I worked at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) from 1995 to 2005. I considered myself, as many did, a “talent scout,” paid handsomely to scour the world for people and organizations doing important work. When I found them, and verified the quality of their work on the ground, the IDRC team funded the organizations with grants of about $100,000 a year. These sometimes turned into phases spanning five to six years, allowing research to mature along with my relationship to the researchers. Over a period of ten years, I travelled between 70 and 90 days a year to South Asia, Latin America, and occasionally to Africa, supporting research projects in more than 60 settings worth approximately $30 million Canadian (CAD). Most focused on agriculture, fisheries, and forestry initiatives in rural and urban settings, exploring the interaction of technical and social dimensions such as gender and genetic resources, poverty and environmental degradation, traditional knowledge and scientific perspectives.
Some were programs with multiple projects. At a time when IDRC was just beginning to channel financial resources for research from other funding agencies, I brought $5 million CAD from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) into IDRC’s coffers. The purpose was to integrate research components into conventional anti-poverty projects being developed by CIDA and other agencies with the Government of Honduras. This marriage of research and mainstream development programming was novel at the time.
I also championed within IDRC a range of strategies for communicating research results — videos, policy briefs, oral presentations, audio files embedded in pdf newsletters, group tours, and university curriculum, in addition to books and articles in peer reviewed journals. Over several cycles of organizational planning, I did a lot of writing for the teams involved. While not really expected of IDRC staff, I managed to write, edit and publish 4 books with IDRC partners.
It was a productive and, at times, a personally challenging period of my professional life. My drive to get things done fused easily with the opportunities afforded by pots of funding. The scope, number and range of research projects I was able to support during this ten-year period still astounds me. The professional and personal relationships I developed with IDRC partners endured long afterwards. They were also more consequential to my work in the years that followed than friendships of earlier times, in Mexico or the Yukon. Subsequent chapters show that. While I remain connected emotionally, and loyal, to every friend I have ever made, friendships struck during the IDRC years are close to my heart. The distance and time now separating me from those friends far from Canada has been an unwelcome effect of professional retirement.
At IDRC I navigated with few mishaps the hierarchical office environment and inevitable bureaucratic constraints required for responsible grant-making. Occasionally, however, my passion for particular causes got mixed up with my ego and feelings of self-importance, bringing me into conflict with some colleagues. In retrospect, a longue durée approach, and the grace that only comes to some with age, might have served me better.
Maureen O’Neil, the President of IDRC during almost all of my tenure there, offered some tips. She was a demanding yet kind leader, creating a positive-minded and supportive institutional environment. Before joining the organization, she had coordinated the Canadian Royal Commission on the Status of Women and been the President of the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development. It was easy to be proud of her, and she returned the affection. I recall an event she hosted at IDRC in honour of Janice Stein around the time Stein, who co-founded the Munk Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto, gave the annual CBC Massey Lecture. “This is one of mine,” Maureen said as she introduced me to Dr. Stein during the opening social segment of her visit. After Stein gave her lecture on “the Cult of Efficiency,” I tried to challenge her with a question about the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Agriculture bringing food policy under a common set of international rules. “Shouldn’t agriculture be exempt from these rules,” I said, “so that countries can control their own food system?” Her answer crucified me, or at least that is how I remember it, but Maureen intervened, calling on me to elaborate on my position. I said something about how food is not just like any other commodity, and food security too fundamental to national security to be left to the international system controlled by global markets. I was trying to channel Farhad and Satheesh’s passion on the topic. Repartee, and, more generally, speaking in public, were never my strong suit, however, and I failed to convince or impress. This did not stop Maureen from listening and supporting me and other staff that did our best to think critically and express our views.
The Japan War
I had other compassionate role models at IDRC as well. One of these was Flora MacDonald, a former Cabinet Minister with two Progressive Conservative governments in Canada, and Chair of IDRC’s Board of Governors when I joined the organization. She had been Canada’s first female foreign minister and a contender for leadership of a major Canadian political party. She was also a celebrated humanitarian, winning many awards, including the Pearson Medal of Peace shortly after she left IDRC. She was a “Red Tory,” with a politics I could respect even if it differed from my own. Communitarian social policies, a degree of fiscal discipline, and respect for social and political order — the values of my father — are not so foreign to me. Some years ago I happened to walk out of a conference centre in downtown Ottawa at the same time as Joe Clark, a much maligned and one of the shortest serving Canadian Prime Ministers, and walked with him the five blocks to Parliament Hill. He no longer sat in Parliament, and chatted with me earnestly and openly about the presentation we had both just heard. I liked him immediately, matching the character of the man with the underlying people-centred spirit of his political views.
A few months before Ms. MacDonald's Board term at IDRC ended she invited me to her office on the top floor of the IDRC Headquarters. She wanted me to describe for her my experiences with a project in Nagaland, a remote and conflict-ridden state in northeastern India. It was a sensitive project in need of Board oversight, in part because a staff member tasked with managing research components of the project had been fired for being too vocal with Indian government officials about the political and military situation in Nagaland.
The Naga, a famously ferocious tribal people, have origins in southeast Asia shrouded in mystery. They are comprised of 66 distinct ethnic groups, each with a traditional dress, dialect, and cultural traditions. They came under British rule in the 19th century and have been fighting an independence struggle with India ever since the British left. In addition to their cultural distinctiveness and claims to national autonomy, most Naga are Baptists, converted in the mid 1800s to Christianity by American missionaires. Kohima, the largest community in Nagaland, was the site of a bloody battle during the Second World War between the Japanese and their Indian allies invading from Burma. British India soldiers, made up primarily of members of the Naga Angami tribe, suffered terrible losses. British and Canadian soldiers also died in the 1944 conflict, which successfully stopped the Japanese from advancing into India. In 1960, Nagaland became a state within the Union of India, but only after bitter struggle with the central government. In the late 1990s, it remained off limits to foreign nationals and was heavily patrolled by the Indian army. Clashes with rebels resulted in numerous deaths every year.
The CIDA diplomatic office in India had been approached by the State Government of Nagaland with a request to support farming communities struggling with low incomes and the loss of forest cover. IDRC was brought in to fund research on promising options, with particular attention to positive features in traditional farming practices. One of these practices was an ancient upland rice terrace system. While stones and grasses are often used in Asia to firm up the border of contoured terraces, and animal manure added to sustain soil fertility, the Naga around Kohima plant a local alder tree species (species name) as a living fence between each terrace. The tree is a legume, so it fixes nitrogen in the soil. The branches are harvested every year for firewood using an agro-forestry technique known as coppicing, adding benefits over and above the productivity gains realized by the terrace effects and the free atmospheric nitrogen from the alder roots. It is a unique example of a suite of technologies that make up part of today’s world of ecological farming.
The Nagaland project at IDRC operated under a different program from the ones I was assigned to, making my relationship to the people and place relatively short-lived. I made five trips to Nagaland over a period of two years, primarily to guide research by the Naga team based in Dimapour on cover crops and improved management of fallow fields and forest resources. My experience with these technologies in Mexico, track record of bridging scientific and traditional knowledge, and frequent travel to India on other IDRC business made me a good match. It even turned out that mucuna was present in some villages, prompting me to suggest testing management practices from Honduras and Benin to reduce weed infestation in the shifting cultivation systems of Nagaland.
I remember telling Flora MacDonald that on my first trip to Nagaland I interviewed an older farmer we met along the roadside. I asked him about the agriculture of his forefathers and foremothers. He was holding the traditional Naga farming implement, a blade similar to a machete but also used historically as a weapon. Naga men, he told me, always carried the blade, and often a spear that served double duty as a digging stick, when working in their fields. It was tradition, prompted by a history of always being ready to defend from attack. Villages were located on hilltops, for a similar defensive reason. When I said goodbye to him, he remarked, “Since the Japan War, you are the first white man I’ve seen.” This anecdote helped Ms MacDonald and I both understand just how unusual it was for IDRC to be in this remote location.
Photo: Naga man who told me, "Since the Japan War, you are the first white man I've seen."
On another occasion I was driving the project Jeep enroute to Mokokchung and Tuensang near the border with Burma. I had attended several Baptist church services in Dimapour and been gifted by villages along the way with a head hunting blade and numerous Naga shawls, the most prominent of Naga crafts. These were packed into my hard sided suitcase on top of the Jeep. The Naga project lead was taking a rest in the passenger seat. He had a sly sense of humour. Knowing I was a vegetarian, he was fond of reminding me that “Nagas will eat anything that moves.” Two IDRC colleagues were in the back seat. I came bumping around a bend in the narrow, dirt road through a thick forest to find a group of twenty or so men standing facing us with machine guns in their hands. I stopped, disengaged the clutch and put the vehicle in park.
The scene made my heart race. Trees created strong contrasts of light and dark on the figures ready for action. A man approached, dressed in green with a blue Che Guevara-style beret on his head. It was adorned with the red and yellow star of Mao Zedong’s China. The men around him shifted to fill the space from edge to edge. Today, the scene in my mind reminds me of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, the captains arm outstretched and a calm readiness on the faces of his men and mascot. Perhaps I should have tried to take a photo.
A conversation with the Naga project lead ensued, and after twenty minutes or so we were waved through to continue our journey. What I learned from him afterwards was that the Naga rebels had been forewarned of our presence and travel route, and passage pre-approved. We were not Indian, and the project, with its focus on supporting sustainable indigenous agricultural practices, countered the Indian government’s narrative that Nagas were indiscriminately cutting down the forests. It was a Naga project, rooted in traditional Naga practices, and aspiring to Naga objectives of autonomy, at least in the realm of food, forest and farmland management. Compatibility and connection to the local culture, and local leadership, saved us from harm. It may have helped too that, unlike Kashmir where foreign travellers had been beheaded the previous year, the Nagas were not anti-western. Their animosity was focused on India. I learned from my host that the political leadership of the Naga independence groups were trying to approach western governments that might be sympathetic to their cause. Either way, the rebels seemed to want to be sure we knew they were there, and watching.
IDRC, founded in 1970 by an Act of the Canadian Parliament, built its reputation funding high quality and often novel research by and with developing country institutions and researchers. David Hopper, the first President of IDRC said in his first speech as President, “They (institutions and research workers), not we, are the best judges of what is relevant to their circumstances. If this (approach) is successful, we will have pioneered a new style of international cooperation that can remove the stigma of charity and donor control from the support of research in development.”
The spirit of this sentiment was shared by many that worked at IDRC, in sharp contrast to the arrogance of much larger and more influential international organizations. Less than a year after I joined I had the opportunity to explore and extend the implications of a different stance on donor leadership in Washington at an annual symposium on agricultural development for World Bank staff from around the world. I flew there a little earlier than the hundreds of other participants and dozens of invited speakers coming from afar to attend, touching down at what is now called the Ronald Reagan National Airport an hour before it was closed for three days due to the heaviest January snowstorm on record. Virtually all of the out-of-town guests didn’t land, and the symposium was cancelled. Derek Byerlee, my former boss from CIMMYT, was working at the Bank by then. He recently reminded me that the city had about two working snow ploughs, making the scene a national embarrassment and possibly amusing for a young man from Canada. He invited me, along with a Dutch anthropologist who had also made it to the ground, to speak to Bank staff and representatives from other national and international organizations based in Washington. The sun had come out and people could get to the huge hall easily. Hundreds showed up, elevating the two of us to keynote speaker status from the obscure sessions we had been scheduled to speak at.
I gave a talk about several of IDRC’s programs built around the perspective that communities, not external authorities and interest groups, have the detailed knowledge of the problems they face and a long history of organizing themselves to find solutions. I gave examples from my work on farmer innovation with mucuna, and IDRC programs on community-based approaches to the management of natural resources in Latin America and Asia. “This means,” I concluded, “that how we do research and design solutions is more important than what we work on.”
The concluding statement seemed to shock some in the audience, perhaps because it did not fit well with the common idea that everything starts with expert understanding of the problem and expert definition of solutions. I got several questions about it, some showing genuine curiosity and others charged with a dismissive tone. My answers probably lacked the nuance I would give today, informed by several more decades of experience. The “what” and “what for” questions and related understandings of the problem are important so long as we also pay attention to who determines the priorities and what history and ideas are brought forward as potential solutions. This means doing research differently, with people and not simply for people as many in development agencies did at the time, and still do. The hubris of “we know best” is a hard habit to break for people with advanced degrees and deep knowledge of particular topics. I still believe that dialogue across boundaries — the how of participatory research — creates the possibility of change, and comes before the particular change itself.
The presentation, while probably not of keynote quality, was good enough to prompt an hour-long private meeting with senior Bank staff and then a meeting with the Director of Agriculture at the World Bank. This in turn led to a formal introduction to staff at The World Bank Institute, the Bank’s main tool for funding capacity building for government officials from around the world. Both branches were rethinking the role of communities in sustainably managing common-pool resources such as pastures, water, forests, or fisheries, and invited IDRC to co-host an international conference on the topic. The event, this time in May, brought together 200 policymakers and researchers from about 60 countries for almost a week of discussions. I coordinated IDRC’s contributions, and, as with other events I had organized, encouraged the institute to launch the event with a day visiting community-based initiatives in Chesapeake Bay outside of Washington. The initiatives along the famous bay were aimed at addressing serious environmental problems (pollution, over-exploitation of common resources) and related social and economic conflicts affecting the largest and one of the most storied estuaries in the United States. The day was intended to show participants that community engagement was relevant in the Global North as well as the Global South. It didn’t work, however. Many were dressed in suits and fine shoes for the outing, and the weather was so damp and cold they remained huddled in the buses rather than venturing out to talk and explore.
Photo: Participants in the conference on Collaborative approaches to natural resource management, Washington, D. C., 1998. Photo by The World Bank Institute. I'm on the left, third row from the top. IDRC staff Ronnie Vernooy and Simon Carter are in the top row near the middle.
Still, the conference and book I edited from the outcome was timely, opening institutions and researchers to an alternative perspective on the so-called “tragedy of the commons.” This is the assumption that individual uses of common-pool resources leads inevitably to over-exploitation and environmental collapse. Fishing the coastal waters of a rich habitat, in this view, continues unchecked until the last fish is removed because every fisher naturally feels, tragically, that “If I don’t take it, someone else will.”
The Bank and most other development agencies had already acknowledged the limitations of direct government management of resource use, the “command and control” solution. It creates conflict in settings where state authority is contested and fails where government institutions are too weak to be effective or too costly to be financially sustainable. Instead, the Bank invested in a “market-based” solution by championing policies that establish individual, exchangeable property rights in a resource — licensing and quota systems, private sector ownership and distribution of water rights, privatization of forests, etc. Privatization was the cornerstone of much international development policy during this neo-liberal era. However, markets too depend on state authority and, importantly, create their own set of individual winners and losers by running roughshod over collective and traditional systems of resource management. Conflict between the state and communities over private control and decision making can undermine sustainable use, displace legitimate resource users, and create deep and long-lasting resentment.
Violence is a too common result, illustrated during the conference by an IDRC partner presentation on conflict in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. A guarded peace and cooperative trade between the Arab Baggara and the Nuba people, in place for 200 years, was shattered by a government headed by the Sudanese traditional merchant class intent on introducing large-scale mechanized farming into the region. The World Bank was a major funder of the investment, which resulted in displaced people and land degradation. A scarcity-based conflict followed, fuelled by the government arming one group against the other.
Maureen O’Neil and Vinod Thomas, the Director of the World Bank Institute, signed the foreward to the book I edited after the conference, “Cultivating Peace: Conflict and Collaboration in Natural Resource Management.” Focusing on common-pool resources, they write, “Twenty years of detailed research on common-pool resources has now brought greater realism to this issue.” Various IDRC programs had shown that collectivities and traditional communities have a history of successful natural resource management, and a vested interest in avoiding over-exploitation because they depend upon sustainable use for their livelihoods. This suggests a third solution, based on community institutions and group-based decision-making, highlighted in the book.
Bill Carman, the editor of IDRC Books for more than 15 years, recently reminded me that when we published “Cultivating Peace” it had an impact on the Communications Department. Negotiating publication with the World Bank Institute opened doors to many other publishers and started a conscious shift at IDRC to a co-publication model that continues to this day. Co-publishing, much like the co-authorship I practiced as an anthropologist at CIMMYT, acknowledges the power of cooperation and the ethics of collective impact. Book sales quickly hit the magic number 1,000, uncommonly high for IDRC books, taking it directly from English to both French and Spanish editions and to a free online format IDRC began to combine with print publication at the time. Downloads of the publication numbered in the thousands, connecting readers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America to a theme — conflict and collaboration over natural resources — bursting onto the international scene at the time.
A chapter in “Cultivating Peace” on stakeholder analysis by Ricardo Ramirez is perhaps the mostly frequently cited, although references to other chapters continue to pop up in citation indexes even twenty years on. Ricardo, a Mexican-Canadian with a ready smile and bursting with ideas, was writing a comprehensive exam on stakeholder analysis as part of his PhD program when I met him. I invited him to review the case studies I had compiled, and write a concept paper on stakeholder analysis that drew on the cases and on the broader literature.
I also commissioned concept papers from others on culture, policy and peace building, in an attempt to raise issues beyond the scope of the particular cases and reach into big policy institutions like the World Bank. The case study from the Nuba Mountains was the most political, putting development programming like World Bank funding into the picture as a cause of conflict. The chapter by colleagues at IDRC drew out some of the implications from this and other case studies in the book and called for research on the direct impact of international programs on peace and conflict outcomes. They also provided an assessment framework, developed by a focused IDRC program. This topic remains a vital but still neglected field of research on international development, even though it is even clearer today that efforts to intervene or direct change in national settings have many unintended consequences.
The challenge of writing a concept paper for the book caught the attention of my long time friend and colleague Jacques Chevalier, by then coming off a long period of writing in the highly specialized field of semiotics, the theory and study of signs and symbols as elements of language. He told me that his father, a Quebec judge of considerable renown, joked with him about his books in semiotics. “You are smarter than Einstein,” he would say. “Only three people in the world understood him. Only one in your case.”
Jacques was looking for something new and meaningful to sink his teeth into, and responded immediately to my invitation. His training in anthropology, and critical perspective on the discipline, were needed to question the cultural assumptions of this “third way” to manage common pool resources. While it is easy enough to be critical of past solutions, there was a certain smugness in our community-based alternative thrust into the limelight at the World Bank.
Thomas Jefferson’s world view (setting aside the fact he owned more than 600 African Americans during some periods of his adult life) was a source of inspiration for combining realism with ideals. While in Washington attending the conference Jacques took a walk along the National Mall, stopping at the Jefferson Memorial. From the inscriptions on interior panels, including excerpts from the Declaration of Independence and Jefferson’s letters, he imagined the cultural spirit of community-based approaches to conflict and collaboration in natural resource management, and stayed up all night writing the core ideas. Later we created a chapter for the book together using a conversational style of writing, with Jacques starring as “the Anthropologist” and me as “the Institute.”
Institute: “Peace is a top priority because without it people and the resources they depend on suffer.”
Anthropologist: “True, but it should not come at the cost of other things people value, such as justice, economic fairness, and environmental objectives. If you are not careful, a history of injustice and inequality may be covered with a thick cloak of peace and harmony, and compromised in a wash of cultural sensitivity.”
Institute: “Right. Ignoring the broader causes of conflict over natural resources, or rushing to move beyond them in the name of peace, only delays the inevitable reckoning with power.”
Anthropologist: “Peace at any cost is dangerous. So too is the assumption that egalitarianism is a universal value. Researchers often show a concern for widespread imbalances that exist between men and women, or between the old and the young.”
Institute: “You find that objectionable?”
Anthropologist: “No, not exactly. The challenge is that community-based natural resource management is caught between wanting to treat these imbalances with suspicion while at the same time holding up the role of local authority structures in opposition to central government dominance. The implicit assumption is that wisdom of the elders is tainted with elements of patriarchy or gerontocracy.”
Institute: “I see. We like things local, but only when they fit with our own ideas about equality. I can think of an example from my travels to Nagaland. Among the Aö, a village council of male elders determines where community members will be allowed to clear land for cultivation. This ensures that land clearing is concentrated in the same area so that paths can be cut and guarded against raiding, fires can be controlled, and fallow periods can be assured long enough for the land to recover. Conditions for collective work and sustainable land management are created through this gerontocracy.”
Anthropologist: “Good example. Before charging ahead with new management practices, it is always good to bracket one’s own cultural definitions and ask questions about local understandings of power, authority, and the common good. By the way, the concept of community is another thing you need to be careful about.”
Institute: “Yes. I must admit we are a bit uncomfortable with the idea of ‘community’ even though it is built into our program title, as in ‘community-based natural resource management.’ We know that communities aren’t homogenous: men - women, young - old, rich - poor. We are simply trying to invert the standard government decision-making process from top down to bottom up.”
Anthropologist: “I understand. Stakeholder analysis has something to offer here because it goes beyond geographic definitions of community to consider as well ‘communities of interests,’ that is, groups or individuals with something to gain or something to lose from the current situation. For some stakeholders the interests may be aligned, while for others in conflict.”
Photo: Naga man with traditional spear/digging still, and shawl, above his hilltop village.
Our reflections on the cultural spirit of community-based management of natural resources drew our attention back to Ricardo’s chapter on stakeholder analysis, a critical perspective absent from many of the case studies in Cultivating Peace. Researchers focused on environmental issues often assume that community refers to a particular territory, and that differences within a community are relatively unimportant. Stakeholder analysis recognizes communities of interests as well as physical communities, making it easier to distinguish winners and losing in a difficult situation, and engage people in doing their own analysis of local conflicts. Methods and skills to do this type of advanced analysis with the people involved were also absent from the literature Ricardo had reviewed.
The perspective Jacques provided drew our attention back to Ricardo’s chapter on stakeholder analysis. I could see that it was a critical analytical perspective on natural resource conflicts, but also absent from many of the case studies in the book. Researchers focused on environmental issues often didn’t know how to take their analysis beyond broad social categories (community members/governments; women/men; owners/workers; young/old) or engage people in doing their own analysis of local conflicts.
In the months following the conference, Jacques and I developed a project to respond to this capacity and methodological gap, one that launched more than two decades of work together. His initial contribution was to create a research tool that non-specialists, including the stakeholders involved, could use to analyze social obstacles to change and develop strategize to overcome them. The tool married the requirements of critical thinking and those of pragmatism in what became the touchstone for a wide range of tools for people-based and evidence-based research we went on to create together. We felt that in the right hands, the tool could take research from a desk exercise to a means for empowerment and genuine dialogue.
I was in Costa Rica September 11, 2001, when planes struck the twin towers in New York. Many would argue that this moment, and the US response over the following years, changed the face of conflict across the globe. It narrowed the possibility of cooperation across boundaries of all kinds, with endless war, closed immigration doors, big surveillance, and culture as the enemy.
Jacques and I were co-facilitating a workshop, one of the first of hundreds he led over almost a decade of foundational work to create a unique contribution to participatory action research. The week-long event with two dozen researchers from across Latin America was organized by the Conflict and Collaboration program of research I launched after the Washington conference, managed by the University for Peace. The small university, based in Costa Rica, was established by the General Assembly of the United Nations under the leadership of the President of Costa Rica, Rodrigo Carazo. It had been training small cohorts of students in Alternative Dispute Resolution, a legal practice first developed in the United States focused on resolving disputes through negotiation, mediation, arbitration, or similar means, as opposed to litigation. Adapting these techniques to the Latin American context had proven to be difficult, however, raising the question of whether or not there was a uniquely Latin American approach to managing conflict over natural resources. The program sought to answer this question by examining the causes of conflicts in dozens of settings and drawing lessons from efforts to manage them. Among them:
The water wars in Cochabamba, Bolivia;
Parks and people conflicts on the islands of Providencia and Santa Catalina off the coast of Colombia;
Industrial fishing affecting small-scale fishers in the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador;
Displacement of the indigenous Chortí from their traditional territory near the archaeological site of Copán, Honduras;
Urban sprawl and displacement of the poor on the outskirts of Lima, Peru, and from the Santa Lucía wetlands surrounding Montevideo, Uruguay;
Photo: Indigenous Chortí grandmother and two grandchildren, near Copán, Honduras.
To support their work, the program offered small grants and network support using IDRC’s Bellanet web platform. At a time when the World Wide Web was still a novelty, project proposals were reviewed, scored and selected by a Latin American committee meeting virtually, with periodic face-to-face meetings to review results and formulate calls for proposals. The process combined an initial screening of institutions and researchers based on their track history, followed by an invitation to submit a full proposal. This approach was similar to the South Asia Using Diversity Award and, where feasible, involved getting to know the work of the applicants on the ground before calling on them to write up a full proposal. The program also offered training in research methods and support to the synthesis and publication of research findings. This was typical of IDRC’s “funding plus” approach to grant making at the time.
The program invited Jacques to offer training in participatory methods for conflict analysis, a task he dove into with enthusiasm. The result was a training session that blurred the lines between action, research and capacity building by doing all three at the same time: learn new participatory techniques by applying them to real life problems and using the results to imagine and plan potential follow up actions. I recall one workshop, with project teams from Honduras and Guatemala, where researchers came with representative stakeholders. Their practice with the tools came so close to real-life discussions they decided to pull the results of the three days together into a draft project proposal, to be validated by redoing the key assessments with more stakeholders in the following weeks. Jacques and I built on this and other experiences to continuously rework training design to help walk the talk of participation, research, and action. He also created a steady stream of new tools in response to the topics and feedback from participants. I joined him whenever I could, taking on supporting roles and acting as a sounding board during the evening, early in the morning, and over coffee breaks. I brought knowledge of the topics and the researchers involved, and my own experiences with participatory methods, to complement his characteristic combination of scholarly rigour and purposeful gaze. It was easy to work together.
During the Costa Rica workshop, Jacques trained participants in stakeholder analysis, inviting them to practice the tools with content from the specific conflicts they were dealing with. I brought high quality art paper and boxes of intense colour pastels. “Let’s get people to draw their projects,” I suggested, an idea Jacques transformed into the more precise invitation to think of and draw an animal, a mythical creature, or a plant to symbolize a key project concept or experience. A White-faced Monkey (the most intelligent New World monkey), a West Peruvian screech owl (a threatened species from dry, deciduous woodlands), the Gray Brocket (a deer species adapted to both grasslands and forests in Brazil) were some of the images workshop participants used to introduce each other and their projects. Using visual cues to represent concepts and experiences became a more general facilitation practice for both of us, an option built into the instructions for every tool in our toolkit.
Jacques designed a session in Costa Rica aimed at creating an analysis of the types of conflicts being addressed through the program, starting from a list of words in Spanish used colloquially to refer to conflict. The invitation quickly elicited 30 words, each with a slightly different nuance depending on whether the conflict was more or less violent, more or less polarized, short term or long term and more personal or more public in nature. We were all blown away by the ease and speed with which the group had co-created a sophisticated picture of a Latin American world view on conflict. The tool, called Domain Analysis based on Personal Construct Psychology, became a staple in workshops and an advanced form of analysis useful in studies I did later with the Katkari in India and tobacco farmers in Bangladesh (Chapters 11 and 12).
The events of 9/11 came near the end of this discussion, and a day before participants were scheduled to depart. A few people, frightened by the enormity of what had happened, left the hotel immediately, hoping they could get a flight home. Others stayed on, playing music and talking late into the night. The common question was, “Why?” Jacques and I met over food and drink, talking both about the excitement of the workshop and the horror of events we had watched on the hotel lobby television. The full meaning of what had just happened was beyond anyone’s understanding, of course. It was not lost on us, however, that dialogue across boundaries, the core of what we were both trying to do with participatory action research, needed to be part of the global response. As we later wrote in the introduction to our first book on the topic, “The global epoch we have now entered will embrace many forms of wisdom and dialogue, or it will not be. To survive and flourish in a world fraught with uncertainty, we must create synergies among the living knowledge of people from all parts of the world. This includes the more than one billion poor or marginalized people wrongly branded as ‘have-nots’ and ‘know-nothings’ with little to contribute to human history.” Our current crises — unequal access to vaccines against a global pandemic, climate injustice and unnecessary war in Europe — show we have still not made that turn towards respect for life.
My time at IDRC was rewarding, not least because I was able to support worthwhile research and work with remarkable people, both inside and outside of the organization. It was also an environment that acknowledged the complexity of international development, forcing staff to go beyond their disciplinary silos and blind spots. “Agenda 21,” an action plan of the United Nations and key product of the 1992 Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, helped to push the organization towards interdisciplinary approaches. This required new leadership and new staff in order to surpass earlier preoccupations with technology as an end in and of itself. Leadership by southern scientists was always important to IDRC, but the drive for sustainable development during the 1990s and into the early 2000s extended the notion of who is a researcher to include non-scientists and organizations outside of universities. Empowerment became a bigger part of the picture. This period was what I consider the “Golden Age” of IDRC. Much like in a university, staff were encouraged to think independently and to pursue projects that not only fit the corporate programs and southern mandates but also their own perspectives. Unlike a university, they were also encouraged to think and work like teams. [Obviously, my assessment of before and after my time there is self-serving. I liked what the organization was doing then, so see the period I was there positively overall].
The office was not without its internal struggles, however, something to be expected in any organization with a large proportion of staff holding PhDs, and the ambition to go with them. Like others, I jostled for position and influence within the organization. Late in my tenure, when the organization had new leadership and significant change was afoot, I was reassigned from the programs of my choice to a program that at the time held little interest to me. Sitting with the new senior manager in my office, I respectfully declined the offer. I was offered the position again, and respectfully declined. Then I was offered the position a third time, with the caveat that otherwise I would be fired. In all, I held out for about 7 and a half minutes, sitting face to face with the manager for what seemed like an hour before accepting the assignment. The exercise of authority has always troubled me, making me a poor fit in a hierarchical institution. Being told what I would do with my professional life set my teeth on edge.
The new assignment turned out to be in an interesting program with a great title: “Cities Feeding People.” The brainchild of Luc Mougeot, a longtime IDRC specialist with an background in urban geography, the initiative brought the same concern I had for small-scale agriculture to the challenges and opportunities of producing food in and on the outskirts of cities. To ground myself, I made one of my first IDRC trips to Africa, visiting an urban agriculture project in Kibera, Africa’s largest urban slum on the outskirts of Nairobi. While I thought I knew a thing or two about agriculture, the experience opened my eyes to a new world where food and urban poverty collide. In this deeply poor community, people produced food, typically leafy greens and plants such as beans and tomatoes, in tiny garden plots on unused municipal land. It was important to their nutrition and to their livelihoods. I walked along narrow pathways to observe the plots, and to see the source of the irrigation water higher up the slope. It was a metre wide sewage pipe that had been perforated with a hammer so that the sewage water could seep out onto the ground and begin its journey down the slope through small channels to the garden plots. While I was familiar with animal manure in agriculture and as a child had seen German farmers spread human manure on their fields from “honey pots,” the rawness of the Kibera practice took me by surprise. “The plants looked healthy, but were they safe to eat?” I asked myself.
Photo: Kibera vendor offering fish and vegetables.
When I returned to Ottawa and reported to Luc on the situation, his response surprised me too. “Yes,” he said, “you’ve asked the right question. The best way to find out is to study the sewage and the pipes. Does it come from residential neighbourhoods or from industrial sources? This makes all the difference in whether or not the food plants are likely to end up with toxic chemicals in them.” To me, this line of inquiry represented the best of IDRC’s way of working. Luc’s commitment to intellectual risk-taking recognized that producing food and making use of the available water and nutrients was a matter of survival in Kibera. His perspective was also free from moral judgements regarding the use of human manure to produce food, and focused only on how to support what people were already doing by making it safer. I decided to stick it out in his team, withdrawing at the last moment two applications for positions in other parts of the organization.
When Luc moved on and the position of team leader for the initiative came up, I applied but was passed over. I couldn’t help but feel that at least part of the reason was my hands-on approach to grant making. New leadership was moving the organization towards fewer and larger grants, and a more directive approach to defining research topics rather than being responsive to ideas coming from researchers in the Global South. Global grant competitions with precise expected outcomes, rather than program areas open to unsolicited proposals, was the new modus operandi. This reflected in part the high transaction costs of managing many smaller projects and pressures to bring IDRC programming under the machinery of Canada’s official foreign policy (a trend that intensified once Stephen Harper came to power). I thought this was a mistake, and didn’t hesitate to say so. Large projects, I argued, would discourage novel but riskier initiatives and shower attention on a small number of well established research institutions with an existing capacity to write good proposals. IDRC’s bottom-up approach to scouting research talent and gradually building institutional capacity would be left behind, turning researchers of the Global South into consultants for agenda’s set in the Global North.
I could not, from my technical and mid level position in the organization, do anything about these broad shifts other than sound a warning. I could, however, give younger or little known researchers in the Global South a fighting chance by helping them pay attention to the written word. I launched an internal project called “Writing for Change” to build that capacity. It produced an interactive CD-Rom of advice and step-by-step instructions for writing to different kinds of audiences, including funders, research institutions and advocacy groups. I was motivated by a desire to support IDRC partners I felt did outstanding work on the ground but lacked the writing capacity to convey their experience and ideas clearly and powerfully. English is not, of course, the first language of most of the world or many of the researchers IDRC funded. My strength as a writer, and the power I could see in good writing, prompted me to occasionally help some partners with their reports more than I should have. I wanted to “get it right,” a compulsion that even today makes me impatient and sometimes over-bearing with writing by others. What others want to say or do, however, has always had my respect.
It is for IDRC staff that stayed through the years of Stephen Harper’s conservative government and beyond to say whether or not I was right about approaches to grant making. Some, I understand, believe that without bowing to a more assertive federal government the organization would have been disbanded and folded into CIDA, the primary aid arm of the Canadian government. The direction of the culture change towards pre-defined programming was already clear, however, at the end of my tenure. I recall a senior manager, the same one that had given me an offer I couldn’t refuse, explaining why I had not been selected for leadership of the urban environment initiative, “You are too participatory in your approach,” he said. He might have also thought, “Too attached to the old way of doing things.” My ambition blocked by this signal and major change in the air, I began to search in earnest for an exit.
My wife Debra opened the door I needed to move on. She decided to Feng Shui my office to promote good energy or “chi” in the spatial arrangements and orientation of the work environment. “First,” she said, “you need to declutter so new things can find a place in your office.” Piles of papers, read and unread, clothes draped over chairs, and nicknacks from around the world collected over 10 years of work, had no place on dusty shelves or tucked away in drawers never to be touched again. “Second, you need to change the orientation of your desk and chair, so that you are facing the door rather than staring out the window.” I did a tour of the three main floors of IDRC and found that almost everyone had their backs to me as I walked by their open office door. “I need to concentrate,” was the common explanation. “Bad chi,” said Debra, “and a clear message to the world that others are not welcome. It says you are afraid to face whatever might come your way.”
A few weeks after tweaking my office space the same senior manager came through the door with another offer I couldn’t refuse, although this time it thrilled me. It was delivered with surprising grace and generosity. “IDRC staff should be encouraged to contribute to university life in Canada,” he said. “You have that potential,” he went on. “We want you to stay, but if you are determined to go we can help you make the transition.”
A few months later my wife and I were doing Feng Sui adjustments to my office at Carleton University. IDRC had authorized a major supplement to Jacques’ grant to develop social methods for participatory action research. The grant now paid my full-time salary for two years. This was later extended for two more years by Canadian Partnerships at IDRC, and then again for another two years at a half-time salary. I never made the transition to a tenure-track university position, remaining an Adjunct Research Professor (an unpaid position) to this day.
The track I took was better suited to my desire for direct and collaborative work with people on issues important to me and with the potential to change the world. With the grant to Carleton University and title of professor I had all the freedoms and credibility of an academic life without any of the administrative requirements. Unfortunately, I never learned to lecture a class of students with authority and, except for teaching a few courses here and there, I missed out on the joys of guiding university students as I had been guided. Nevertheless, I hit my stride as an anthropologist, combining detailed research with a level of activism impossible to achieve at either IDRC or in a university. Art continued to fade to a background hobby, sustained only by the ubiquitous camera in my travel pack and occasional paintings at our Temagami cottage. Reconciling the inner and outer life, and the art of combining earthly delights with a desire to do noble deeds, took a new path.