28 March 2007 - Thunder Bay
Telling IDRC's Story
By Patrick Kavanagh
Historians Dr. Ron Harpelle of Lakehead University and Dr. Bruce Muirhead of the
University of Waterloo have been commissioned to write a book-length intellectual history of IDRC, and to produce related materials including a Website.
The two began their research early in 2006 and already have interviewed about 100 board members, staff, partners, and others. They have visited regional offices in Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East, and will travel to Africa in the spring. They will deliver their manuscript in December 2008.
They recently gave IDRC Bulletin an update on the project.
Historians tend to squirrel away in dusty archives. Why have you been traveling so much?
RH: If we're going to understand IDRC and its evolution, we have to go into the field. When you write a history it's easy to forget that you're writing about people. It has been a real education for both of us to see the past, present, and future of IDRC, and to reflect on what the organization has meant to peoples' lives.
BM: Right. I don't think it would be possible to write this history without visiting the field. Our book will have much more vitality and life than something written strictly from documents. IDRC is a massive organization with people all over the world doing incredible work, and that should be celebrated.
RH: Plus, the themes we want to look at have regional aspects, and each time we go to a region we want to focus on one of those. In the Middle East our goal is to concentrate on gender, peace, and security. When we went to the Southern Cone it was the politics of development. In Asia we looked at water, at politics again, and at information technologies. And in Africa it will be Francophonie and health.
Which of your findings have surprised you most?
BM: IDRC's reputation in the developing world. We have met with deputy ministers, other high-ranking officials, and senior academics, all of whom have a special feeling for Canada and certainly for IDRC. The research that the organization funded 25 years ago has resulted in huge benefits today, and it's been remarkable to see the way senior people in those societies now remember IDRC. We have had no problem getting interviews with anybody. It doesn't matter where they are or what they're doing. When we were in India, for example, the Secretary of State for Planning left Parliament to come to speak to us for an hour -- all because of support that IDRC gave him 20 years ago.
RH: More than one person said to us: IDRC offered us money, and our first question was "Okay, what are the strings?" They're amazed when they find out that if there are strings, they are thin ones. They're astonished that Canada is willing to give them money to do research that on the surface doesn't have any real benefit to Canada. And it's not just senior officials who appreciate IDRC. We visited a village called Embalam in southern India, near Pondicherry, and the entire village leadership and maybe 50 people came out to greet us. We sat in the temple courtyard on rugs and the people told us about how IDRC's support for rural telecentres had changed their lives. It was absolutely remarkable to us to see how IDRC has allowed this community to realize its potential.
What have you learned from researchers?
RH: Judith Sutz [Professor of Science, Technology and Society at Uruguay's University of the Republic] told us that there would be no sociology taught or studied in Uruguay today if it weren't for IDRC. When the generals took over they persecuted the sociologists--because they were "dangerous." IDRC supported a few of them in publishing and researching so that when the generals did leave there were trained Uruguayan sociologists who could continue the field.
BM: In Beijing we met a woman, Qi Gubo, who teaches at the China Agricultural University. She runs a course called "gender and development." It's the only such course in China, but it exists because of IDRC. She says the course's reception has been remarkable. Even engineers are taking it.
RH: Qi Gubo also said that even though she was working in development and working with women, she had never really considered gender in development. She learned about it as a result of contact with IDRC. Since she is a young woman I assume that she'll be teaching for the next 25 years and passing this perspective along to the next generations of young scholars. So the ripple effect will be far reaching.
Have you identified any IDRC innovations--ideas, tools, methods, technologies--that have endured?
BM: IDRC has probably had a massive influence on methodologies. For example, it insists on women being included in grant proposals, an approach which has become much more widespread. Also, community-based natural resource management is a hugely significant change. Tackling things from the bottom up as opposed to top down is all over the developing world now. In China, IDRC has emphasized bottom-up planning. People said there is no way you could make such an approach work there, but the government has come round to accept it.
RH: A lot of people point to IDRC and its networking. Thanks to its program officers and its system of regional offices, it can pull together researchers working on similar projects in different countries. Someone told us: you know I was working alone in this run-down building, and IDRC put me in contact with another person who is working in an equally run-down building in another country--so now we have a network in two run-down buildings.
BM: Since I'm at the University of Waterloo I must mention the Waterloo pump, which was developed in the 1970s with IDRC support. It was designed for use in the developing world, it had no electrical parts, and needed little maintenance. It's gone through a number of incarnations and I don't think it's called the Waterloo Pump anymore, but it's the same design that they came up with thanks to IDRC funding. Of course, IDRC's name isn't on it anymore, which is how it should be. A development project has succeeded if it has a life of its own and if the users forget who initiated it.
RH: It's important for people to realize that they're doing it themselves. Maybe they need a little assistance to get going but they should reach the point where they can look back and say: We got to where we are with this project because of our own hard work. I think that's the kind of thing that translates into real development.
Will your book have enough room to cover this huge topic?
RH: We have some other plans, including transcribing our interviews and publishing them separately. We discovered that we're dealing with some of the smartest, most articulate people in the world, and many of these interviews are wonderful. Once we get permission from the interviewees, we'll archive the conversations or maybe even put some up on a website. They would make great primary sources for others to use.
Tell us about the web component.
RH: The web aspect is aimed at younger Canadians, the teenagers who will be paying taxes in a few years, and who are starting to wonder about their place and their country's place in the world. We want to reach out to them and explain what international development is and why it's important. Our objective is to popularize IDRC as much as possible so that people will recognize it more.
What has this project meant for you professionally?
BM: I talk about IDRC all the time to my students. I tell them that this is an organization that they should know about. Ron and I agree that, for us, this project has been a career-altering experience, but we also hope to alter the future careers of some young people by giving them access to IDRC.
RH: I don't think there is a single course offered on the planet on the history of international development because it's got such a short history. It's a "contemporary" topic that has always been handled by political science or sociology. That is why both Bruce and I will soon be offering courses on the history of international development and on Canada's role on it. So I guess that makes us pioneers.
Patrick Kavanagh is a senior writer in IDRC's Communications Division in Ottawa.