What are our responsibilities towards the people that are affected by our research? And how can we assure that our work supports those people we intend to help? Questions like these accompany every researcher who works in or on developing countries. During my thesis fieldwork in Nepal on rural-urban migration, I realized that there are no straightforward answers to those questions but that they demand us to be consistently critical towards our own engagement.
TO KNOW IS TO CHOOSE
The day before my departure to Nepal, I was cleaning my room and discovered printed articles below my bed, behind the heater and even between some socks in my closet. Basically, my whole room was covered in academic papers and personal notes so that my rat could even build her own little nest with coiled post-its. Having spent much time reading on migration in Nepal, I was confident to understand the needs of migrants in Kathmandu. Once I arrived in this noisy city with its calm people, however, I realized that all these academic articles speak another language than the migrants themselves. While the publications in academic journals are always clear and logical, the accounts of my interviewees were contradicting each other and revealed that migration is, frankly speaking, a very messy phenomenon.
“To know is to choose,” says Zygmunt Bauman, a Polish sociologist. And I believe he is right. To write a thesis which is recognized as scientific means to provide a coherent account of issues that are inherently ambiguous. Whether we collect data on the quality of river water in India or on the livelihoods of refugees in Lebanon, the data usually allows multiple interpretations. Hence, the academics bear the responsibility to decide which conclusions are drawn. While there is, of course, always space to acknowledge complexity, every researcher is also compelled to make choices that simplify the outcome.
Because of the need to choose, researchers should be aware of the strategic interest of the people who are involved in or affected by the research. Academics may like to believe that their work is objective. But in a country as politically polarized as Nepal, there is no neutral space for knowledge to exist. Whether you are working on cultural topics like mine or on technical issues, such as the optimization of traditional farming, our results are always going to enhance a limited and particular number of people. So how do we choose whose to benefit from our research? And how can we be sure that our results are not misused to advance others?
THE IMPORTANCE OF REFLECTION
At the end of the day, the best we can do is to be reflective towards the values that inform the research and make clear which intentions lie beyond the scientific inquiry itself. I personally decided to study international development because I want to contribute to the empowerment of the global poor. I want to live in a world in which global inequality is not growing but decreasing over time. And as a researcher, I will always try to expose those ideologies and practices that reinforce inequality. By being aware of the ideals that inform my academic engagement, I can become more critical towards the way my insights may be misused.
All of this is not only relevant for students of international development (MID) but should concern everybody who studies or works at WUR. As a university of life science, WUR aims to produce knowledge that has an effect, knowledge that can be applied, and knowledge that contributes to global development. These ideals are indeed important orientation points for our engagement. At the same time, however, they require us to be even more critical about the way new insights are used. Whereas technical innovations in the agricultural production, for example, can increase the output in developing countries, they do often not improve the living standards of the farmers themselves.
Being at the end of my studies at Wageningen, I can look back on two extremely instructive years that allowed me to grow not only academically but also personally. While I always appreciated the setup of the courses, the multicultural vibe and the interdisciplinary approach of many departments, I sometimes felt a lack of political consciousness by many peers. If we want the next generation of engineers, entrepreneurs, politicians, and development workers to be self-critical towards their work and open to the genuine demands of the global poor, WUR should scale-up the education on self-critical awareness across all disciplines. Because, to put it in the words of Paulo Freire, “Liberating education consists in acts of cognition, not transferrals of information.”