Can We Know Better?
Reflections for development
Robert Chambers surveys the past world of international development, and his own past views, with an honest and critical eye, and then launches into the world of complexity with a buoyant enthusiasm. He draws on almost six decades of experience in varied roles in Africa, South Asia and elsewhere as practitioner, trainer, manager, teacher, evaluator and field researcher, also working in UNHCR and the Ford Foundation. He is a Research Associate and Emeritus Professor at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, his base for many years.
Can We Know Better? is essential reading for researchers and students of development, for policy makers and evaluators, and for all those working towards the better world of the Sustainable Development Goals.
1. Error and myth
2. Biases and blind spots
3. Lenses and lock-ins
4. Rigour for complexity
5. Power, participation, and knowledge: knowing better together
6. Knowing for a better future
Glossary of Meanings
‘T.S. Eliot famously asked, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” The answer: it is here, in this book, in the accumulated knowledge of Robert Chambers’ six decades of experience and thinking about development, and in the great wisdom he brings to bear on the fantasies and foibles of practitioners, academics and funders. All of them should take time to read this important book and to think hard about what it means when they go back to their work.’
Ian Smillie, author of The Alms Bazaar, Mastering the Machine and Diamonds, President of the Canadian Association for the Study of International Development, 2015-17
‘This book is a salvo against development smugness, much needed at a time when the Sustainable Development Goals are beginning to gain traction. Taking head-on the central question of how we know, and how that shapes what we do through development policy, Chambers employs his clear eye and gently acerbic tongue to show why development professionals need to be more humble, more self-reflexive, and more passionate about our mission.’
Gita Sen, Distinguished Professor & Director, Ramalingaswami Centre on Equity & Social Determinants of Health, Public Health Foundation of India
‘Always prescient and always wise, Robert Chambers has given development scholars and practitioners yet another gift with this provocative call for “a revolution in development knowing, thinking, and practice.” But what a commentary on development in practice that the supposed beneficiaries of development continue to be marginalized and dispossessed. Weep for them and their needless suffering – but read Chambers’s new book and get into action!’
Dr. Robin Broad (Professor after 1st), International Development Program, American University
'Robert Chambers is a global public good, a true development guru that all should follow. In his latest work, he explores our claims to be able to distinguish between what is true and false - what do we 'know' and why do we so often get it wrong? Drawing on almost 60 years of relentlessly questioning orthodoxies and standing up for those excluded from power and decisions, Robert Chambers asks us to fundamentally question the nature of such 'knowledge', its biases and blind spots. Then with his customary energy and optimism, he shows how we can 'know better' and thus 'do better'. An indispensable book.'
Dr. Duncan Green, Strategic Adviser, Oxfam and author of How Change Happens
‘Robert Chambers once again demonstrates that assessing both the intractable and the emerging development challenges of today is fundamentally about values — from the personal to the socio-economic and political — and the courage to affirm them. ‘
Ricardo Wilson-Grau, Independent international evaluator with Ricardo Wilson-Grau Consultoria, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
‘In Can we know better? Robert Chambers provides a stark exposition of the errors of power, and their depressing frequency in development practice. Exposing the tendency of all of us to seek comfort in the myths and misperceptions of our professions with wit, compelling stories and evidence, he lays out the challenge to shift development thinking to a truly universal framing. At the heart is a personal challenge to recognise when we are misled by interests, biases and tricks of memory into ignoring or misrepresenting the realities of change. He shows how, without a commitment to reflecting on ourselves, we run the real risk of getting both the big and small things completely wrong.’
Andrew Norton, Director of the International Institute for Environment and Development
‘Robert Chambers’ Can We Know Better? is a powerful and timely call for those working in development to stand back and reflect critically on how we know and how we might know better. In this book, Chambers exhaustively categorises manifestations of personal, political and methodological error, bias and privileging. Drawing from a wealth of case study material he illustrates the dramatic and even catastrophic developmental impact of error. He challenges us to know better by recognising and resisting – through critical reflection tied to ‘inclusive rigour’ and a ‘revolutionary professionalism’ – all forms of bias and ignorance. For all those development professionals and practitioners – we who are ‘not last’ but who claim to act for those who are last – this is a profoundly important book.’
Jeremy Holland, Associate, Social Development, Oxford Policy Management
Professor Robert Chambers is a research associate of the Institute of Development Studies, Sussex, UK, which has been his base since 1969 with periods in other countries. His educational background is in natural sciences, history and public administration. His main administrative and research experience in development has been in East Africa and South Asia. He is widely recognized as one of the main driving forces behind the great surge of interest in the use of Participatory Rural Appraisal around the world. He has been a Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies since 1972 and is an author, co editor and contributor of many books.