Anthropologist takes no bull

If there is one thing Professor Melissa Leach has no time for, it is ‘bullshit research”.

The social anthropologist jokes with her husband, fellow anthropologist James Fairhead, that she is going to set up an IBRD (Institute for Bullshit Research Development). ‘It’s easy,” she says, ‘to come up with narratives about deforestation: all the world’s trees are disappearing fast; or water scarcity will lead to water wars.
But these are often contradicted by evidence on the ground about how environments are really changing.”

Politicians and policymakers have been prone to shaping facts to fit their world views, she says, and ‘academic research is often drawn into creating narratives”.

Not Leach’s. Her research in the field of anthropology-cum-development-cum-medicine-cum-technology-cum-ecology has challenged consistently public policy and the stance taken by government authorities.

In the early 1990s, when Leach was a PhD student at the University of London, she went to Guinea in West Africa with Fairhead, then her research partner. The area was assumed to be experiencing a deforestation crisis and experts held local villagers responsible. By talking to the villagers, researching the area’s history and ‘viewing things through an anthropological lens”, Leach, Fairhead and a Guinean researcher discovered the opposite was true: the forest was growing, because farmers had worked out how to turn savannah into forest. Leach and her colleagues had shown how experts can reach wrong conclusions if local knowledge and history are not taken into account.

Their findings became a book, Misreading the African Landscape, and a film, Second Nature: Building Forests in West Africa’s Savannahs. A decade later they are still being used to illustrate the power of anthropological methods.

‘It shaped my entire career,” she says. ‘A lot of my work since has been about trying to bring to life the knowledge of local people.”

Seven years later, Leach struck another blow for social anthropology. She and a local anthropologist in northern Nigeria uncovered the reasons for villagers’ fears about taking the polio vaccine, administered to them by the World Health Organisation. Polio was either not seen as a priority, they found, or it was perceived as a spiritual affliction that was impossible to prevent. Leach argued that the polio vaccination campaign was using resources that weakened rather than strengthened local primary healthcare systems.

Leach has been made director of a new global research hub, known as the Steps Centre, which opened recently. It hopes to develop a new approach to understanding why the gap between the poorest and the richest is growing and to do something about it.

Leach wants the centre to involve ‘citizens and decision-makers of all levels”. It already has collaborators in China, India, Kenya and Argentina. ‘We have a think tank role, but we are more academic than a think tank,” she says. ‘We are about producing scholarly research and playing a public and intellectual role.”

She hopes the research will be used by policymakers, NGOs, philanthropic organisations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and United Nations agencies.

Leach says their ‘silver bullets”, aimed at reducing poverty, are missing their targets. Billions could be wasted because of a failure to respond to local needs. She gives as an example the search for genetically modified maize seeds. This, she argues, might overlook opportunities to build on the ways farmers are adapting to drought already.

‘The Gates and Rocke­feller foundations, for example, assume one size fits all, that solutions can be applied across a stable world,” she says. ‘But we live in a world of dynamic change and uncertainty. We want to tackle these challenges head on, combining new theory with practical solutions that make science and technology work for the poor and create sustainable environments from building on people’s own knowledge,” she says.

At the Steps Centre, there are 18 academics under Leach, representing disciplines ranging from anthropology to ecology to medicine.

Leach has carved out a field that links development studies, science and technology and is set in a medical and ecological context. ‘There are few others in the world who combine those perspectives,” she says.—

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