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CHALLENGING THE PROFESSIONS Robert Chambers Publisher: Intermediate Technology Publications Price: Not stated

Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

-- (Credit: Rustam Vania)THE work of Robert Chambers, an eminent rural sociologist, has influenced academics as well as field workers and NGOs. This book aims to enunciate a new work ethic commensurate with his commitment to rural development.

Chambers critiques what he calls "normal" professionalism, the "thinking, values, methods and behaviour dominant in a profession or discipline", pointing out that this is a conservative and self-perpetuating mode. It may work well at the urban "core", but shows gaping holes when applied to the rural periphery, being unable to adjust to specificities. It also exhibits a bias against the rural sector.

In contrast, the "new" professionalism seeks to remedy these defects: here, the poor come first, professional values are reversed in a shift towards "low" technology, and the poor become the teachers.

For a successful rural development programme, Chambers has something to offer to everyone, from policymakers and governments to NGOs and academics. But after the first chapter, the book begins to read like a manual on rural management, textbook tone and all. More to the purpose, the claims made on behalf of the "new" professionalism begin to have a hollow ring.

To have a successful rural development programme, there is a crying need to rectify the bias towards urban areas, and to rework humanpower and resource allocations. But is this a new idea? Such a pearl of wisdom holds equally well for any other form of development, not just the rural sector. Does one need to read this book to find out that poorer people are more vulnerable to sickness, especially during the rainy season (or any season, for that matter)? And it is here that Chambers seems to fall into the trenches dug by the very work ethic he seeks to critique: the practical aspects of this book comes under a cloud.

If we must look for a silver lining, it is to be found in the ostensible intention to depart from older economic theories of rural development which have been analysed here, from the neo-Fabians in the '60s through the neo-Classicists of the '80s and down to the contemporary "view from below". A chapter is exclusively devoted to NGOs: Chambers suggests that they should start small, develop and improvise on techniques, and, most importantly, be reflexive and openminded.

On the whole, the book is confined to a simplistic level of analysis. Catechisms abound ("The state must...maintain peace and the democratic rule of law"), at times bordering on the utopian ("The challenge is to... empower those who are weak and deprived"). "New professionalism" reads well as theory, and that's about it. Chambers' book shows that rural development can be satisfactory only on the field, and not as an academic discourse.

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