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FOCUS ON KNOWLEDGE No 5: from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC)

This special edition of Focus on Knowledge summarises Knowledge for Development? Comparing British, Japanese, Swedish and World Bank Aid by Kenneth King and Simon McGrath, Zed Books London and New York, HSRC Press Cape Town, 2004.

[Link] to review of Knowledge for Development in Development Policy Review


This book is the result of academic research. It provides a detailed analysis of what the new knowledge-based aid means at the level of discourse and practice in four leading development co-operation agencies.

Aid has become more policy oriented and there is a greater emphasis on national ownership of development and policy dialogue between donors, governments and civil society. The case of the PRSPs may illustrate this. This new way of working in aid brings with it new knowledge needs and a new importance for knowledge as a major theme of development and co-operation. The new focus draws heavily on wider arguments about the centrality of knowledge to economic success and about the connective power of new ICTs. Arguments about the importance of knowledge economies have been directly translated into the development context to argue that knowledge is the key determinant of development.

Some important statements

Aid agencies, led by the World Bank, pursue a more efficient and effective management of their knowledge resources. That concurs with the concerns about effectiveness. They have begun to look at internal patterns of knowledge use and – at the external level, start to focus on the notion of knowledge sharing.

The language of knowledge-based aid is increasingly becoming interlinked to notions of learning and capacity:

 Sida has adopted a strong preference for talking about learning which points towards a practice that is more about knowledge construction than knowledge dissemination. A focus emerges on mutual learning (twinning, mutual construction of knowledge) that is led by the South and facilitated by Sida.  Japan insists on long-term personal relationship and experience that is at the heart of knowledge sharing (mutual learning and capacity development). This highlights the centrality of people, attitudes and relationships.  According to World Bank advisors, agencies should become a facilitator of context-specific learning from comparative evidence. This assumes that learning comes from the internalisation of knowledge guilt in active processes, not from the passive receipt of what others define as knowledge. Rather than knowledge bankers, staff would be knowledge brokers.

A set of new tools has emerged for both “internal knowledge management” and “external knowledge sharing”: • Internally: e.g. communities of practice, help desks, intranets, and improved spaces for informal knowledge sharing; • Externally: e.g. research co-operation, support to networks and portals, improved Southern connectivity, and portals, and e-learning are some of them.

Internal knowledge management

Much of the knowledge literature stress the central importance of tacit knowledge, of the knowledge "residing in people's heads". There are, however, two different contradictory approaches to answer to this fact: (1) Support mechanisms are introduced that allow staff to share their tacit knowledge with others (human interaction). (2) As much tacit knowledge as possible should be captured and codified.

There is enough evidence to suggest that knowledge use in agencies has become more efficient than previously. It has become clear that much of what is successful in knowledge sharing is dependent on the quality of interactions between people and the knowledge that they bring. A series of new structures to support knowledge-related working have emerged: - Communities of practice have been supported, - Agency intranets have improved greatly, - Connectivity of country offices has begun to improve, - Seminar programmes remain a high priority activity, - There is greater awareness of the importance of spaces for knowledge sharing

The ICT revolution has induced a strong technological bias, particularly where IT departments became lead units in promoting knowledge strategies. The danger of seduction by technology is also present in agency e-learning strategies. Both DFID and the World Bank have changed to become less technologically driven. It is unclear whether this illustrates a general trend.

There is some confusion about what is to be shared. There has been too much focus on data and not enough on knowledge. The economic argument is for knowledge use, not data management. A data-based approach tends to assume that facts and figures are what constitute development. Downplaying of knowledge, therefore, is also a downplaying of the importance of experience and interpretation.

The question as to whose knowledge gets shared within agencies also depends strongly on internal agency views of what constitutes important knowledge. There seems to be a bias towards the “North” and the “Centre”. There is a danger too that codification will privilege universal over contextual accounts. Tension between universal, theory-based accounts and contextual, experientially based ones is significant. There are concerns among each of the bi-lateral agencies that not enough is being done to draw upon the rich contextual knowledge of their nationally appointed staff.

Similar unresolved tensions exist over the extent to which knowledge sharing should be managed as opposed to facilitated. DFID’s approach to "Communities of Practice" stresses the informal nature of knowledge sharing and seeks to do little to interfere with in its operation. JICA’s however seek to achieve knowledge sharing through formal structures and management.

Incentives for knowledge sharing have not developed very far to date. Many agency staff perceive disbursements prior to knowledge sharing. Moreover, staff appear widely to see knowledge sharing as more work even where they are personally enthusiastic about its potential to be a model for better work.

One challenge for internal knowledge sharing lies in the question whether it can successfully support and promote a change in organisational cultures. In the Bank, early "champions" assumed that a change in practice will inevitably lead to a change in organisational culture. But evidence shows considerable organisational barriers to the transformation sought. The attempt to change organisational cultures by changing knowledge practices may well fail because the organisational analysed are parts of government bureaucracies or behave like them. Their cultures are so resistant to change.

External knowledge sharing

The lack of explicit organisational structures to promote external knowledge sharing has not stopped it occurring. There is much that went on long before the term was invented. Support to external knowledge sharing through on-line communities and websites are frequent. Agencies have developed own profiles: • Sida's concern for wider issues of support to southern knowledge systems • Japan’s large-scale commitment to long-term institutional partnerships • World Bank’s rediscovery of higher education and even support to Southern knowledge capacity • JICA and Sida’s long-term and resource-intensive support to selected Southern knowledge partners • DFID and World Bank’s greater interest in networks

There is a new and growing understanding of knowledge as tacit and community-based. Related to this is a significant shift towards agency recognition of and even support for indigenous knowledge and national knowledge systems in the South. There is a move away from technical and economistic notions of development to a sense that development is what countries and communities define it as including the cultural and the spiritual.

However, there are still powerful tendencies within agencies towards certainty and telling. Agency-generated knowledge is more likely to be valued than that from external sources. Headquarters knowledge still tends to dominate over field knowledge, even in theoretically decentralised agencies.

It is far from clear what knowledge-based aid is likely to do to improve the lives of those who are ultimately the supposed beneficiaries. Even better co-ordination between agencies (e.g. swaps) may potentially reduce national ownership, as governments and civil society are faced by a more concerted agency position.

A future perspective

A learning-based development approach would draw together accounts of individual development through learning in communities and national development through genuine and broad ownership in a way that resists and updates some early and now widely neglected development thinking. This suggests that the challenge for agencies and their Southern partners lies not so much in managing knowledge but in supporting social learning as a means of knowledge generation and sharing.

Two questions to SDC’s own knowledge work

1. The authors have not found evidence that changing knowledge practices would bring about a change in organisational cultures. SDC’s knowledge management efforts do not aim at bringing about major organisational changes but focus on changed practices. Would this approach have to be reviewed? 2. SDC attributes a lot of importance to contextual information and knowledge, to supporting southern knowledge systems, to long-term institutional partnerships. Does SDC follow these principals in policy dialogue on national and international levels and does SDC give less weight to headquarters and universal knowledge?

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