The most important questions – are they answerable?

The short version: Questions without clear answers are still worth asking. In international development, as elsewhere. 

The longer version: 

The Sheffield Institute for International Development has launched “ID100”, an initiative to determine “the 100 most important questions in international development.” I do appreciate them crowdsourcing this. But sadly, their name is misleading. Its proper name should be, “100 of the most important questions in research into international development.” 

Sure, that’s not as exciting or marketable. But they limit their questions  to only those that have a “factual answer” that can be “addressed by a research team” and that “must not be answerable by ‘it all depends’.” (See the full criteria below.) By bounding the “most important questions” with these constraints, they imply that unanswerable questions, “it depends” questions and non-factual questions (eg political, cultural, …) are so unimportant, they don’t even belong in the first 10 pages of your Google results. These types of questions may not make for neat and tidy research. I don’t deny or diminish the importance of research in development. But, neither should SIID diminish the importance of the many relevant questions that don’t have clear answers, which development researchers, practitioners, policymakers (global and national) can choose to ask, or not to ask.

These unanswerable questions are immensely valuable: they bring new perspectives to the debate, they lead to more relevant questions that may have otherwise been buried, and they allow us to take highly context-specific information into account. If, as SIID implies, we should only be asking the questions with clear answers, we are missing all of this, and deluding ourselves that A should always lead to B.

But we have a choice – to ask, or not to ask. And if we choose not to ask, if we decide that these questions aren’t important, we lose

Some examples of highly relevant questions that don’t meet SIID’s criteria:

What political constraints does evidence-based policymaking face in development settings?
How do my personal biases – based on gender, culture, upbringing, religion, etc – affect my professional judgment?
How does the cultural relevance of curricula affect how much, or how well, students learn?

Why don’t they meet the criteria? Because the answer depends on so many factors, and because those factors and their interactions are constantly changing, aka there is no factual answer. However, these questions are very relevant to those researchers, practitioners, and policymakers – in understanding the context of their work and the impact that they can have.

Their criteria for submitted questions are below.

  • Must be answerable through a realistic research design,
  • Must be of a spatial and temporal scope that reasonably could be addressed by a research team
  • Must not be formulated as a general topic area
  • Must have a factual answer and must not be answerable with ‘it all depends’
  • Except if questioning a precise statement (e.g. ‘does the earth go round the sun?’), should not be answerable by ‘yes’ or ‘no’
  • If related to impact and interventions, must contain a subject, an intervention, and a measurable outcome

Some music to help us ponder: “The Unanswered Question” by Charles Ives. (If you don’t know it, listen for the trumpet and the flute. Actually, don’t listen for anything – just listen.)


About developingnathan
I am a reflective person. I am an introvert, a friend, a brother and a son. I appreciate a well-crafted glass of beer, piece of music and turn of phrase. I am a professional of international development, a good pianist and a Green Bay Packers fan.

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