Knowledge, Power and Development

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Andrew Bartlett


  • Alok Srivastava
  • Andrew Bartlett
  • Barbara Collins
  • Daniel Jones
  • Ewen Leborgne
  • Geoff Barnard
  • Mike Morris
  • Roxanna Samii

Conceptual Framework

Andrew presented the following framework, which is a 'work in progress':


For practical purposes, the term ‘power’ is synonymous with domination, control and influence. There are three broad types of power:

  • Economic power = ownership of economic resources (land, labour, capital), influence over markets and prices
  • Political power = domination of decision-making processes, control of the state machinery (including police, army, prisons, courts etc)
  • Knowledge power = control of information and media, influence over cultural values, norms and identity, domination of public debate, ownership of techno-scientific expertise

Each type of power can be examined at different levels, from the global to the interpersonal. Individuals or groups tend to use one type of power to acquire the other two types of power.

All forms of power are socially relative ie. one group has power relative to another another: men over women, landlords over tenants, whites over blacks, the party elite over the ordinary people etc.

Within any society, power can be diffused or concentrated. When power is highly concentrated it can be called tyranny, when it is highly diffuse it can be called freedom.

Hegemony exists when a single group dominate all three power bases. Of particular significance is how the dominant group uses knowledge power to maintain its hold on economic resources and political processes. The group generates myths and narratives, and controls information and discourse, in a way that provides them with legitimacy and avoids the need for coercion and force.


For practical purposes, poverty can be seen as a lack of power. There are three types of poverty:

  • Lack of economic power, which is the most widely understood form of poverty: lack of capital, land or employment, resulting in low purchasing power, food insecurity, poor health and etc.
  • Lack of political power is a type of poverty that has been addressed by various civil rights groups, social movements, and revolutions: feminism, black power, nationalists, separatists etc.
  • Lack of knowledge power is perhaps the most neglected form of poverty; in its simplest form it can bee seen as ‘poor education’, but equally important is a limited access to pluralistic information and absence of opportunities for critical dialogue.

Like power, one type of poverty reinforces another. For example, women in many countries have a low education (knowledge), which limits their opportunities to earn money (economic), which limits their influence in community decision-making (political), which helps to maintain the hegemony that keeps them subordinated.

Human Development

For practical purposes, human development can be seen as the process of overcoming poverty. In other words, human development equates with the empowerment of people. Thus there are three types of development: economic, political and knowledge.

Planned development has often focussed on economic issues; the poor are defined by living on less that one dollar per day, therefore land needs to be more productive, labour needs to be more efficient, etc. The shift away from public sector development (Govt and ODA) to private sector (Business and FDI) has not changed this emphasis, but has simply involved a shift in the source of capital and changed the incentive structures.

For the same reasons that one type of power is used to gain other types of power, lasting human development is only possible if we are able to create a counter-hegemony ie. a new configuration of economic, political and knowledge power.

What has this got to do with KM4Dev?

Knowledge management can be seen in narrow instrumental terms, as a set of methods and tools that help to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of organisations within the development industry, or it can be seen in broader social terms as providing support for the poor and excluded in their efforts to acquire knowledge power.

Does this analysis make sense? If it does, How can KM in the narrow sense contribute to KM in the broader sense?


Questions, comments and suggestions from the group:

  • What is the relationship between the three types of power? There were different views in the group: some see a heirarchy of power (economic leads to political, which in turn leads to knowledge), for others there is an interplay with each power base reinforcing or challenging the other.
  • It may be useful to add different forms of power to the framework: eg. the power to, power over, power together.
  • The types of power could be explored through case studies. We need to find examples of the 3 types, not only from the development context but also from a broader historical perspective. For example: the medieval church had control of knowledge power, which provided a basis for hegemony.
  • Question: can KM be an entry point for changing power relations? Can we support development partners in the knowledge corner of the power triangle, as a starting point for them to acquire power in other corners?
  • A lot of KM workers have assumed that they are politically neutral, but this is often blind, naive or cowardly.
  • A lot of what we do is collectively contructing meaning, attempting to create a critical mass of critical thinking, that can challenge power in the political and economic nodes.
  • It is often difficult to address political and economic power directly, but KM can do it subversively because it has a non-threatening appearance.
  • There are good examples in India, eg. the case of the 'master roll' in Rajasthan, where simple awareness-raising activities created a social movement and changes in the laws regarding the Right to Information [1]
  • Changes of this kind are a long term process, and sooner or later the elite will recognise that KM and learning activities are a threat to their power.
  • There are many counter examples, however, where KM and learning activities is reinforcing the existing hegemony.
  • This is the question in Laos where Helvetas is supporting the creating of a national system for agricultural extension. Are we using KM and adult education to shine a light in dark areas, to put levers into cracks, to provide some space and a voice for the poor and the excluded, or are we helping to legitimise and strengthen the power of The Party, an elite that has almost total control over the construction of meaning in the country?.
  • KM workers need to constantly ask themselves what they are doing. We need to be mindful of the power implications in our work, asking ourselves and each other what is really happening.