What’s Happening with KM in Multilateral and Bilateral Development Agencies?

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Participants: Geoff Barnard (IDS), Stef Smits (IRC), Karin Santi (UNDP), Barbara Collins (ILO)

Looking Back – the first wave

Geoff introduced the topic by looking back to the first KM4Dev meeting at IDS in 2000 where there was a strong representation from multilateral and bilateral agencies, and interest in KM was spreading among many of them. But what’s happened since?

KM has come and gone among some of the leaders – most notably the World Bank, where their pioneering knowledge sharing programme seems to have all but disappeared (the inside story of the rise and fall of KM in the Bank would be a fascinating read – any PhD students out there working on this?)

DFID was a leader but possibly never realised it because most of its innovative KM work was subcontracted to external consortia that ran a whole series of subject based ‘resource centres’ on water, governance, health, sustainable livelihoods, and other topics. Many of these still exist, but funding has been slashed and scope for innovation and joined up thinking heavily curtailed (an independent take on this would also be interesting – the centres took different approaches so this would be a rich source of learning).

A lot of the bilateral agencies came to the 2000 workshop but never really got engaged in KM in any significant way. Why not, one wonders? KM was certainly flavour of the month. How come they missed the boat? (more case studies please!)

The one agency that seems to have lasted the pace is UNDP, where after various twists and turns their “stealth approach” based around thematic networks and regional centres is still going strong.

Looking back at this, it would be easy for a KM enthusiast to get depressed – but it’s not all gloom.

The second wave

We’re now seeing a second wave of KM initiatives, mainly among the multilateral agencies. ADB, IFAD, FAO have all launched initiatives recently, AfDB, ILO and WHO are thinking about it, and UNDP reports that they are getting a lot more requests from other UN agencies to offer advice.

The new UN reform agenda is calling for closer collaboration between agencies, and this includes better knowledge sharing – and possibly some new funding to make this happen.

Current trends

There are some important trends that are changing the context in which KM needs to be conceived and creating some new challenges. Three key trends are:

Decentralisation – many agencies are pushing hard on this, and for good reasons. In knowledge terms it increases the scope for tapping into (and helping to build up) local expertise and linking to local realities. But at the same time it makes the job of joining up country experience and knowledge much more challenging. There is already a problem in most agencies in sharing knowledge between headquarters and the field. But if HQ staffing is cut back too far without alternative linking mechanisms being put it place, it’s likely to lead to atomisation and the loss of any institutional cohesion or corporate memory.

Harmonisation - this is creating a totally new dynamic. If one agency ends up taking the lead in a sector in a particular country, and others are stepping back and just contributing funds to a joint programme, how will the learning from programme be shared – across agencies and with others within that country, and at a wider regional / international level?

Deprofessionalisation – with the move to new funding modalities – budget support, sector wide programmes, etc. – the types of expertise needed in agencies, especially bilaterals, is changing. Organisations that used to pride themselves on their strong in-house technical expertise – in forestry, agriculture, small business development, health, etc. – are cutting down on their specialist staff since they are no longer needed to manage and advise on projects. Aid administration is taking over as their primary job – the country staff that remain are managing bigger and bigger budgets, but they are getting involved in less and less of the detail. Specialists are being replaced by generalists, and staff are required to multi-task, taking on responsibility for areas they may know little about. So what does this mean in terms of their knowledge needs? Is specialist knowledge relevant any more? Is the baby being thrown out with the bath water?

Need to show impact - There are strong critiques on the limited impact that especially research has had on development practice. Often, research has been carried out in splendid isolation of development practitioners, and research results have often not been scaled up. Likewise, innovations developed “in the field” have not been sufficiently picked up by knowledge institutes, documented and shared. With an increasing trend that funders demand evidence of impact, that is changing. Researchers need to make sure their innovations are picked up; practitioners in the field need to show how they contribute. As a logical results, funders are interested in funding ‘learning’ initiatives that bring together researchers and practitioners. The EU is a good case of that. They demand that users of new research are involved in innovation from the start, rather than through conventional dissemination programmes.

Looking ahead

These trends seem set to continue for the foreseeable future. So what does this mean for knowledge management? We had a look into the crystal ball and came up with some tentative hypotheses.

1. There will be more of an obvious split between ‘knowledge organisations’ and ‘funders’. Many bilateral agencies have seen themselves as both – being ‘knowledgeable funders’. DFID is good example. But if you don’t have a critical mass of expertise and credibility on a subject, you don’t have much to offer – apart from money. Some bilaterals have woken up to this and have concentrated their resources and KM efforts on a few topics or countries. Others will probably follow suit – and some may take this logic further and subcontract all their aid funding to specialist agencies that do have the necessary expertise. This will mean a more prominent role for the remaining expert players – notably the World Bank, but also the specialist UN agencies like FAO, ILO, WHO etc. It will also mean bilateral agencies giving up their aspirations to be agenda setters at the country level (although that will not be popular with politicians and foreign ministries). Agencies that want to remain as ‘knowledge players’ will need to gear up their KM efforts, so they can bring an authoritative and distinctive voice to the table. This will mean tackling the HQ versus field and the atomisation problems, and working to provide field staff with high level knowledge support so they can really operate effectively.

2. There will be increasing need and scope for country-based centres of expertise and networks. These may be based within NGOs, research centres, think tanks, consultancy firms or other organisations - there are different models. But these should become the logical first port of call for development agencies wishing to draw together locally-relevant knowledge and experience. They already exist in some countries, and efforts are underway to build capacity in others. There are many challenges to be overcome in making this a reality, especially in countries starting from a low base, but this must surely be a priority both for national governments, and aid agencies.

3. There will still be a need for global knowledge networks and intermediaries, but roles will change. Knowledge sharing between countries will of course still be important so there will be a continuing need for networks of practitioners and experts at the regional and global level, and for knowledge intermediaries of various forms to help facilitate the process. Centres of excellence in the North will still have a lot to offer in managing and contributing to these efforts, but over time we should be able to look forward to a transition to a more level knowledge playing field, where Southern voices are much more prominent.

Are there other trends we’re missing? Is this picture too optimistic? It would be interesting to get a discussion going among the KM4Dev community of how they see the future panning out.