“Power of Our Ideas”

with

Samuel Magombo

      The thesis underlying the “Power of Our Ideas” is that much of the problem with conventional development economics, agricultural research and extension has been in the process of generating and transferring technology, and that much of the solution lies in the poor peoples’ own capacities and priorities. The interest and support in this populist philosophy received since the late 1980s has led to virtual revolution in nearly all areas in the science of development; some have even termed it a ‘paradigm shift’. As a result, and justifiably so, all convectional approaches to communities’ development and extension services have, and must always come under critical scrutiny. Moreover, evidence in national and international development research centres, universities, government agencies and NGOs, shows that there is a growing acceptance of the need to involve local people as active partners in all aspects of the development process. The focus is on bridging gaps between the so-called development professionals; (who, unfortunately; are also increasingly becoming economic hit men) and resource-poor farmers or villagers and finding new ways to understand local knowledge, strengthen local capacities and meet local needs.

       While many hail this populist perceptive as a step in the right direction, others have argued that such an approach fails to confront the impact of power on relations between different groups within poor farming communities or between local people and outside agents. Further they argue that it does not capture the complex sociocultural and political dimensions of knowledge creation, innovation, transmission and application within societies and elite scientific organisations. Because the “Power of our Ideas” does not adequately address these fundamental issues of power and knowledge, critics charge that our initiatives may encounter many of the same problems as convectional transfer-of-technology (TOT) strategies.  

       The Innovative Development Initiative (IDI) counter-argues that the many so called economists and development practitioners are still trapped in top-down, centre-outwards institutions and TOT thinking and action where ‘we’ determine priorities, generate technologies and then transfer to poor farmers, and where farmers’ participation is limited to adoption. All too easily, the poor man’s participation rhetoric has been adopted without real substance.

       IDI further argues the approaches and methods of technology transfer which have served industrial and green revolution agriculture and development in the west, do not fit the resource-poor farming and the third, complex, diverse and risk prone agricultural economic systems in our villages. We advocate for the more permanent (permaculture) traditional agricultural technology driven with its standardising package of practices, with the complimentary paradigm, which generates baskets of choices to enable farmers to vary, complicate and diversify their farming and economic systems. This approach stresses, illustrates and explores the abilities of the resource-poor farmers to experiment, adapt and innovate; the importance of giving priority to farmers’ agenda and knowledge; a range of practical approaches and methods for farmer participation in research; and implications for outsiders’ roles for institutions.   

       This is not a rejection of modern scientific knowledge, of economic think tanks, international experts, research stations and laboratories. These remain potent, have their own validity and will always have their place. Rather it is an action in broadening, balancing and up-ending, to give new primacy to the realities and analyses of the poor people themselves. IDI believes these themes and insights are liberating for development practitioners, especially agricultural scientists and extensionists, opening a new range of experience and ways of working. The comfortable certainties of known normal science are then complemented by the exciting unknowns which follow from facilitating analysis by poor rural people and learning from and with them.

      WE at IDI are convinced that prosperity will come not from grand conferences of economists or from the spend masters in “the aid institutions” but by countless acts of personal self-confidence and self-reliance of the poor.  

      Anyone, genuinely concerned with changing the world; ought to ask themselves certain tough but pertinent questions: Whose criteria and priorities count? Whose knowledge matters? Whose modes of learning and analysis are critical? Whose tests, experiments, observation, and assessments should we trust? And after all is said and done; whose reality really counts?

       It must come as no surprise that we too ‘want to put a ding in the universe.’

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