This is a brilliant but slim work from Robert Chambers. Occasionally I stumble upon a text nearly as old as I am, sitting on someone’s shelf, out of print for a decade or two, just waiting for me to come along. Rural Development was one of those texts. When I was living in Ghana in 2010 I had a 4 day period where I left Ghana to come to New York. Thanks to Amazon’s used books feature, and my ever-supportive parents (to whose house I had the book shipped), I was able to bring this book back to Ghana to read during a vaccination Campaign. For me, this book will always evoke memories of lying in the dark under a mosquito net in the sweltering heat of rural Ghana, reading by headlamp. My experience with this book was so much more profound because I was working in a development context within a rural setting at the time I was reading it, but by no means does that mean it isn’t a useful read even from the comfort of your living room.
The thesis of the book is that rural development is important — that we must “put the last first” (the sub-title of the book), or as Paul Farmer says, make a preferential option for the poor. Robert Chambers systematically explains why we must seek to help those who are ‘last’ and how those who often do seek to help the rural poor often miss the mark; because the truly poor are too far away from the big city, too far away from the road the bisects the country, and so on. Those politicians who seek to interface with the poor often find themselves of neatly orchestrated but farcical guided tours through specially groomed project villages. Those academics who seek to help the poor often choose villages to study that are close to urban centers, and even when they pick rural locations they never pick the most rural of locales — it’s always the village near the road, not the one furthest from the road. Chambers does a great job at challenging those who would make a preferential option for the poor to consider how they may inadvertently miss their mark. Intent and impact are not the same, and Chambers thesis is to consider what the best strategies for making an impact truly are. For those interested in international development, this is a must-read.