Editorial (20.7)

Many claims are made for the role of research in development, their proponents divided very broadly into those who focus on its potential influence on policy and those more concerned with its impact on practical outcomes. A further divide exists between 'professional' researchers, whose careers and reputation are dependent on what they produce, versus those who emphasise a more iterative approach, among whom there are many co-producers, including people with no academic ambitions or credentials, none of them claiming sole ownership. And of course there are all sorts of researchers or knowledge-brokers who cross over these boundaries, or fall between them. Central to such considerations are the familiar questions of whose knowledge matters, but also how such knowledge is packaged and for what purpose(s) it is intended.

An example from my own experience will serve as illustration. We now know that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has, among other things, undermined Mexico's previous self-reliance in the production of staple grains and accelerated the decline of subsistence and self-provisioning agriculture. These processes were already well under way in the far more fragile Central American states in the mid-1980s, although peasant farmers' unions were barely aware of the inexorable shift away from predominantly agrarian economies, and were certainly in no position to see the whole picture. Academic research into the cattle and maize sectors brought these issues to light, but not of course in a form that could be comprehended outside academic departments of economics. The researchers were passionately concerned to convey their findings to the people most affected, via unions representing the rights and interests of peasant farming communities. It is rare, however, that academics - in addition, in this case, foreigners - can communicate their findings in a way that semi-literate rural communities can readily understand and act upon. Most researchers have difficulty even in producing the 'one-side-of-A4' that government officials and policy makers require. Rather than pretending that it was feasible to expect them to do this, a two-pronged approach was taken. On the one hand, a local journalist published a series of newspaper articles highlighting the findings and their implications, which he followed up with interviews with politicians and government officials - effectively sensitising urban public opinion and also creating the environment for social mobilisation. On the other hand, the essential facts were portrayed in narrative form and used as post-literacy material for participants in the union's adult-literacy campaign, serving the dual purpose of provoking new thinking about how they should strategise (specifically, whether it still made sense to promote land seizures, often violent affairs) and creating material that would really engage new readers' interest and thus reinforce their literacy. Nobody would claim that agrarian policies turned around as a result: political and economic forces had always been stacked against such a utopian outcome. But what is clear is that a range of communicators needed to be engaged from the beginning, not to 'dumb down' or sensationalise, but to make development research truly relevant to the shapers of policy and practice - which, I would argue, is fundamentally an issue of accountability to those who are supposedly intended to benefit from development.

A number of articles in this issue focus on development research, and particularly on the values that underpin it. Birgit Habermann and Margarita Langthaler consider different concepts of what development research should set out to achieve, and therefore how it should be conducted. They find an increasing gap between those who assert that the role of research is to provide the evidence base for policy, and should therefore tailor its approach, presentation, and language accordingly; and those who believe that the best way to contribute is to maintain a critical distance from policy and practice and become a 'pure' academic discipline. Cathrine Brun and Ragnhild Lund offer a candid account of the difficulties as well as the successes of academic-NGO collaboration, based on the experience of applying a Real Time Research methodology to post-tsunami work in Sri Lanka. Sam Wong also reflects in a refreshingly honest way on the fact that the 'right to safety' of local NGO staff is often compromised by external researchers' 'right to know', where the power relations between them make it hard for the local people even to feel that they have the right to negotiate. The author suggests some basic principles for taking account of emotional aspects of safety in research ethics.

Alex Jacobs and Robyn Wilford describe a pilot scheme for improving downward accountability in NGOs, where the mechanisms - and mindsets - have traditionally focused on being upwardly accountable to donors, a trend generally replicated in the tendency for field offices to be accountable to the headquarters, rather than the other way around. Chris Mowles' article on NGO management, including what is considered 'evidence' and how this is validated, again touches on the issue of how social change comes about, arguing for a more subtle understanding of the ongoing social and political processes of human interaction in shaping beliefs and practices.

Beliefs and practices often diverge, however. The orthodoxy of rights-based development is challenged in the article by Mary Llewellyn-Fowler and John Overton, who examine how local NGOs in Fiji understand and use human rights for development, demonstrating the tensions involved in translating 'universal' approaches to human rights into local contexts. In a fascinating longitudinal study, Sidney Ruth Schuler, Farzana Islam, and Elisabeth Rottach return to earlier work on women's empowerment in Bangladesh and find that while the enormous social and economic changes that have since taken place render some previous indicators less relevant, continuing gender inequality leaves no room for complacency. Kirsty Martin and Michael Wilmore present an account of community radio in Nepal and efforts to be responsive to local views in developing programme content. Again with reference to Nepal, Bishnu Maya Dhungana and Kyoko Kusakabe look at the somewhat patchy success of self-help groups of women with disabilities in surmounting the social and practical constraints affecting their potential employability and their actual ability to secure paid employment: as is well known in other contexts, women's organisations tend not to take disability into account, while the disability movement is dominated by men, and tends not to take on board issues specific to women. Encouragingly, however, Sue Coe and Lorraine Wapling describe the early stages of World Vision's initiative to become disability-aware, following its commitment to principles of inclusion. The issue closes with a brief presentation by Alasdair Cohen of a methodological tool for measuring rural poverty.