Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Rethinking or revisiting? Let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water

Emilie Wilson from IDS explains how the English expression 'Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water' (don’t throw out the good with the bad) is particularly relevant in discussions on rethinking development knowledge.

In his welcome address the outgoing President of the DSA, Lawrence Haddad suggests that ‘Rethinking development is not about us simply re-surfacing our own pet ideas, it is about co-constructing new ideas and new norms.’

Yesterday, I attended two sessions which looked at the global development knowledge ecology – with an emphasis by Robin Mansell on ecology, not economy. Continuing on the Nature metaphor, Dr Sebastiao Mendonco Ferreira started the session by contrasting the practise of managing knowledge as a resource with managing natural resources.

This was a useful way to focus our minds on ‘knowledge’, rather a slippery word, like an intellectual game of charades or a riddle ‘it’s intangible, non-rivalrous, non-erodible, human-made, both tacit and explicit, contained in receptacles such as human minds or embedded in machines, it’s unlimited’….would you have arrived at ‘knowledge’ after this description?

When it comes to pet ideas, ‘knowledge’ (and all its associated issues  - what it is, who owns it, how does it come into being, how does it work in development) is something we’ve been grappling with in IDS Knowledge Services (the clue is in the name) and IDS more generally for years. (see Knowledge is Power? IDS Bulletin 25.2, April 1994).

As an intellectual football, ‘knowledge’ experiences all the tensions and chafing between the rationale/objective/positivist end of the development spectrum (often but not exclusively inhabited by economists, engineers, health specialists, agronomists, etc) and the subjective/lived experience/pluralist end of the development spectrum (broadly including anthropologists, historians, sociologists… etc). And from discussions we were having yesterday, on n’est pas sorti de l’auberge. (use Google Translate for an amusing interpretation of this French expression).

So, into this mix, has come an increasingly potent ICT environment with its heady mix of private-sector development and aggressive marketeering, new scientific and cognitive frontiers. ICT has an ability to feed our fundamental human need to communicate and connect with one another and a potential for upsetting engrained power structures.

Will this increasingly custom-made and intuitive ‘web-environment’ help us develop the epistemic cultures and communities Sebastiao suggests we need to address our limited ability to ‘absorb’ knowledge? A knowledge which is increasingly complex and sophisticated, and thus difficult to verify? This is one approach that IDS has taken through its development of a social networking platform for people working in development, Eldis Communities.      

When discussing open data yesterday with Duncan Edwards (IDS) and Tim Davies (Practical Participation), the importance of revisiting the old arguments around knowledge, power, ownership was brought home to me. We need to be aware that simply making things ‘open’ will not, in itself, redress the power imbalance we are all too acutely aware of although don’t always address. It’s a sort of post-colonial malaise for many working in development, not from developing countries.

And while there is a role for our technical experts to ensure that we are not gate-keeping ‘knowledge’, there is still an important role for ‘curators’ of knowledge. In the past these have been the media, libraries and academic institutions, in the present, these are joined by a vast arrear of knowledge brokers and information intermediaries. Those actively involved in the business of disseminating, repackaging, synthesising, indexing and aggregating that knowledge are becoming aware that they are not just mere taxis of information and knowledge, but rather taxi drivers: choosing their passengers and choosing their routes. They are not waiting in taxi ranks, but rather are out and about, stimulating demanding for knowledge – like the bicycling “Info Ladies” that Ananya Raihan from Bangladesh described.

Flicking through the massive and fascinating programme for this conference, most of which I am going to miss (because you can only be in one place at one time), I am aware of the awesome responsibility of knowledge brokers to ensure that this precious and deeply valuable knowledge is wanted, grappled with, shared and understood. And ultimately, that it makes a difference to people’s lives.      


Emilie Wilson, is Communications Officer at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS)

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