Empowering Education, and the Ethics of Participatory Research-Design

The following text is the written form of my opening remarks to the 2018 Thresholds conference on work, migration, and social design of the Polish-Japanese Academy of Information Technology.

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A few years ago, in Grenoble, in France, I was on a committee assessing the merits of a few dozens candidates to a handful of doctoral scholarships. Most of them were very promising young researchers, but one presentation in particular struck me. It was of a computer scientist. She wanted to design new software for surgeons. There’s a large hospital in Grenoble, and contacts between the medical profession and scientists of other fields. For a long time, computer scientists had designed for the hospital what they felt were ever more precise, more powerful iterations of software. And yet, time after time, the surgeons were dissatisfied, and some of them turned to substandard products from the private sector.

The doctoral candidate decided to investigate the subject. She established that, although the programs were indeed more performant than their private sector competitors, they were also less user friendly, and more difficult to understand for the surgeons. They were developed through a simplistic design process, where the medical professionals would give a performance brief to the scientists, who would then deliver a final product. Computer scientists understood performance to be a matter of speed, accuracy, and abstract efficiency, where the young doctoral candidate saw it has a combination of these factors with accessibility and effective usage.

She thought that a true collaborative process in software design should involve the targeted audience at every step of the way, and that even the most careful developper and the most elaborated brief would never be able to ensure the accessibility, and hence efficiency of the final product. Therefore, surgeons and computer scientists should work hand in hand over the course of development, as physicians would learn more about the software they would end up using, and computer scientists would learn to integrate a different perspective in their work.

This seems to be rather self-evident. I hope no creative or development agency would nowadays ever think of designing anything without the frequent inputs of its stakeholders. And yet, there are some people whose voices and advices are never heard, much less listened to, even when they are the main concerned. In fact, collaborative design is still very much predicated on a shared agency by all the partners involved. What I call “shared agency” here is a set of comparable social, economical, and cultural aspects of the persons allowing them to envision and enact scenarios of joint actions. When there exists a vast disparity in the aspects of one group and the other, then, there is no shared agency, and the design or making relationship is likely to be of a vertical nature.

I think this is a subject which would warrant a conceptual enquiry, but maybe a few concrete examples are better suited to our discussion of the day. I will draw these examples from the practices of an international, non governmental organization, ATD Fourth World, also known simply as ATD or the International Movement ATD Fourth World, of which I am a member. I have been a French Language Specialist for this organization for a couple of years now, mostly acting as a remote English-to-French translator. I have not been involved in the projects I’m going to mention here, except, very marginally and briefly, in the translation of short outreach texts.

First, I’m going to explain what is ATD and how it understands participation, then, I will give a few examples, and finally, I will explore the value of these examples in the context of social design, independence building, and migration.

1. Description of the International Movement ATD Fourth World

In 1917, Józef Wrzesiński was born in a French internment camp. In the midst of World War I, his father, a Polish engineer who tried to settle in France in 1914, and his Spanish mother, were, along with many foreigners, suspect to the French authorities. Wrzesiński, later known as Wresinski, would experience extreme poverty for all of his childhood, before being enrolled as a baker at age 13, a vocation he abandoned at 17, to become a priest. After his ordination in 1946, Wresinski mostly spent his time in remote, rural areas, before being dispatched by his bishop to the slums of Noisy-le-Grand, in 1956. The slums were founded in 1954 by Henri Grouès, then already known as the « abbot » Pierre (l’abbé Pierre), when the Emmaüs movement was created. In the winter of 1954, l’Abbé Pierre had given a memorable speech, calling for a fight against poverty, in what the media then described as an « uprising of kindness ». In Noisy-le-Grand, he had organized an informal settlement to house extremely poor people.

Although Wresinski had worked with very poor people for the most part of his priesthood, the presence of more than 200 such families in the same place had a profound effect on him. He vowed to fight for their voices to be heard, and specifically for their experience to be recognized in places of power, such as the Vatican, the French presidential palace, or the United Nations. Hence, ATD Fourth World was born, under the name Aide à Toute Détresse (Help Against Any Misery), although it would later be re-baptized as Agir Tous pour la Dignité (All Acting for Dignity). Wresinski also forged the concept of « Fourth World », by which he meant the people leaving in extreme poverty in any country, who are often untouched by traditional development or social programs, as their disenfranchisement is both deeply economical, and deeply cultural.

While at first, as the Emmaüs Movement from which it spun off, ATD Fourth World was a Catholic undertaking, where volunteers would be lay women, unmarried but not part of any religious order, it quickly became non-denominational. Today staffed with volunteers from both the traditional conception of Catholic charity and alternative, left-wing politics, the NGO operates in more than 30 countries, acts as a consultant to the United Nations, weighs in policy making, and collaborates with major research universities.

Wresinski’s original statement on the empowerment of marginalized voices remains at the core of ATD Fourth World perspective. For instance, in New York, the organization helps extremely poor people to prepare and deliver speeches in front of the UN, and sets up meetings between high ranking officials, from the Secretary-General downwards, and families living in extreme poverty. Hence, the movement has forgone the idea that one of the role of NGOs is to produce an expertise and to institutionalize knowledge and practices. In an era where the non-profit sector has become a job market like any other, and where professional training and educational curriculums have flourished, alongside specialized HR consultants and job boards, the expert-by-trade has become an inescapable figure of the NGO world. With the threshold of qualifications piling up to access these new careers increasingly prescribed by the demands of international and national development agencies all over the world, the power imbalance of the relationship between those who are helped and those who are helping sometimes bring back the memory of the 19th century bourgeois paternalism.

Indeed, as Hans Tao-Ming Huang remarked last year, in a study on the collusions between NGOs and State medical authorities in Taiwan, around the case of HIV, the transformation of the non-profit sector into a market in its own right has been occurring in many areas, and one of the effects has often been the increased marginalization of the very people NGOs are supposed to help. In that context, giving a voice to the voiceless, and a seat at the table of the most powerful to the poorest of all, is not merely a cosmetic choice, but a necessary attempt to reverse current trends.

2. Examples of participatory design in development and research

It is from that perspective ATD Fourth World engaged early on in research and project design. The basic principle of its method is that those who will be the beneficiaries of the project or the subjects of the scientific investigation should also be an integral part of the design team. This does not mean their input will be regularly solicited at key moments in the design process, but rather that they will effectively and continuously be involved in that process. The point here is not to negate the expertise a designer, a policy maker, or a scientific may have in their own field, but to affirm an other expertise, certainly very different in form and content, accumulated over the years by people living in extreme poverty.

This principle is theorized under the name of “merging knowledge”, for which the organization has published its guidelines (PDF). To “merge knowledge”, one should seek to develop a collaborative project, where three types of knowledge will interact: experienced knowledge, professional knowledge, and academic knowledge. Experienced knowledge comes from the lived experience of whichever problem is at hand, and it belongs to those who, for example, live in extreme poverty. Professional knowledge comes from concerted actions on such a problem, and it is the knowledge of, for instance, social workers. Finally, academic knowledge is, of course, of a scientific nature.

This merged knowledge is supposed to act as a barrier against the pitfalls of any authorized discourse. Thus, the presence of experienced knowledge and academic knowledge should protect against the risk of both dehumanizing objectification of the subjects of a scientific inquiry, and undue romanticizing of the wisdom of the very poor. Although, in practice, the organization is more often prone to the latter than the former, the guidelines are careful to underline the fact that the scientific discourse may suffer from its complexity and austerity, and should be supported as well, for its knowledge to be fully recognized.

To give an example of the objects of such research, I draw your attention to the project conducted since 2016, and projected to end in 2019, on the Multidimensional Poverty Indicator. The MPI is a quantifying tool developed by the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative at Oxford University, and its relevance was studied jointly by the OPHD and ATD Fourth World, to assess the UN Sustainable Development Goals. In that context, the point of the participatory research is to allow people living in extreme poverty to identify what aspects of their lives are the most important to them, and what constitute, in their opinion, the major areas of development. Quantification indicators designed in this manner are therefore not the product of a theory imposed on shifting and at times hardly discernable realities, but a suitable approximation of the concerns of the future beneficiaries of development programs.

This would allow these programs to ensure that they will be effective, through a better understanding of the needs of the very poor. Such a methodology is developed to prevent the shortcomings of many directive development projects and policy initiatives. For instance, in the 2000s and 2010s, people living under bridges in Manila, Philippines, had been relocalized by the city administration in new social housing developed in the suburbs. Although this appeared to be a significant upgrade in living conditions and met the standards of vertically designed development projects, it turned out that, a few months later, most families went back to the bridges. Indeed, they valued access to the central, informal job market more than decent housing. In fact, to them, a decent housing provided in the suburbs could only be temporary, as, by geographically marginalizing them for the main area of economical activity, it would eventually lead to a decrease in income, and more precariousness. Hence, the development project was a failure, for once not because of a lack of ambition or investment from the administration, but because of a lack of collaboration in policy making.

3. Social Design, Independence Building, and Migration

As you see, the two problems, of the people living under a bridge in Manila, and of the surgeons in Grenoble, are similar, as they both tell of a design process that was insufficiently collaborative, and yet very different, as in the latter case, the corrective integration of the surgeons’ voices was easy enough, whereas in the former case, a similar integration was hindered by the prejudice surrounding extreme poverty, and especially the lack of any formal education. In such cases, a correction is still often possible, but it usually requires some clear guidelines, such as the ones provided by ATD Fourth World.

It’s worth insisting on the fact that such guidelines are empowering not only for the voiceless, but also for those in position of authorities. As such, they participate both to an education that is empowering, and to the empowerment of education. On the one hand, they indeed educate the most marginalized and open up the civic debate and political action. On the other hand, they ensure that education is transformed into a bivalent relationship, where the skills and knowledge of those who perceive themselves as the primary educators are enhanced by the skills and knowledge of those whom they perceived to be the learners.

A truly effective social design experience should yield similar results, as it is akin to policy making and research design. Be it that you design software or a set of benches for a public square, you should emerge more skilled and more knowledgeable from your experience, not only by the furthering of your own professional knowledge, but also by the merging of this knowledge with the experienced knowledge of other actors. If your software or your benches are never used, it’s a sure sign of failure, but another sign as well is if your perception has not shifted.

Yet, by yourself, you can only expand your knowledge insofar as your new knowledge is derivative of the knowledge you already have. This means that even if you were to experience the actual reality of the work of a surgeon, the leisure in the public square, or the life under the bridge, you would never elaborate this experience as it is elaborated by others, whom have been persistently experiencing it. In fact, it may even be untrue to suggest that, at the end of a collaborative design process, the merged knowledge fostered by the collaboration is the knowledge of any agent of this very collaboration. Certainly, these agents have been transformed by the experience, and even deeply so, having been affected by external causes very different than the ones they may usually encounter, but not in such a way that their mind, being suddenly of a different nature, could pretend to a knowledge of a superior kind.

From this it follows that the only way for such a knowledge of a superior kind, a merged knowledge if we are to use the phraseology of ATD, to be accessed, is through a multitude of voices. This idea is simple and common enough, but it is very rarely put into practice. One would hardly argue with the idea that in most educative relationships nowadays, if the educator is educated by those they are educating, it is more often than not because they have derived from their previous knowledge as an educator what their experience entailed, and not because they have given a voice to the voiceless. It is a fact that students’ evaluation of teachers, now the most ubiquitous technology of control in education, are hardly produced by students at all, and are rather the product of a vertical imposition of concepts, temporality, and forms of speech. The formalisation of these evaluations, and especially in their quantified iterations, is perhaps the most effective way to prevent a true, participatory, and empowering education.

If we are know to apply these notions to the issues of independence building, migration, and work, from the perspective of social design, we should recognize than any appropriate course of action would not only integrate the voices of the voiceless, but also make them agents of the design process, on an equal foot. Formalized inquiries, questionnaires, and evaluative feedbacks, although they all participate of a technological apparatus presented under the guise of a new, more democratic, civic discourse, are all alien to the serendipitous aspect of a shared agency. If you were to design an artistic workshop for refugees, you should have very little idea of what the workshop will look like before meeting those who actually hold the experienced knowledge with which you wish to engage. Should you ever finish such a workshop feeling your initial assumptions have been confirmed, then you would almost certainly have failed in your attempt of social design.

Collective and collaborative forms of action are thus highly desirable. Yet, one should be cautious while evaluating what is currently peddled as collaborative work environments. Such a collaboration as the one I have described is predicated on the principle of radical equality, and is hence profoundly alien to the celebration of individual and purportedly visionary management. It is imperative research and design are not marshalled in the social whitewashing of the very institutions perpetuating the structures of marginalization and disenfranchisement silencing the voiceless and the extremely poor.

From this perspective, the role of artistic design is, in my opinion, dual. On the hand, it should give dignity to refugees, by acknowledging that their needs go beyond the mere continuation of their existence, and do indeed include the right to live a dignified live, through participation to culture and self-care. On the other hand, it should act as a counter-discourse to the pervasive resignification of ethical, political, and social concepts and values.


François-Ronan Dubois

Chercheur à l'Université de Varsovie, agrégé et certifié de lettres modernes, docteur en lettres & arts de l'Université Grenoble-Alpes. Spécialiste de l'histoire intellectuelle en Europe à l'époque moderne (1600-1800) et de la culture audiovisuelle de grande diffusion à l'époque contemporaine (1960-2018).

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François-Ronan Dubois

Chercheur à l'Université de Varsovie, agrégé et certifié de lettres modernes, docteur en lettres & arts de l'Université Grenoble-Alpes. Spécialiste de l'histoire intellectuelle en Europe à l'époque moderne (1600-1800) et de la culture audiovisuelle de grande diffusion à l'époque contemporaine (1960-2018).

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