Tuesday, August 23, 2011

What can knowledge interventions contribute to development?

I was interviewed for Vice Versa and asked for input. It was a double interview together with Eric Smaling working for the Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam. An interesting combination as he is well grounded in the science world as professor. I will blog what I remember as main points and issues. I hope I remember enough- waited a little too long to blog it and didn't make any notes (as the journalist was taping it). Curious to see what she will choose to publish too!

The first difference I remember is about what knowledge is. In my practitioners view- knowledge resides in the head of people, practitioners or policy makers. Eric Smaling would consider a phd research as knowledge. I would prefer to call this information rather than knowledge (if it does not reside in anybody's head except the phd student's head..). Or if you'd like to call this knowledge too, then I would like to clearly distinguish it from 'actionable knowledge', knowledge that leads to changing practices. Smaling pointed out that there is a gap between research and practice. A lot of research never gets transformed into changing realities. So how to close this gap? My solution would be to think of dynamic learning communities and networks where scientists, researchers and practitioners can meet. This solution is so logical to me, but I am now conscious of the fact that it is not all the solution for many others. I pointed out my belief in the power of south-south learning to increase the impact of development efforts. The World Bank has done a survey and the results tell us many respondents agree with this.

One of the first questions was 'what kind of knowledge should the Netherlands 'export' or 'transfer'?. I explained my vision that in my idea the counterpart model in development (the northern expert working with a southern person for a longer period of time) has disappeared because it is not how people learn and change happens. Rather, I look with a learning lens knowledge and change. Hence I start with the learner and his/her learning journey. Then it is more logical to talk about what are the knowledge needs and questions at stake. I'd say that depends on the sector and type of knowledge workers. A finance manager or minister could probably learn a lot from another manager or finance minister (through a network or community, though trainings, workshops and exchanges help too). But I guess the question of relevant knowledge within the Netherlands could be asked at a global, policy level in the sense of what are the strengths and expertise areas of the Netherlands.

This kind of led us to jump to the reciprocity in learning and knowledge sharing. Is learning north-south? Can we in the Netherlands also learn from developing countries? I definitely think so (and Smaling agreed). It is a pity if we feel that learning is north-south only, like I mentioned before, I believe in south-south learning and south-south-north learning. I gave the example of the forest landscape restoration learning network. A network where people from Brasil, Indonesia, Ghana and other countries learn, but also people from Scotland. Smaling and I both felt strongly that openess to learning is necessary. If you are in a relationship where you feel you are the expert or know more, you are not open to learning from others (but you may share). I have seen this between participants from two African countries (one looking down upon the other), I have seen it between departments in organisations and I've also noticed it myself as a trainer. What is, for instance, obstructing southern NGOs from learning is that they feel that they have obtained funding for a program because they can implement it. That doesn't favour asking questions or visiting others who may have undertaken similar programs. And sometimes it is simply lack of time. I feel when you start a new project, you should always ask around for experiences. That's not the common way of working.

Given my focus on south-south learning and networks (and alliances too by the way) to enhance learning for more impact on development, the interviewer was wondering 'but what's the role of the Netherlands'? Well, there is definitely a role to be facilitate south-south learning, to spot innovations, to compile information. As Lucia Nass, a former SNV colleague also observed there is a mindboggling number of website and manuals and even studies to compile and compare all manuals on climate change. We focus on collecting, but not enough on connecting the learners.

And ofcourse social media play a huge role and have an enormous potential to facilitate south-south-north learning, but there is a need to learn to make effective use of these media. To find information, to connect with the relevant people, to participate in online communities in ways that change and improve development practices. That's why I focus on helping people to start and facilitate communities, or to develop themselves using internet and social media. I think that we are starting to see a shift but to quote Clay Shirky "social media will not become socially interesting till they become technologically boring". In other words the real change in connecting likeminded learners and speeding up learning and change is still ahead of us.

We ended (if I recall well) with a kind of philosophical question about the role of internet and social media with regards to learning and working together in this globalised and connected world. Can we learn our way out of the global problems? On the one hand I'd like to be a sort of cyberutopian believing we will all learn to solve all global problems like poverty, climate change, feeding the growing world population. Peace through the internet. On the other hand I can imagine that there is a limit to collaboration when there is a scramble for dwindling resources. A kind of fighting for a piece of the cake. No matter how empathetic we may be, in the end we will try and make sure we and our closest families and friends are fine.

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