Backdraft #4: Edward Carr on Understanding What Really Motivates People and the Value of Ethnographic Research
Unintended consequences from climate interventions are often the result of not understanding decision-making at a granular enough level, says Ed Carr this week’s “Backdraft” episode.
How people construct their identities and their perception of how the world works can make or break an intervention, says Carr, professor and director of the Humanitarian Response and Development Lab at Clark University and former AAAS policy fellow at the U.S. Agency for International Development.
“That sounds all fuzzy and soft, but if you don’t have that information you really can’t understand how people are making decisions, and if you don’t understand how they’re making decisions…and who gets to make the decisions…you have no idea how the interventions are interacting with that.”
For example, in research conducted for USAID in southern Mali, Carr found that climate-smart agriculture projects could have unforeseen effects on gender dynamics. Farming staple grains is largely considered the responsibility of men in the region, so a project focused on increasing yields among these crops could widen income gaps between men and women. Conversely, if the project took steps to promote production by female farmers, it could undermine men’s status and cultural identities in a significant way, potentially leading to increased rates of domestic violence.
Carr stressed the importance of ethnographic research to help policymakers understand differences in context from place to place that could affect results.
How projects are monitored and evaluated, or “M&E” in development parlance, can also hide inadvertent consequences. “What gets measured gets managed,” says Carr. If a climate project has a significant impact that was unintended, it may not get recorded or addressed because the M&E plan was written to look for specific results only. The opportunity to build on or mitigate unexpected results – good or bad – is lost in such an inflexible system.
These challenges are not unique to climate responses, but symptoms of how development is carried out generally, Carr says, often in a targeted manner, sector by sector. “Sectoral development focuses on particular issues as if they’re not parts of complex systems, and as a result it narrows our monitoring and evaluation, it narrows our understanding of the world, it narrows our understanding of the problems we’re addressing.”
Carr stresses the need for more flexibility generally. “We need innovative contract and funding mechanisms for work that allow people to pivot really hard when we learn something new or when a project starts doing something bad or good that we didn’t expect.”
He admits there are challenges to scaling up the kind of household and sub-household research he and colleagues have been doing in West Africa, but says they are working on it. It might be possible to bring lessons learned from their experience to other ethnically and “agro-ecologically” similar communities, he says.
“We, the qualitative research community [and] interpretive social science community, have not worked as much to think about generalization and how to get to generalization as we could have, so I’m actually excited to try and do that.”
The “Backdraft” podcast series is hosted and co-produced by Lauren Herzer Risi and Sean Peoples, a freelance multimedia producer based in Washington, DC.
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