It is not easy to improve people’s incomes and stop degrading the natural resources in dry, hilly, and forested areas. There are no silver bullets or simple technological solutions. The billions spent to solve these problems have produced modest results. Building roads and providing healthcare and education have reduced rural poverty, yet huge social and environmental problems remain.
To solve these problems we have to figure out why past efforts failed and where the real opportunities are. In other words, we need research. However, many governments and donor agencies don’t like to fund research because they feel it is too academic and fails to provide practical solutions.
They have a point. Most research has focused more on producing publications than helping policymakers and resource managers think through issues. Researchers often choose their topics without consulting the people they supposedly serve. This is partly because donors make them prepare detailed funding proposals that show exactly what they are going to do, and once they get the funds they are supposed to do what the proposal says, even if they have since figured out a better way to do things or the situation changes.
’The Science of Sustainable Development’, by Jeff Sayer and Bruce Campbell from WWF and CIFOR, argues for a more dynamic approach to research. They say researchers must spend time understanding the issues and build long-term ties with the groups involved before deciding what to work on. They need clear objectives, but their specific topics and methods should evolve over time. To solve problems they have to draw on various disciplines and work at several scales, but they don’t have to study everything. The idea is not so much to develop and transfer technologies as to help decision-makers analyze their options, find out about opportunities, and learn from their experiences.
Sayer and Campbell’s idea of good research is like jazz. Scientists, like jazz musicians, have to know what they are doing and how to do it and it has to come from the heart. From there on they need to improvise and go with the flow, without long terms of reference or logical frameworks.
How do they know this will work? They don’t. The book presents examples from various countries, but none fully fits the bill. It is hard to find researchers that can do what the authors propose and even harder to find someone willing to pay for it. Still, most status quo approaches to addressing poverty and natural resource problems in marginal areas simply do not work. So it is time for a bit of "jazz science" – research that is responsive, adaptable and in-sync with the action happening around it.
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The full reference for the book is: Sayer, J. & Campbell, B. 2004. The science of sustainable development: local livelihoods and the global environment. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.