Why knowledge is development currency

Do you know what I know?

Nine years ago the World Bank became the “Knowledge Bank”. Ben Ramalingam asks, what does the “knowledge for development” movement mean for those who receive aid.

Knowledge currency spread On the outskirts of a town called Fatick in Senegal , I was squatting in a hut with two middle-aged men, both traditional healers. One of them was explaining to me in sober tones how he first came to be a healer, and the social responsibilities that come with being the custodian of the knowledge of his forefathers. A few yards away, more healers were gathered together, having travelled miles by cart and horse. This is the headquarters of Malengo, a network of traditional healers working across the country. It is just one of the many such networks that have sprung up around Africa , and it is driven by the need to preserve, share and recognise the importance of indigenous knowledge.

Earlier the same summer, I was traipsing down H Street in Washington DC to the headquarters of the World Bank. I was in town along with other members of a global network called Knowledge Management for Development (KM4Dev), gathering for the networks’ annual meeting. KM4Dev brings together researchers, practitioners and policymakers from around the world, builds awareness of the importance of knowledge and learning in international development, and facilitates the exchange and capture of experience and lessons.

Although on the surface they are worlds apart, both Malengo and KM4Dev are examples of a new and growing phenomenon within international development. Referred to as “knowledge-based networks”, or “communities of practice”, they are increasingly seen as invaluable in the sharing, preserving and creating of knowledge. Communities of practice, whether they are global and local, work towards very similar goals, driven by the emerging principles of knowledge-based aid.

The importance of knowledge as a resource for development is hardly new. However, recent years have seen a lot of attention paid to the idea of the knowledge economy, partly as a result of the emergence of the digital age and the increase in globalisation. This focus was brought into the development sector in 1996 – a key year in the emergence of knowledge-based aid. The incoming president of the Bank, James Wolfensohn, made the speech that would launch the “knowledge-based aid” movement.

He said: “The Bank Group’s relationships with governments and institutions all over the world and our unique reservoir of development experience across sectors and countries position us to play a leading role in a new knowledge partnership... To capture this potential we need to invest in the necessary systems that will enhance our ability to gather development information and experience and share it with our clients. We need to become, in effect, the ‘Knowledge Bank’.”

This landmark speech was followed in 1998 by the World Development Report Knowledge for Development, which laid down the core guiding principles of knowledge-based aid. This was implicitly framed in the report as a knowledge supply chain, whereby development agencies develop knowledge strategies for dealing with information management and organisational learning. Partnership mechanisms are developed for the transfer of knowledge and learning to the South, and work is undertaken to build Southern capacity to absorb, apply and provide knowledge.

A recent report from the Research and Policy in Development programme at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) looks at the first part of this supply chain – the knowledge strategies developed by development agencies. The report shows there is a marked tendency for agencies to concentrate on knowledge held in the North, mainly within their own organisations. There is also a greater focus on information management (such as intranets), rather than on organisational learning (such as undertaking regular reviews of lessons learned). Overall, there is slow progress towards the vision of sharing and learning laid out in knowledge strategies. The key barriers seem to be the lack of a learning culture, financial or other practical constraints, the need for learning leadership and bureaucratic inertia.

Teacher in classroom But positive change does not happen overnight. Many agencies recognise that knowledge is not merely an asset generated in the North, made available through online databases, and piped to the South in order to trigger and sustain development. Rather, knowledge is grounded in local cultures and institutions, and shaped by power dynamics and relationships between the multiple participants involved in international development. However, while such issues are seen as being on the agenda for knowledge strategies, they often take second place to resolving internal aspects of knowledge strategies.

A recent study of knowledge-based aid among four donor agencies, (funded by the Economic and Social Research Council) highlighted the danger that development agencies may spend too much time thinking about their own internal knowledge, without considering what forms and types of knowledge actually make a difference in the developing world. It is not just internal efficiencies that are at stake here. An emphasis on unequal knowledge transfers can, as former Bank Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz has argued, work to “short circuit” local knowledge systems, and perpetuate the problems of development. Northern agencies’ focus on internal processes may hinder Southern parties from ever participating in knowledge sharing on equal terms.

While this is clearly a serious hazard for the “knowledge-based aid” movement to steer around, there are positives too. After all, the movement is still in its infancy, and much good work has been done, especially in the sphere of technological advancements. While the ODI report indicates that significant challenges of knowledge and learning in the development sector remain to be solved, it also outlines the key areas where further understanding is needed. Much good work is clearly already underway, but whether knowledge-based aid can be transformed to learning-based aid – focusing on the needs of the South – remains to be seen. However, one thing is clear: the massive potential of knowledge in development is still there to be realised.

A few months after my meeting with the traditional healers, I found myself drinking wine with a Ghanaian man called Luke Akaguri. Luke is the national co-ordinator of the Fiankoma project, a DFID-funded programme working towards knowledge exchange between schools and teachers in Ghana and the UK .

“There is so much more that unites us than divides us,” he told me, passionately. “The key is to find the channels for us to share and exchange what we know, not to rain Northern knowledge down upon the heads of Africans. And I think our project really does manage this. I think one thing we can all agree on is that there is nothing more important than bringing up our children, and the fact that the guardians of their education are sharing their experiences across Africa and the UK , and learning from each other is to me incredible. I think that this principle should be a starting point for the whole agenda of international development.” Knowledge for development, indeed.

More information at
Overseas Development Institute: Research and Policy in Development
Knowledge Management for Development

Image: Page spread © Eric Miller/Panos Pictures

Image: Classroom © Giacomo Pirozzi/Panos Pictures

The fact that teachers are sharing their experiences across Africa and the UK is incredible.