Last year I wrote a paper called Paradigms, Poverty and Adaptive Pluralism. In it I explored how technological advances and complexity sciences were together helping to reframe a longstanding divide between two opposing paradigms in international development.

Because of the relevance of this to current debates on complexity and aid, I welcome this opportunity to share these ideas here. I warmly invite feedback from the across the aid blogosphere, which (as I explain in my next post) I see as a new and vitally important feature of the international development ‘system’.

Exploring Paradigms

‘Paradigms’ is one of the most over and mis-used terms in the social or physical sciences. This is arguably because it is so potentially useful. For Thomas Kuhn, who did so much to bring the term to popular attention, a paradigm was a strong network of commitments – conceptual, theoretical, instrumental and methodological. Of course, he was writing about the physical sciences. In comparison, I define a paradigm as a coherent and mutually supporting pattern of:

– concepts and ontological assumptions;
– values and principles;
– methods, procedures and processes;
– roles and behaviours;
– relationships; and
– mindsets, orientations and predispositions.

I find the above useful because it explicitly includes social, values-based and personal dimensions of paradigms – all things which matter a great deal to social scientists.

In my 1997 book Whose Reality Counts I presented two alternative paradigms – as I then understood them – which contrasted things with people, as shown in the table below.

The ‘things–people’ distinction is useful for identifying and understanding relationships between many phenomena and for diagnosing problems. It points up the contrasts between disciplinary and professional orientations: the things paradigm is more associated with engineering and economics, the people paradigm more with anthropology and sociology. And the contrasts in the two  columns indicate differences which are evident in much practice. At the same time, there are many cross-overs and cross-applications.

One key difference is that the things paradigm works in contexts (including human contexts) in which inputs and receiving environments are relatively uniform and controlled, and there is clear causality leading to desired outcomes.

Because of this narrow applicability, many of the errors and failures of development policy and practice have stemmed from the dominance of the things paradigm. This dominance goes back at least to the Marshall Plan, to the creation of the International  Bank for Reconstruction and Development, to development projects in the 1950s  and 1960s devoted to infrastructure such as harbours, railways, roads,  communications, dams and irrigation projects, and to the idea that Third World  countries had to catch up with capital investment in ‘infant industries’. These  all gave primacy to things over people.

Engineers and economists were in charge. It was they who set norms and procedures. For the infrastructure projects of the time, these largely made sense. But the things paradigm was then embedded in the values, culture, hierarchies and staffing of the World Bank and of bilateral and other organisations.

Non-economist social scientists were few, of low status, and regarded at best as useful to call in to deal with any ‘people problem’ in implementation once the planning had been done. So top-down, standardised approaches and methods came to be imposed on diverse, uncontrollable and unpredictable people and conditions, often with bad results.

There followed a long and continuing struggle for a better balance that put people first, with their participation from the start and throughout in projects and programmes. There were calls for a new professionalism to shift the balance, effectively from things more towards people. There was progress. For many reasons the balance did indeed shift.

Some attempts to introduce top down routinized procedures were abandoned. Participation and empowerment became part of the rhetoric even if less often of the reality of development. Local people were much less regarded as a residual. People living in poverty, women, children, those who were vulnerable, marginalised and socially subordinate, were given more priority. Though there remained far to go, their knowledge, aspirations, capabilities and priorities were better recognised and brought more into development processes. Especially in the 1990s, the centre of gravity of the balance between things and people began to shift towards people.

But the 2000s brought reversals. ‘Things’-related procedures were increasingly imposed on processes and people. In much development practice, problems were aggravated by the way linear logic, assumptions of predictability, objectively verifiable indicators, impact assessments, logframes and results-based management were more and more required by donors and lenders. More and more the assumption took hold that ‘we know what to do’ and all development required was more money. Good practice and performance, so often dependent on intangible personal and inter-personal unmeasurables like commitment, honesty, energy and trust, were undermined and sapped by the spreading culture in much development of targets, indicators and measurement, and the implicit and even explicit orientation of ‘If it can’t be measured, it won’t happen’.

‘Rigorous’ impact assessment was increasingly demanded. The so-called gold standard for this became randomised control trials (RCTs). These can make sense for medical research where there are many highly standardised units (people and their bodies) and inputs (immunisations, medicines, treatments) but misfit the realities of the complexity of social and much other change, with their uncontrolled conditions, multiple treatments, multiple and indeterminate causation, and unpredictable emergence .

In such contexts, RCTs are liable to postpone and limit learning, and to be costly, slow and inconclusive. Another contested manifestation of this control orientation has been the logframe. Thought by many in the late 1990s to fit realities and programme and project needs so badly and to have so many defects that it would die a natural death, the logframe has to the contrary flourished and spread to become a methodological monoculture in donor requirements.

So in the name of rigour and accountability what fits and works better in the controllable, predictable, standardised and measurable conditions of the things and procedures paradigm has been increasingly applied to the uncontrollable, unpredictable, diverse and less measurable paradigm of people and processes.

The misfit is little perceived by those furthest from field realities and with most power. But then all power deceives. Aid recipients do not tell donors what they experience. They think about future funding. Because funds and power are involved, these tightening and constraining shifts pass largely unremarked and unchallenged.

And what can be called ‘things procedures’ like the logframe are convenient for understaffed donors: they transfer transaction costs and any blame to those whom they fund. Recipients of aid funds are like frogs in the proverbial slowly heating pot and they adapt; but more than the frogs, they increasingly feel the pain. They do less and do it less well. They would like to jump out but fear for their survival if they did.

In my next post, subtitled Expanding Paradigms, I examine the limitations of this simple binary opposition of things and people. Shifts in technology and advances in the complexity sciences are starting to transform these paradigms, helping bring nuance to and even transcend these longstanding divides.

In the meantime, I do welcome readers to share your thoughts and ideas on the above.

Robert Chambers 10/02/2011 Institute of Development Studies, Sussex


Join the conversation! 12 Comments

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Linda Raftree, Peter Dörrie, Aid on the Edge, How Matters, Pablo Rodriguez B. and others. Pablo Rodriguez B. said: RT @aidontheedge: "Whose Paradigm Counts?" Guest Post 1 of 2 by Robert Chambers #smartaid #globaldev #complexity […]

  2. I fully agree with the problem with the ‘things’ paradigm and share Robert’s loathing for logframes. But this does not convincingly explain to me why quantitative evaluation as represented by an RCT is inferior to an alternative research methodology. Yes, sole reliance on RCTs is not desirable – but the same holds for its possible alternatives. In fact, RCTs can be used to study the efficacy of qualitative participatory methodologies – as was the case in the Bandhan TUP study – and may actually validate the fact that a participatory selection mechanism is more equitable than a top-down follow-the-government-list eligibility criterion.

    Next, Robert has always told us that we should “ask them”. A well-designed and well-implemented questionnaire will do exactly that. In large scale field surveys, all we do is to “ask them”. We don’t record our opinions or impressions and in fact, field surveyors are usually explicitly instructed to dumb down and record exactly what respondents say. Survey data does attempt to boil down people’s responses to numbers – but that doesn’t mean anyone should ignore what goes into a number. As I see it, RCTs are not the ultimate truth – but they also need not limit learning. Quite the opposite, an RCT, as a tool in the toolkit of evaluation methodologies help to push the limits of our knowledge and insights – and that cannot be a bad thing.

  3. Robert has captured the shift from ‘things-people-things’ very well at the donors end. As he rightly mentioned, this was partly due to under-staffing at donors end but also due to erosion of knowledge of field realities in the donor establishments coupled with lack of the accountability on the donors staff. Unfortunately, the syndrome of ‘i will cover my ass’ procedurally is dominating and the same is being rewarded by the top-down bureaucray within the donor system. There are very good examples of people centred paradigm programs being highly succesful and due to individual leadership and within the donor system and the trust built with the partners….making them feel that they are not frogs. I hope the reciepients will be conciously allowed more bargaining power so that aid will live its real reality.

  4. Very interesting article about this paradigm shift. Engaging people in developing countries and in donor countries should be the objective of every project. As a small association of Burundian women in the Netherlands we want to learn from the longtime development experts and previous projects, be transparent about our activities, add our knowledge of Burundian society and at the same time build an engaged network of donors and friends in the west. Diaspora organisations still are relatively invisible in the debate on aid. We hope to participate both in the debate both through a practical and a theoretical approach.

  5. Dear Suvojit,

    I agree with you wholeheartedly about RCTs as one of a set of possible tools – the only gold standard is a multi-methods approach etc.

    But this is not by and large how RCTs are being presented by their champions.

    To take just one example, Ellen Duflo, perhaps the leading proponent of RCTs in development, has suggested that development aid practitioners that don’t use RCTs are equivalent to medieval leech doctors.

    In the face of such overblown rhetoric, perhaps a robust statement of the failures of RCTs – when they work and when they don’t – is no bad thing.


  6. I really like the “things”/”people” paradigms. We were recently discussing the development of neighbourhood planning (even described usings “things” language!) in terms of the description of marketing as “push” (promote what we make/supply to sell) and “pull” (determine what people want then make/supply it to sell to them).

    The paradigm model is a really useful framework to consider this within – in effect we need to consider how we gravitate towards the “people” model (I think we probably need elements of both, but heavily weighted towards the “people” end). Ability to navigate the “things” end is required to generate support and develop a narrative that can be understood by stakeholders/sponsors, navigation of the “people” paradigm is how positive change will actually be delivered.

    This also links well into the previous post on positive deviance, particularly how this cannot be “rolled out” but needs to be developed within each community.

  7. […] Comments « Whose Paradigm Counts? Guest Post 1 of 2 By Robert Chambers […]

  8. […] Whose Paradigm Counts? Guest Post 1 of 2 By Robert Chambers « Aid … […]

  9. It is always very refreshing to read anything written by Robert Chambers, and this little gem has been no exception.

    I agree that limitations imposed by the strict logframe mentality leads to the frogs being forced to demonstrate ever increasing impact because of them; ever increasing due to the need to prove (and often invent) impossible results from current projects that will always hit unexpected circumstances, leading to increased expectations from subsequent ones.

    However, any development tool is only as good as its user. A great example can be drawn from the Chambers/DFID Sustainable Livelihoods framework. This is a tool that I have relied on extensively during my career and have found it enormously useful. At the same time I have watched it so hotly debated in academic circles that we could have been discussing Bush’s foreign policies, rather than a methodology to help capture some of the complexities and dynamics of community development. Both with this and the logframe what needs to be remembered is that they have not been chiselled from stone; they provide a solid foundation but are still flexible and open to interpretation, so can be adapted to suit the needs and context of the reality on the ground.

    Working for a large donor agency, my view of logframes is that they are useful summary documents and nothing more. How strictly I expect recipients to adhere to the OVIs set out in a logframe is as open to my interpretation of expected/adequate impact under a given set of circumstances, as it is with any other document that represents the aim/objective of a project.

    I have long given up on the quest to find the one universal tool kit that will united us all under a perfect methodology… as they will only ever be as good as the users that rely on them. What is sorely missing in the development machine is a solid grounding in ethics, empathy, integrity and humility.

    Attitude over equipment will always give rise to the greatest change and as such I have relied, very gratefully, on the writing of Robert to stimulate my ideas and plant my feet firmly back on the ground.

    With this in mind, perhaps it is time to turn the spotlight away from recipients and their implementation and focus firmly on the donor community, with recipients armed with some well devised (and flexible) tools that better capture the essence of the donor culture and highlight our inadequacies in addressing their realities. We have too much power in with our elitist jargon and hands on the purse strings and need to be opened up to greater scrutiny from those we are supposed to be serving.

  10. Bravo to Bryn who reminds us that tools are operated by people. I suspect this is a point to be raised in Chambers’ subsequent blog post (which I will read shortly).

    The problem with the things paradigm is precisely it’s isolation from people and process. I liken it to the difference between a strategic plan and strategic management. One is dead and one is dynamic and alive. Even the logframe can be used as a management tool (as opposed to a dead plan blueprint, evaluation matrix).

    In fact, logframe can be quite empowering to local actors when they use it to think together about what they will do, why, and how they will know they’ve succeeded. It can literally get them on the same page. But once the page is completed it becomes dead if it is not revisited. Alas, it is only the dead documents that we see as evidence of the tool at all and so, of course, we would think them exclusively controlling. And, sadly, this is their dominant application for the reasons Chambers and other commentators have noted.

  11. […] we look for potential replacement paradigms, we find two major candidates. Robert Chambers laid them out in a recent guest post on the excellent Aid on the Edge of Chaos blog. He classified the competing […]

  12. […] by Robert Chambers where he sketches out how such a new paradigm could look like (direct links here and […]


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Accountability, Evolution, Facilitation, Innovation, Institutions, Knowledge and learning, Public Policy, Self organisation