KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Imported solutions, local leadership

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A few days ago Dave Algoso posted an excellent blog (Who’s afraid of imported solutions) which looks at whether outside knowledge and models are useful for development (versus home-grown solutions) and considers how issues of power affect the exchange of knowledge, often for the worse.

I just wanted to share a few observations of my own on the intertwined nature of knowledge sharing and power:

  • The debate about local versus external “solutions” is often a false one since almost all development work revolves around introduction and adaptation of new ideas from elsewhere.  Almost no project or idea is entirely home-grown. But the role of external knowledge and how it is acquired and used varies enormously with important implications. External knowledge can range from the transfer and application of specific technical knowledge (e.g. the formula and procedures to manufacture and preserve vaccines) i.e. direct copying of a solution, transfer of models (e.g. adoption of a particular approach or design of social security and cash transfer programmes) with contextual adaptation, or just the use of a methodology to support a locally created design such as application of human-centred design approaches – this might create a local solution but often the methodology used to develop it is an external “solution”of its own.
  • Power is critical in knowledge exchange and can impose limitations on it. One of the most obvious ways that power influences use of external knowledge is through money – if a donor country organization is providing aid to another country, then most likely the models and approaches they suggest will also come  from the same country. This might be deliberate, but it is often also unintentional. If I’m a donor providing resources, I’m naturally inclined to also share the knowledge I most readily have access to which is of course my own. Aid conditionality adds to this power imbalance. Making aid conditional upon certain actions by the government makes sense for the donors in order to insist their money isn’t wasted and that the government follows what the donor believes is good practice in taking the necessary steps on its side to ensure the programme is successful. This is nevertheless a form of coercion which can lead to resentment or unwillingness to “speak truth to power” to explain why the conditions imposed might not be appropriate to a given situation. And this can also mean that the solutions of those donors with more resources (e.g. World Bank, DFID, Gates Foundation) are more widely adopted than if merit were the only consideration.
  • Knowledge is used most effectively when it is based on demand and meets the users specific practical needs. This seems obvious, but is often overlooked. This means it’s always going to be better when countries demand specific expertise than when it is foisted upon them however well-intentioned. At the same time waiting for demand isn’t enough – it may well be that governments in a country are not sufficiently aware of external approaches which could be useful to them to demand them or may not know how to ask. Also it’s not always obvious when an external idea will be useful, sometimes you also need external advice to see it. Also in some areas there may not be government demand, even if it comes from populations themselves (e.g. for sensitive human rights topics) So while demand is essential, it also needs to be stimulated.
  • And of course those with greater ability to market their solutions (often western led experts, NGOs and advocates) will be more effective at stimulating demand for their solutions. And the surer they seem about their solution the more appealing it will be politically, even if the evidence isn’t there to back it up (thinking here of examples such as OLPC or Millennium Villages which were able to take off through the sheer conviction of their creators). Sometimes whole countries can be a marketing asset i.e.  people might want to adapt approaches from a particular country just because of their positive views of that country as a sign of quality regardless of whether the tool is actually successful or whether or not it is applicable in the new context.
  • One way to try to level the power imbalance, and also improving the chances of successful transfer of solutions or models is through South-South cooperation. This is generally more demand driven and can be a learning partnership where both sides benefit from sharing experience and the solutions might be more easily replicable as the contexts might be more similar. The downside is that it is harder to fund when both sides have more limited capacity both in terms of finance and in availability of expertise (experts are often more busy implementing their own country’s systems to have the time to help someone else). Historically much South-South cooperation has been about solidarity and political more than mutually beneficial knowledge exchange – and sometimes with similar power imbalances to conventional aid.

A few thoughts on approaches to (partially) address these imbalances:

1. Making more visible the experience and models that are out there and whatever evidence exists about them – in particular finding ways to share more information about what approaches and models come from the South and/or how they have been adapted. There is a wealth of valuable knowledge that is largely untapped just because it is less visible. Supporting more research is promising approaches is also important, although just because and idea doesn’t have a body of rigorous evidence supporting it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be shared – since the fact that some things are more studied than others is also often as a result of a power or financial imbalance.

2. Decoupling funding and source of expertise. The discussion around untying procurement is long in aid, but is much less advanced in the area of technical assistance. It could bring tremendous benefit if external funding was not tied to the expertise it procures and instead allowed the most relevant, and demand driven models and expertise to be used. This could potentially give a huge boost to South-South technical cooperation without waiting for countries to pay to provide their own technical expertise.

3. For those working in aid or in partner countries as “beneficiaries” of aid it’s important to see models as inputs to programmes not as the programmes themselves i.e. should look to identify and learn from the best models out there  – but not to believe the hype of others or ourselves that we have a ready-made solution. And we need to be aware of how power affects our conversations and what solutions are considered and who is listened to. We need to be guided in contextualizing a model or solutions by participatory approaches to accept, reject or redesign them. But even the process of participation needs to be locally designed or refined.

An interesting conclusion from all of this is that for development to be successful it has to be both locally owned and driven– but it also has to successfully integrate external ideas and knowledge. This is a challenge since externals can bring in the outside knowledge but will struggle to understand how to apply it in the local context whereas locals may struggle with fully embracing the new models and the need for change.  Successful integration of new ideas may well be a partnership, but with the balance of power shifted more firmly towards the person seeking to change rather than the person helping.  But it may also be best led by someone who can straddle both worlds i.e. someone who lives in the current situation and understands the context and challenges, but who has also taken time way to learn and experience the new possibilities and who can mentally integrate the two (I wrote about this a few years ago as outside-in development). As I concluded then “the real heroes of development come from within, but at the same time need to undertake their personal journey to absorb the new ideas from the outside and figure out how to reconcile them with their existing societies. Aid workers can be allies to help smooth this journey, but they cannot take it for themselves.”

So let’s get over our own power trip when providing support with models and ideas (or innovation techniques) and not assume we know what is best, leaving that to the local heroes of change.

Written by Ian Thorpe

March 18, 2014 at 1:23 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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  1. […] A few days ago Dave Algoso posted an excellent blog (Who’s afraid of imported solutions) which looks at whether outside knowledge and models are useful for development (versus home-grown solutions)…  […]

  2. […] Imported solutions, local leadership | Ian Thorpe – KM on a dollar a day […]


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