posted 28 Jan 2008 in Volume 11 Issue 5
A revolution in international development
International development can be viewed a true knowledge industry, as knowledge is a core pivot for both aid organisations as well as the intended beneficiaries, as we will explain below. As a result, there has been a flurry of knowledge management (KM) activity in the sector over the past decade. As with any KM intervention, this has not gone without glitches, but is further complicated by development-specific contingencies. How the sector has been dealing with this can provide interesting insights for people involved in KM, irrespective of the sector.
A lot has been happening in KM for development (KM4D) over the past few years. KM has been, and is still being, introduced and applied in many different organisations, large and small. It is emerging as a distinctive field with its own community of practice, its own journal, and its own developing body of knowledge.
Given its dynamism, it is receiving increasing attention, not only in ‘mainstream’ KM – our name for KM in the business sector – but also in academia. It is increasingly becoming part of university courses and research in various disciplines ranging from business administration to health, and the more obvious development studies. But first of all, what is international development?
Development is understood to be a process involving a broad palette of human factors, concerned with individual people living in very different conditions across the world (Unwin, 2007). As such, development efforts are aimed at strengthening people’s abilities to respond to the challenges they encounter in their particular environment at individual, family, community and wider societal levels (Britton, 2005). This is a process of empowerment of marginalised people, which involves the transfer, development and leveraging of knowledge in such a way that they are better informed of their personal development possibilities and livelihood opportunities, and better equipped to capitalise on these.
From this perspective, development initiatives can succeed only if there is a thorough understanding of the cultural and socio-economic environment of the intended beneficiaries. Development depends to a large extent on how well knowledge of these factors is applied. As a result, knowledge is not just a key input for development agencies, but also an output of their development efforts (Powell, 2006;
The international development sector broadly comprises all the organisations that are working to provide aid or assistance to developing countries, what we call the global South. This represents a huge variety in type of organisations, from the large, resource-rich multilaterals – like the World Bank [www.worldbank.org] and the World Health Organisation [www.who.int] – to international non-governmental organisations like CARE [www.care.org] or Oxfam [www.oxfam.org] – and small, often resource poor, community-based organisations in the South.
Not only do development organisations vary enormously in size, structure and focus, there are also huge variations in thematic focus, from agriculture and health to economic development and trade. A wide variety of professionals are working in the sector: policymakers in the multilateral and bilateral government organisations; researchers at universities; as well as different groups of development practitioners – knowledge and information managers, health professionals, extension agents, journalists and activists, and so on.
This sector is thus hugely diverse in terms of type of organisation, geographical location, professional composition, resources and approaches. And although working as individual organisations, they are all also to a lesser or greater extent working together to achieve development. Knowledge sharing takes place – or should take place – to ensure this is done in an effective manner.
KM and development: an innate affinity
KM is generally acknowledged to have entered the development sector when the World Bank, under the leadership of Steve Denning, began to position itself as the ‘knowledge bank’ towards the end of the 1990s. In a ground-breaking World Development Report, Knowledge for Development (1998-99), the Bank declared:
“Knowledge is like light. Weightless and intangible, it can easily travel the world, enlightening the lives of people everywhere. Yet billions of people still live in the darkness of poverty...”
Since the late 1990s, KM has been introduced by many development organisations. This adoption has been stimulated by Bellanet (www.bellanet.org), a former secretariat of the Canadian International Development Research Council (IDRC). Bellanet has been instrumental in developing many relevant tools and approaches, and with others has supported the key KM for development community of practice (CoP) (www.km4dev.org) which currently has more than 600 members from both within and beyond the development sector.
The adoption of KM approaches has been spurred on by the innate relevance of KM to development, identified by Giulio Quaggiotto (2005) as “elective affinity”. However, we have argued this goes further than an affinity because KM approaches were being elaborated avant la lettre in the development sector, most notably in the Agricultural Knowledge Information Systems (AKIS) approach developed by Niels Röling, Paul Engel and colleagues from all over the world, as early as the late 1980s (Ferguson and Cummings forthcoming). Interestingly, the knowledge networks discussed by, for example, Engel (1997), show great similarities with the conception of CoP developed by Etienne Wenger.
What this illustrates is that KM not only has an innate relevance to development, but the development field had developed home-grown approaches to KM even before mainstream KM entered the development sector in the late 1990s. Today, however, most reference is made to approaches which originated in the mainstream.
Relevance to development
Perhaps the main factor that accounts for the enduring appeal of KM in development organisations is the stronger motivation for development practitioners – when compared with their counterparts in private companies – to analyse and eventually overcome barriers to knowledge sharing across organisations, communities or even governments in order to maximise their impact on the ground. ('Elective affinities? Reflections on the enduring appeal of knowledge management for the development sector,’ Knowledge Management for Development Journal, Giulio Quaggiotto 2005).
Why does KM have an innate relevance to the development sector? First and most fundamentally, because many of the problems of poverty are based on incomplete knowledge. For example, knowledge about how to prevent HIV/AIDS is widely known but has not reached people on the ground in developing countries – and certainly not in a way that makes it possible for individuals to adapt their behaviour accordingly.
These knowledge gaps cannot be solved by KM alone. Development initiatives focusing on poverty alleviation and health are needed to do this, as has been born out by research by Professor Kingo Mchombu in
And third, organisations need to be able to communicate with each other and with their constituents and target groups in the South. Because of the diversity of stakeholders involved in the aid chain and the inherent challenges of knowledge transfer and mutual meaning construction across geographical and cultural boundaries, this represents particular epistemic challenges of its own.
How KM is applied in development
KM approaches in development can be categorised as having three main focuses. These are:
Aiming to facilitate a more inclusive global knowledge society.
In particular, this final focus point demonstrates the difference between KM in the development sector and in mainstream, private sector KM.
1. Internal KM4D
Many development organisations have developed their own internal knowledge management strategies. A number of interesting cases can be found in the Knowledge Management for Development Journal (www.km4dev.org/journal) but two are highlighted here:
Case study one: The knowledge-sharing approach of the United Nations Development Programme (Kim Henderson, 2005)http://www.km4dev.org/journal/index.php/km4dj/article/view/21/17
Knowledge networks or CoPs were established in 1999 in some of priority thematic areas of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the UN’s development network. The networks were originally set up to serve as a capacity-building mechanism for staff, as a bridge between headquarters and the field, to connect the UNDP’s country offices and to promote South-South exchange. Knowledge networks subsequently became institutionalised as part of the UNDP business plan and have formed the basis of UNDP’s KM strategy.
Case study two: The Asian Development Bank’s KM framework (Daan Boom, 2005)http://www.km4dev.org/journal/index.php/km4dj/article/view/25
Transfer of knowledge has always been an essential, catalysing element of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) mandate. Recognising the growing role knowledge plays in the advancement of its developing member countries, ADB committed itself, through its strategic framework for 2001-2015, to becoming a learning institution and a primary source of development knowledge in
2. External KM4D
The second component relates to the way that knowledge is being shared with partners outside the organisation, which we will call external KM4D. These interventions can include both individuals and organisations. The Dgroups partnership and platform is an example of one initiative which fits into this category.
Case study three: Development through dialogue: The case of Dgroups
Dgroups, www.dgroups.org, is a platform for online groups which currently hosts 2500 groups with almost 100,000 members. All of these networks and the members are focused on international development. Roughly half of the members are based in the South.
Each online group or dgroup has two elements: an e-mail list and an online workspace hosted on the Dgroups website. The online groups are easy to set up, simple to use, free of advertising, and have a number of features that make them ideally suitable for participation by individuals and partner organisations in the South. One of these features is the fact that they are e-mail based. Many development professionals in the South do not have unlimited access to the internet but most do have access to e-mail. Thus, e-mail-based online networks are far more accessible for such professionals. In addition, Dgroups provides privacy on the discussion of sometimes sensitive subjects: HIV/AIDS, human rights and freedom of the press, to give just three examples. As one Dgroups’ member commented:
“There is massive potential in maintaining and fostering a large ‘family’ of discussion groups related to international development, and this is the strength and opportunity of Dgroups.
We have been running large discussion lists (more than 500 members each) on Dgroups for about five years and one of the wonderful things about it is that we have been able to spend around 99.9 per cent of our time on what we are here for – facilitating communication among our members – and only 0.01 per cent on technical issues... It means that thousands of us can focus our time and energy on the work we need to do.”
A research study of Dgroups in 2007 (Cummings, forthcoming) has demonstrated the ability of Dgroups to facilitate information and knowledge exchange between North and South, across and between the continents, and between different professional groups. They are also having a sector-wide impact on how development organisations work.
An example of an active dgroup is I-Network Uganda. Through this e-mail list and workspace, practitioners, researchers and policymakers share information about ICT for development in Uganda (http://www.dgroups.org/groups/i-network).
Dgroups has been set up and maintained by a partnership of diverse development organisations, comprising multilateral organisations and international non-governmental organisations. These organisations use Dgroups themselves – a few of them have more than 400 online Dgroups – and they are also able to start up additional dgroups, free of charge to users, for their partner organisations in the South.
3. Aiming to facilitate a more inclusive global knowledge society
A third focus of KM4D comprises those approaches specifically designed to facilitate a more inclusive knowledge society to benefit Southern counterparts. In reality, this third component rarely gets off the ground. Where a Southern component is included, this is more often providing knowledge benefits to the donor or development organisation rather than to the Southern development partners. The participation of these partners is often merely instrumental rather than driven by effective participation of all stakeholders in the development process.
In an effort to meet this challenge and to redress this balance, an international research programme was set up in 2007, under the working title IKM Emergent.
Case study 4: IKM Emergent
The Information and Knowledge Management Emergent (IKM Emergent) Research Programme (www.ikmemergent.net) received funding from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the coming five years. The Programme, with its innovative approach focusing on a network of practitioners-cum-researchers, aims to address the challenges facing KM in the development sector with its focus on multiple knowledges.
It has been created under the auspices of the European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes (EADI). It is no coincidence that this Programme has been funded by a Dutch ministry: the Netherlands is currently the focus of an enormous number of development initiatives concerned with knowledge. In this field and at this moment in time, the Netherlands is probably leading the world.
What are multiple knowledges? Defined by Mike Powell, director of IKM Emergent, multiple knowledges relate to knowledges from different disciplines or schools of thought, or derived from different learning processes, cultures or world views. Such situations are a challenge for any type of cross-cutting, multi-sectoral, multi-disciplinary endeavour. They offer a particular challenge to the development sector, given the need to communicate – and often the desire to build consensus – across boundaries of culture, gender, space and status in a historical context of highly unequal power relationships.
There are many efforts to set up KM in development organisations. Most of them are focused on internal knowledge management and on knowledge sharing with partners, such as Dgroups as was described above. Very few initiatives are focused on developing a more inclusive knowledge society in the South. IKM Emergent, which is aiming to do this is still in a start-up phase and is currently developing its approach to multiple knowledges.
In this article, we have introduced the concept of multiple knowledges, and why it is so important for the development context. However, in a world increasingly characterised by international business development, globalisation, outsourcing and so forth, recognition and understanding of epistemic diversity can make or break the effort undertaken by any organisation – private or public – to move their business into the international arena. This is just one of the things upon which knowledge management in the development sector can help to shed light. ?
This article is largely based on papers and book chapters written by the authors over the past few years. Sarah Cummings (email@example.com) is a senior consultant in knowledge management at Context, international cooperation, www.developmenttraining.org. Julie Ferguson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a researcher at the Free University of Amsterdam in the department of Knowledge and Organisation, http://www.feweb.vu.nl/ko. Both are founder editors and co-chief editors – with Lucie Lamoureux – of the peer reviewed, online Knowledge Management for Development Journal, www.km4dev.org/journal. They are both members of the IKM Emergent Research Programme. They blog with colleagues at The Giraffe, http://thegiraffe.wordpress.com
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Britton, Bruce (2005) ?Organisational learning in NGOs: creating the motive, the means and opportunity’, Praxis paper No. 3, Intrac: Oxford
Cummings, Sarah (forthcoming), ?Development through Dialogue: report of a research initiative’, Amsterdam: KIT
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Powell. Mike (2006), “Which knowledge? Whose reality? An overview of knowledge used in the development sector,” Development in Practice 16(6): 518-532
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Geoff Parcell in the foreword of Tools for Knowledge and Learning: A Guide for Development and Humanitarian Organisations Ben Ramalingam, 2006