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Input to achieve output: our moral obligation?

The burden on scientists working in development to show impact can lead to short cuts and affect the likely uptake of the knowledge we generate.

One of the scientists presenting during our annual Science Forum this week demonstrated work that is being done to improve tea production by increasing the soil biota. The scientist described his work as opening the black box to understand what is going on.

In simplistic terms, if you input earthworms into the soil, the output is that the farmer gets a greater tea crop and therefore more money.

In the world of donor-driven research in which we operate, donors have the expectation that the work we do will not only open this black box but also produce outputs for the rural poor. Our research should result in impact on the ground.

As scientists our task is to open the black box, as developers it is to use the research results as input for creating output in the form of better livelihoods. In my opinion this means that we have to unravel a second black box – that of understanding how local farmers adopt our results. The latter black box is strongly related to the cultural, social, political and jurisdictional conditions, and varies much more than the first box. In essence this means that in most cases we are expected to solve two difficult questions, but usually only get resources for solving one. So we take shortcuts.

Most science funding agencies are driven by a political agenda that in the end is voted upon by those who pay the bill – the taxpayers. These funding agencies have a large responsibility for keeping science and knowledge at the forefront to help the tax-payers live better lifes. In development research there is no such link between those who pay and those who are supposed to receive the output. The media will almost exclusively report on poverty and conflicts and not on knowledge development from the developing world. In their home country they will report on new scientific findings, and how well schools and hospitals are performing compared to other countries or regions.

Because of this discrepancy we operate in a unique “market” environment. We are paid in advance for double outputs, but because we get resources only for one output, we have to shortcut in order to open two black boxes. Our success rate is falling behind. But when we pool resources and open both boxes, the impact is worth much more than the donor input. But we do not get rewarded for this.

As an example, of course it would be great to be able to input the fertilizer tree Faidherbia albida into fields of maize and obtain output with certainty higher crop yields. But to attract money for such work requires us to prove results under all situations and that cannot always be done with the resources we receive from donors.

In my opinion there are two shortcuts that are most common. The first shortcut is that we generalize findings from one environment and adopt it in other environments without sufficient understanding of the impacts in this new environment. It can be the introduction of exotic species, or farming methods for instance. This shortcut can have negative effects, but I regard the second shortcut as the more troublesome. In order to show actions on the ground, we violate moral and ethical standards. To get actions on the ground we get actively involved in the decision making in societies where we have no rights. It was the German philosopher Immanuel Kant who said that man has a moral and ethical understanding which is above all other species (i.e. the ability to know what is right and what is wrong). We should not treat other people as means to an end but as the ends in themselves. In other words, we should not be ‘making’ the farmer plant more trees so we can show how successful our work has been and therefore receive more funding from donors.

If we do this, we are taking what many could consider a colonialist approach. It is not for us to tell the tea farmer to put earthworms in his or her fields. They alone must make the decision about how they manage their farm.

To do our science morally and ethically requires the sharpening of boundaries between our role in generating knowledge and our role in applying it. And donors need to understand the complexities this entails.

If we do operate morally and ethically then I am convinced that our science is more likely to be adopted.


Thomas Gumbricht

Thomas Gumbricht holds a PhD in Land improvement and drainage from the Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden, and is an autodidact in geoinformatics. He has worked in Africa for ten years, after having been lured to work as a post-doc at University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa on the Okavango Delta in Botswana. He joined ICRAF for the first time as a hydrologist in 2002. Since 2009 he lives with his family in Nairobi, and works as a senior scientist in geoinformatics with ICRAF. Apart from a professional interest in water he also enjoys sailing, skating and skiing.

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