Is there a problem with the development practitioner? Seeking perspectives from “pure” practitioners, academics and things in-between

A provocation by Alfredo Ortiz and Kent Glenzer

We at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (MIIS) “train” many master’s degree students who end up in careers as practitioners in different realms of international development, and in many other fields (other fields sometimes use terms other than practitioner).  Action Research Journal (ARJ), of which we are co-associate editors, believes that practitioners should explicitly locate themselves as reflexive change agents, engage in participatory processes and take actions and produce knowledge that have meaning and relevance beyond their immediate context—in support of the flourishing of persons, communities, and the wider ecology.  Action research also supports emergent processes which use methods that engage multiple ways of seeing and knowing in the world.  We support these ideals, both in our affiliation with ARJ and in relation to the present and future practitioners we have the privilege of co-educating at MIIS.

At the same time, we feel there are important gaps between these action research ideals and actual practitioner “practice”.  We seek to better understand these gaps and think of ways in which we might play a more helpful role as educators and practitioners, in cultivating better practice (for a more detailed explanation of this process click here:  https://goo.gl/v0g3VD).  To improve our understanding, we are seeking your insights in response to the following (intentionally provocative) question: What is the problem with the international development practitioner?  More specifically:

  • What do you think are the most important practices and competencies of a social change/development practitioner?
  • What is your image of an “ideal” social change/development practitioner?
  • What challenges does such an “ideal” social change/development practitioner face in trying to live up to that ideal in the real world?  While there are clearly wide, institutional constraints, we’re more interested in your thoughts at the level of individual agency.
  • How have you personally navigated these issues?
  • What questions should we be asking that we are not?


To get things started, we offer a provocation

Who is it we think we’re “producing” when we say we are educating future development practitioners? While that questions certainly has as many answers as there are teachers doing such work, four ideal types, or archetypes paint very different pictures and suggest very different educational strategies, processes, and aims. These types are intended to provoke thought, not paint nuanced pictures of the many types of practitioners that exist in practice.

Ideal Type 1: The Best Practice Implementer Ideal Type 2: The Revolutionary
This image suggests that what higher education is mostly about is teaching young professionals to understand and deploy known best practice which does not depend on deep knowledge of context and history of the situations in which they intervene. The ideal development practitioner has a lot of right answers regarding both what to do, and how to do it. They are expert in some way, an instantiation of a field of knowledge, a discipline (health, agriculture, water and sanitation, management, food security, gender). Their education is a qualification, a certification that enables them to prove they are competent. Their work is only possible through funding that flows through official development assistance, philanthropy, and government expenditure, and the contractual nature of the work is a given. This ideal type questions the legitimacy of the aid enterprise less than do ideal types 2 and 3. This image suggest that what higher education is mostly about is creating young professionals who will confront and alter deep pathologies that permeate the development enterprise—perhaps even seeking alternatives to “development”. The ideal practitioner is a system outsider, an advocate for policy/systems change, a critic of much existing practice, an individual that avoids getting enmeshed in the development machinery, or if enmeshed is a vocal critic of the rules and procedures that constitute projects, programs, donor/donee relationships, and vast power differentials within the development enterprise. The Revolutionary is wary of donor ties, of donor dependence, and of the motives of intervenors. She/he may disavow international development finding altogether and participate in social movements in “transgressive” ways which would not be possible in a conservative development aid chain. The revolutionary can explain theories of change from a critical sociological lens.

 

Ideal Type 3: The Feral Practitioner Ideal Type 4: The System Nudger
Most simply put, ideal type three knows much of what the “Best Practice Implementer” knows, identifies with much of the ideological stance of “The Revolutionary”, yet effects important systems / institutional change by working both within and outside the development enterprise. This ideal type invents “best” practices that are relevant to specific contexts, innovates as a kind of policy and/or systems change entrepreneur, and explicitly tries to ameliorate/change pathologies from the inside instead of the outside. Ideal type 3 dabbles in theory to help challenge dominant practice and seeks to use methodology which takes into account the political / contested and complex nature of most change processes. Although a hybrid, the feral practitioner is closer to ideal type 1 than ideal type 2 in practice. This image suggest that what higher education is mostly about is teaching young professionals to think and act systemically, to consider the development enterprise as a complex adaptive system, and to build consensus among wide groups of stakeholders about how to nudge the system in preferred directions. The ideal practitioner is comfortable with and in ambiguity, with open-ended and emergent processes, in facilitating dialogue and sensemaking, but is also a rigorous strategic thinker in identifying leverage points that can help move systems in particular directions. The systems nudger is more interested in bringing high end thinking and technology to bear on complex problems than on debating the extent to which the aid enterprise is part of the problem or part of the solution.
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