Robert Chambers is one of the most influential scholars and writers in international development studies of the past generation.
For the last 40 years he has been a researcher at the Institute of Development Studies, at the University of Sussex in England. He became a leading figure in the field of development management in the 1970s, publishing several books on the management of land settlement schemes and much work on rural development management more broadly.
This drew on ten or twelve years of experience as an administrator, lecturer and researcher in Africa, to which he later added five or six years of research in India.
Dr. Chambers showed a special talent for expressing insights in simple terms that could reach wide audiences — for example in reminders about the great relevance of seasonality (wet season, dry season; cold season, hot season, and so on) for all aspects of rural living and rural research, and in warnings about the low relevance of super-sophisticated methods of planning and assessment which are used after the real political decisions about proposed investments have in fact been made; so he suggested that in terms of methods often, in a well-known phrase, ‘simple is optimal’.
What has made Robert Chambers famous, however, has been his work from the early 1980s onwards. Looking back on the work of his mainstream development management period, he came to consider much of it to be misleading and misconceived, sometimes even disastrous.
Dr. Chambers has had a major contribution to a paradigm shift in development studies towards more ‘people-centred’ and bottom-up approaches. From being a mainstream development management scholar, he evolved into being a world leader of participatory development research and participatory practice, and a central figure in the corresponding global knowledge networks and communities of practice, not only in universities but especially also amongst practitioners in NGOs, government and civil society.
He helped to identify, highlight and name many potential biases in the observation and understanding of poor people’s lives; to diagnose the sources of these biases, in methods of observation and analysis, and in the underlying power-relations and mindsets; and to build new methods, and a system of ideas to sustain them.
In sum, he has contributed in convincing many development researchers and practitioners to take a more people-centred view.
Participatory research methods
And flowing out of and partnering that view, he has helped to inspire and coordinate large networks of researchers and researcher-practitioners in the formulating, testing and sharing of new sets of methods, methods that are open to ordinary people’s knowledge and involvement, and in then using such methods to explore many aspects of people’s livelihoods and of change processes and approaches to planned change.
His participatory research methods have ‘broken the fixed mindset that poor people cannot contribute knowledge and understanding of their own situation’. In the judgement of many, he can thus be called a leader in revolutionizing development thinking, to use the title of a recent festschrift for him, published last year. Robert himself remarks that much of what is attributed to him is mis-attributed: very often his contribution was to bring together and articulate insights from other people -- but he has done this in a particularly effective way.