It was my Norwegian compatriot Hanna Mollan, who recently made me think about the importance of the words we use - yes, words, concepts and theories. It is important to others how we phrase our opinions, and how we learn and use concepts to understand topics and issues ourselves and share them with others. I shall not go too deep into semantics here. Then wed better consult Naom Chomsky, the great American cognitive scientist and philosopher, and a critical and political analyst, whose own initial academic background was linguistics, the study of words and their meanings. And then, following from that, if we really want to understand words, we must also try to understand properly what those words do describe, explain, analyse, etc. In other words, we are not just talking about words, but indeed much more, the way we comprehend the world. When Hanna reminded me of the importance of words and these broader issues, she made a special reference to the field she has been working in for the last six months, notably humanitarian aid in Sindh, being based partly in Karachi and partly in Sukkur, in the field, as they say in the UN, and she has worked for the United Nations Childrens Fund (UNICEF). She said that she was worried about a new approach, that outsiders wanted to define words and concepts for the work in the field. The intention was positive; it was being done in an effort to make implementation more scientific and get better results, maybe even guaranteed good results. There are several problems, though. The first one being: Do the academicians know enough about reality, the field, to do what they want to do? This is not only a problem in humanitarian aid; it is a general problem in many fields of the social sciences. Theories may be good, but the real world is after all what we talk about, isnt it? In our modern world today, well, which is often a virtual world, we live sheltered from reality; we look up things on the Internet, we read a few articles, books too, at best, and, obviously, we call a few focus group meetings. All this is good and well as long as we realise that we dont really know anything, or at least very little As an anthropologist, I suppose Hanna would like researchers to spend a year doing fieldwork, as part of the apprenticeship to gain the basic knowledge about a community outside the one they normally live in. That is a standard requirement for any anthropology student, who wants to learn the trade. Of course, we can gain journalistic knowledge, as it is often called, and we can gain knowledge from being travellers and visitors. We learn a lot even from shorter stays. But if we talk about research-based knowledge, then we should maintain the requirement of longer stays, with studies using relevant systematic and scientific methods, and collect all the informal information, too. In many ways, academicians and experts from outside a local community, whole countries for that matter, risk becoming like bosses from the headquarters of global companies and organisations: They think they understand the sub-office, the local communities. Even if they dont, they still feel they do, and they feel the right to give orders and draw conclusions. Even teams that come from outside to evaluate projects and programmes often fall in the same category. Hence, without listening to the locals, who after all know most issues best, we are actually very un-academic and un-scientific. However, there are still issues that outsiders see better, and they can bring in examples from elsewhere and make comparisons, so we should also welcome inputs from others, not be complacent in own righteousness. How then can we make local practical and theoretical knowledge join hands with the broader international, academic world? Or, maybe first, is it really necessary? Yes, it is necessary and it will help, but if the great international gurus from outside think they already know the answers to the specific local issues, theyd better stay at home. But if they come to learn from the locals, who also do have some academic knowledge and theory, then they should be welcomed. And if the fieldwork, the local learning process is long enough, and done with good intentions and with a genuine interest in understanding and solving problems, not just picking brains and looting ideas, then there is hope for good outcomes. Alas, in our competitive world today, the environment is not very conducive for this type of action. But it is possible Some 10 years ago, I worked in the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), in the field of education in Pakistan. They supported education and other sectors for hundreds of thousands of primary school refugee pupils from Afghanistan - and many others remained out of school and without other support to make life bearable in exile. The agency did good but not excellent practical work for those who went to school. They had scant theoretical knowledge and just a handful of officers with education specialisation, including at UNHCRs Geneva headquarters. At local level, work became logistics and do as we did last year; leave it to the NGOs to implement the projects and run the schools, as best as they can. It was my job to see if we could change and improve the situation. I thought we should cooperate with another UN agency, notably UNESCO, the United Nations organisation for education, science and culture. They sometimes call themselves an intellectual organisation, and then, I suppose, they would to some extent feel that the UNHCR would just be a practical office, moving boxes, as was sometimes said. It is, probably, a requirement that the UN agencies must add value to justify their presence, not just help do practical things, which should after all be left to the government and the implementing partners. That time, a decade ago, I wanted the vast knowledge base of UNESCO to be used into UNHCRs concrete work to improve quality and understanding, and do more and better work. I believe it was logical and a right approach, but we did not succeed because both agencies had big egos, they wanted to build their own empires alone. They also thought they were doing all right as it was, never mind that in East Africa they followed my model of cooperation, combining theory and practice, for better results. Maybe, today, when some academicians come to Hannas territory, they too come as high priests, not as ordinary churchgoers. But then the ordinary churchgoers, the people in the field, also know that it may be useful to learn from top experts. We should not end with a power struggle, where the top will in the end win, as is usually the case. We should find solutions so that the locals win; so that those who have the shoes on, who know where many of the shortcomings are, can draw most of the conclusions, with the help of, not the directives from, the academicians. After all, theories, concepts, analyses, and words and words again, are good only, or mostly, if they can help solve problems on the ground. If they cant, let the academicians and experts stay in their libraries, labs and behind their computers. And then let them come to visit, to give ideas, maybe even inspiration, because sometimes, as they say, there is nothing as practical as a good theory. But it is not for them to come up with the great thoughts, and to say how their thoughts and theories should be applied. That is up to you and me - and Hanna. The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist based in Islamabad. He has served as United Nations Specialist in the United States, as well as various countries in Africa and Asia. He has also spent a decade dealing with the Afghan refugee crisis and university education in Pakistan. Email: