Starting from recent experiences of action-research, or research in collaboration with actors of development processes in the South, we make an attempt to reflect upon development cooperation and academic research. We focus especially on the contribution that social sciences, and human geography in particular, can bring to the debate on development and cooperation. We describe here the double perspective of a geography of cooperation – how geography can analyze development aid and cooperation, its actors, its patterns of organization and intervention, underlining the spatiality of these phenomena – and a geography for cooperation – how geography can contribute to the body of knowledge on which more viable development projects and programs can be elaborated, with greater attention to the need of adapting these programs and projects to the territorial realities of the respective contexts. In the first perspective, geography can contribute to the construction of a critical knowledge on development aid, through an analysis of cooperation in its different forms and distinctions. The geography of cooperation becomes concrete in the places of departure and arrival of those flows – artifacts and material resources, financial resources, people, ideas and discourses – which characterize the world of development cooperation, and in an ensemble of complex relations linking these nodes in space. It is an uneven geography, regarding the intensity of relations and the importance of its consequences; it is an uncertain geography, difficult to interpret; it is a changeable geography, always in transformation. The second perspective – a geography for cooperation – offers its body of knowledge to practical application, and seeks at the same time a greater implication of academicians in the steps of project elaboration and implementation. The history of development presents several examples of top-down projects which have failed because they weren’t adapted to the territorial reality in the context of intervention: geography can fill a void and help increase the sensibility of practitioners to the “micro” level and to a greater number of territorial, social and environmental factors. The hypothesis of a closer collaboration between research (geographic and social) and action (for development) invites us to reflect more on methodology, since it is a call for reassessing and renovating the analytical tools employed by human geography and other social sciences. At the same time, this collaboration creates a “tension” – more or less fertile and productive – between the goals of research and the goals of action, which sometimes do not correspond: ultimate goals, audiences and languages can differ significantly. In this continuum created between research and action, moments of proximity – exemplified by the birth of the concept of “sustainability”, or by the first experimentations of participatory methodologies in the 70s – can alternate with moments of distance – such as the recent poststructuralist critiques about development “discursive formations”, partially inspired from Foucault’s thought. This kind of critique can nevertheless be useful, since it it opens epistemological and ethical issues related for example to the links between knowledge and power produced by the academia and by the development aid sector, to the uses of this knowledge/power, and to the opportunities for research in itself to reflect critically on its role and its context of action. In the end, no matter what theoretical orientation we may adopt, ranging from the more radical to the reformist ones, we will still need “basic” research on development to maintain a central role, without limiting it to simple data collection. And we will still need research and action to ally, in the common goal of a constant search for alternatives and for unorthodox points of view.
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