She has revolutionised women’s role in the development work and challenged the World Bank’s view of poverty. British social anthropologist Caroline Moser is a pioneer in the field of development research. She tells Curie about what it is like as a researcher not only to want to understand the world, but also to help improve it.
“An academic’s role is to criticise and see the complexity of a problem,” she explains, “whilst a practitioner is focused on finding solutions. In the meeting of these two different approaches, a great tension builds.”
Social anthropologist Caroline Moser knows what she is speaking about. For more than thirty years she has been active in the area of tension between academic research and policy work. Her specialist area is development linked to conditions in poor urban communities. As an expert in social policy, she has been hired by relief organisations and development agencies, and in the 90s she was employed by the World Bank in order to study how the bank’s structural adjustment programmes* affected the poor in Latin America’s urban communities.
But despite this sterling résumé, it is difficult for Caroline Moser to give concrete examples of how her research has contributed to improving people’s living conditions:
“At the stage where planning and policies are put into practice, I am no longer part of the process,” she explains.
Implementing understanding in guidelines
She tells us that her contribution to social development is primarily a matter of understanding certain problems; something which in turn affects decision-makers’ guidelines and recommendations and ultimately people’s everyday lives.
“When I came to the World Bank, the economists would only speak about assets in terms of income. I broadened the term so that it also included non-measureable assets such as social capital. This showed that poor people are a group with different resources with which to lift themselves out of their situation.
Many academics are suspicious of practicalities; the need to simplify,” she states. As for herself, Moser feels she has a special talent for converting complex matters into policy work. She calls her approach “quite unique”; a process which begins with acquiring an academic understanding of the complexity of a matter. Based on this, she then develops a framework which can in turn be implemented in policies and planning.
“I have applied this method to poverty, gender, violence and, more recently, climate change,” she explains.
Women’s role in poor countries’ development
Above all, she is known for developing “gender planning”; a method which reinforces and highlights women’s role in development in poor countries. Today, it is clear that women have a key role in development work, rather than being seen as passive and indigent. The method has gained broad dissemination, not least thanks to Sida, and led to Caroline Moser becoming world-famous in the field of gender research.
But despite the successes, Carline Moser can testify that it has been extremely tough at times to switch between an academic discourse and one with a more Realpolitik inclination:
“It is a struggle, and those facing it need to be prepared to roll with the punches.”
One example is the reactions to her recruitment by the World Bank. This was at a time when she had gained high regard among gender researchers due to “gender planning”.
“The gender researchers in academia have always been hostile towards the World Bank and I had to withstand scathing criticism when I started working there,” she explains. “At the same time, my qualifications were questioned within the organisation, as I was an anthropologist, not an economist or a technocrat.”
Change from the inside
Moser was attracted by the prospect of trying to understand how to change a practice from the inside instead of criticising it from the outside. This is something which requires pragmatism and the ability to compromise, she establishes. In general, however, Caroline Moser feels that she has managed to maintain an independent researcher perspective over the years – regardless of the assignment. One explanation for this may be her long-term contact with the people the research affects, she suggests:
“As a young anthropologist I stayed in the slums of a community in Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador. I created strong friendships and have returned there many times over the years.”
What happened to the people in Guayaquil has greatly influenced her research, she tells us. She began studying the implications of migration for poverty when many of society’s young people chose to move to Barcelona to create a better life for themselves.
Those affected should help define the problem
Spending time among people and listening to them is of central importance to understanding social problems and being able to create sustainable policies, according to Caroline Moser. She is a strong advocate of qualitative methods in policy-related research and involving and training researchers on-site.
“A policy work easily gains a top-down perspective, whilst the method I use – ‘participatory research methodology’ – allows those affected to help define the problem,” she explains. “When I’m investigating a phenomenon I want to be where it’s taking place, so I’ve also lived in slums in both Latin America and Africa.”
Today, Caroline Moser is Professor Emeritus at the Global Urban Research Centre at the University of Manchester. She is also a member of the Committee for Development Research at the Swedish Research Council and believes that development research as a discipline has made it somewhat easier for people who wish to be active in the borderland between research and policymaking. At the same time, she has no illusions:
“Where gender issues are concerned, for example, the gap between the researchers’ discourse and that of the practitioners is larger than ever,” she says. “And it is in no way a clear choice for young researchers to take an interest in how their knowledge can be implemented in policy work.”