviors that she periodically brought up in the action research (AR) process I was leading. In that post I simply reflected on the enormous, often unspoken power that facilitators and researchers have to include or exclude. In this post I wish to share some interesting implications this has regarding how extended epistemologies (i.e. multiple ways of knowing) actually generate the diversity needed to shift patterns of communicative interaction (see this post for another example).

Hearing the voice of diverse perspectives

Whether or not the facilitators or other participants attracted around the machista theme, machismo is clearly a recurring problem theme in this organization’s programmatic work and in Peruvian society more generally (and everywhere else!).  In retrospect it is clear that the AR process Juan Carlos and I co-facilitated did not in fact address machismo as an organizational problematic theme.  In other words, our methodology did not help give voice to an important perspective.  The term “give voice” is not arbitrary.  In their study on women’s ways of knowing, Belenky et al (1986, 1997) identified different characteristics of ways of knowing that were common to the women in their study (common, but not exclusive to women[1]). An important early distinction they made was that “voice” was more than shorthand for women’s perspective.  Instead, “voice” was connected to women’s understanding of their own intellectual and ethical development: ‘[T]he development of a sense of voice, mind and self were intricately intertwined’ (ibid).  Many of the things the women in that study spoke about to describe their lives centered on voice and silence, for example: ‘ “speaking up”, “speaking out”, “being silenced”, “not being heard”, “really listening”, “really talking”, “words as weapons”, “feeling deaf and dumb”, “having no words”, … “listening to be heard”, and so on’ (ibid).  This raises the question of how well the methods Juan Carlos and I chose took into account female voices at all (i.e. even beyond Ana’s contention).  In other words, did the two males who were in charge of most methodological decisions (with enormous power to enable, constrain, include or exclude with our decisions) give any thought to women’s preferred learning styles, or did we assume that pedagogical techniques appropriate for men are appropriate for women (Belenky et al., 1986, 1997: 5)?

Creative and reflective methods are not enough

Although Juan Carlos and I never intentionally approached an exercise from an explicitly feminine perspective, it is possible that some of the “creative” and reflective techniques we did use may have been compatible with some women’s ways of knowing, just as it is possible that some methods did not speak to or give voice to some men, or other identity groups in the action research. José, for example, told us in in a workshop that he was feeling a “drawing overload” of sorts.  A debate in another workshop generated strong feelings of exclusion with some participants.  The problem is that we as designers and facilitators assumed that creative techniques generally respond to people’s needs and learning styles and help grapple with complexity.

I can now see that this is not necessarily the case.  We did not think enough about what sorts of methods might generate specific diversity that was important for understanding complex realities, and for giving voice to diverse participants.  Yet there is much to be learned about what different ways of knowing really means to different people with different views of reality.  Some common elements of women’s ways of knowing might be helpful for engaging in “fluid conversation”—a communicative state  akin to “edge of chaos” in which patterns of organizational interaction may be predisposed to shift into a new attractor (Stacey, 2007).  For example, an emphasis on connection over separation, understanding and acceptance over assessment, and collaboration over debate (Belenky et al., 1986, 1997: 229) are useful attributes to consider regardless of gender, but they didn’t naturally emerge from mine and Juan Carlos’ methodological selection!

Open questions for action researchers

How do action researchers (including capacity building facilitators) deal with new ideas and both see and hear perspectives that need voice—including deviant or eccentric behaviors, or unofficial ideologies, that may be helpful in undermining problematic power relations (Stacey, 2007: 446). How might action research not only utilize extended epistemologies, but actually introduce methods that speak from neglected perspectives (or ask those that bring the issue forward to do so)?  Whose experiences and complexity does a given action research method favor and whose does it exclude? With whose ways of knowing does it resonate?  To what extent does it help surface the diversity that is needed to challenge dominant patterns of relating; to what extent does it reinforce those patterns? These questions have both practical and ethical consequences, and require ongoing critical reflection.


Alfredo Ortiz Aragón is an IDS PhD graduate. His research investigated how can systemic methodology help strengthen organizational capacities for grappling with social change in complex environments. In other words, if social change is complex and contested, and not straightforward and controllable, what should be different about organizational capacity building?  How should capacity building be different in complex environments? 



BELENKY, M. F., CLINCHY, B. M., GOLDBERGER, N. R. & TARULE, J. M. 1986, 1997. Women’s Ways Of Knowing: The Development Of Self, Voice, And Mind New York, Basic Books.

STACEY, R. D. 2007. Strategic Management and Organizational Dynamics: The Challenge of Complexity, Harlow, Pearson Educational Limited.


[1] It is important to not generalize half the world’s population to specific “types” of ways of knowing.  All people have different levels of both masculine and feminine ways of knowing, although many of these are culturally rooted-out early in life.  I simply wish to point out that some ways of knowing are different between diverse participants, and gender—in all of its combinations—is a source of this diversity that is often neglected by capacity building  facilitators and action-researchers.

The power to exclude and include through action research

By Alfredo Ortiz AragónA Ortiz side room blog

In a previous blog post (see “Do participatory CB methods really engage people’s diversity?”) I reflected on how people’s participation is enabled and constrained, included and excluded by all intervention method, including capacity building methods. When these methods neglect to take into account the diverse ways people express themselves and learn, participation may become unduly constrained, depriving people of their legitimate voice and depriving groupings of people of the diversity that is needed to generate learning and change in complex environments. This post builds on that previous post, but speaks more directly to how all methodological decisions enable some participant ideas and constrain others, and thereby generate dynamics of inclusion and exclusion which affect learning and change.

I offer an example from an end of year workshop I co-facilitated with my co-action-researcher, Juan Carlos Giles, intended to clarify the focus for 2011 organizational activities of an activist organization we were working with in Peru. On day three of the workshop, Juan-Carlos and I introduced the issue of problematic power relationships that had been present when our action-research began 18 months earlier.  The reason for introducing this theme was because we knew it to still be problematic, yet participants had not yet chosen to address it in any meaningful way in the first two days.   After a rich session of analysis and reflection, the newly named organizational leader, “Ana”, openly reflected howoutside of consultative sessions with Juan-Carlos and me—most methodological decisions until this workshop had been left up to “the facilitators”. She added that this has implications for the types of issues which were addressed in the action research (AR) process. For example, although she frequently brought up her perceptions of problematic machista (male chauvinistic) behaviors in her organization, Juan-Carlos and I—either by design or omission—rarely followed through on those issues. She felt we were quick, however, to follow through on issues of problematic power relations related to organizational leaders.  Later in the reflection, other organizational participants agreed that they too had played too passive a role in shaping the action-research methodology.

Ana’s observation is consistent with critiques from feminist systems theory (FST) that women’s perceptions may be taken as either unimportant or parallel to those of men, and thereby go unaddressed (Stephens, 2012). Relative methodological autonomy in this process gave me and Juan-Carlos enormous power in dealing with themes of our choosing. Even though we consulted and co-designed the overall emerging process with this organization, methodologically, we were given huge license to read situations and propose methods as we saw fit. We were undoubtedly influenced by our worldviews and preferences. For example, while I personally do care about how machista culture constrains opportunities for women, I do not see it as my primary battle and I do not become passionate about it.  But without concepts of feminist pedagogy in our approaches we fail to really “see” issues with gender and patriarchy—forms of power that ‘build… a vivid, internalized construct about how we learn and how our learning contributes to social change’ (Pettit, 2012: 24).   Juan-Carlos and I later discussed this issue and fully accepted Ana’s reasoning that we had consciously or unconsciously neglected to follow through on those issues as she raised them.

We were not alone in this. When Ana would raise these issues, other organizational members did not enable this line of argument either.  Conversation did not ensue on this theme because that which participants did not feel to be a personal battle (or whatever their reasons for omission) did not resonate enough to shift patterns of communication.  In complexity terms, the diversity introduced by Ana could not overcome the lack of excitement on this issue by other participants—i.e. no attractor emerged.

Our (Juan Carlos and me) selection of methods was inevitably shaped by our understanding of emerging priorities.  But our methodological actions promoted and restricted participation, diverse meanings and fluid communication that may have been needed to shift patterns of interaction in this organization.  By being unreflective about our methodological power to include or exclude we may uphold and “make local” (i.e. reproduce) unjust societal power relations that deprive people of meaning, or even their very livelihoods.

So what is the facilitator’s role?  If machismo is a real problem, and I believe it is, then might the facilitators have a particular responsibility to pay closer attention and draw it out—“give it a full hearing” as it were?  In retrospect, I think the answer is yes.  But how likely are we, two males, to do so?  That is the focus of my next post.

[Note: participants have given permission to share their stories from the action research discussed above.  Participant names are fictitious but refer to actual participants].

Alfredo Ortiz Aragón is an IDS PhD graduate. His research investigated how can systemic methodology help strengthen organizational capacities for grappling with social change in complex environments. In other words, if social change is complex and contested, and not straightforward and controllable, what should be different about organizational capacity building?  How should capacity building be different in complex environments? 



PETTIT, J. 2012. Getting to Grips with Power: Action Learning for Social Change in the UK. IDS Bulletin, 43, 11-26.

STEPHENS, A. 2012. Feminist Systems Theory: Learning by Praxis. Systemic Practice and Action Research, 25, 1-14.