May 2, 2024
10 minute read
Development matters // Knowledge matters

#decolonisingknowledge #multi-directionalknowledgeflow #knowledgedemocratisation

Part 1: Development not developing
“It's official. Rich countries no longer give "aid", they engage in "development cooperation.”
- Jonathan Glennie 

Sounds like an applause moment, right?  Well, not quite. This piece written by Glennie was published in the Guardian 12 years ago.

We face catastrophic global challenges. These global challenges demand a global response. Climate change, violent conflict, or poverty are all wicked, inter-connected issues. In the globalised world we live in, they require a coordinated response to be tackled. 

International development plays a key role to tackle these issues. Its whole purpose is to contribute to developing things for the better. The opening quote of this article sums it up, we need a move towards global cooperation. Since that was already the call 12 years ago, is that where we are today?

Unfortunately, while there have been some positive developments in the right direction, the development sector itself seems to be severely stuck in its own inertia. So much so, that we’ve been having the same debates around “the change needed” to make this sector work more effectively and efficiently year after year. Time and time again, I participate in the same conversations around everyone being frustrated with what is not working, yet seeing no far-reaching systematic attempt at change.

In the sector, we’ve come up with beautiful new terms, like Localisation, Shift the Power, Doing Development Differently. Don’t get me wrong, I fully believe that all these changes are truly needed in the sector, but is this sector actually genuinely evolving or do these terms remain mere buzzwords?

In this blog series, I don’t want to contribute another piece of what is wrong. Instead, I want to highlight initiatives that give hope: I want to explore the future of international development, zooming in on key challenges, but mostly focusing on highlighting inspiring ideas for direction. Throughout it all, I will specifically look at development through the lens of knowledge. I am taking this lens because as I described in a previous article and as pointed out by Dr. Lata Narayanaswamy “[…] genuine cooperation is actually about knowledge. Whose knowledge counts? How do we reorient the way we think about where valuable knowledge comes from?”

I want to make the case that the core of making cooperation possible is learning from one another while ensuring that all knowledge counts equally in that learning process.

The paradox: Development is not developing 

Before I dive into specific ideas and take on where we can go from here, I want to take a brief step back to understand where we are and why things might be stuck. In a previous article, I provided a brief history of international development work. As the quote in the beginning points out, the development sector has moved from a pure provision of aid to thinking about cooperation. Cooperation makes sense considering that global issues require global cooperation. However, I am still left with questions about where development should go to begin with. What should development develop to? Should it develop in the first place? 

For one, there is widespread agreement that things need to change. That agreement stems from the fact that it feels like the sector is working under more and more constraints with ever-higher requirements and demands. This strain makes the development sector more of an impact-producing-results-reporting machine than a platform for achieving meaningful change. 

Most people I speak to in the sector agree that current systems of development work are no longer working or have never been working, e.g. how long have we been talking about LogFrames being outdated? You cannot plan all the way to the activity level for the next four years while simultaneously working in one of the most complex and dynamic settings.

At the same time, despite there being the agreement about the need for change, it also feels like these are endless empty promises that are only “yes, and” conversations without any far-reaching change about how things are done. In summary, the system needs to change drastically, yet that change is not happening. 

So, where does this paradox stem from?

The struggle for change

In the following section, I want to highlight three key dominating factors that have a determinant impact on the ability of the field of international development to evolve. These three factors are (1) the raison d’être for development (2) politics, and (3) power dynamics.

1. The raison d’être for development 

The first task is to ask ourselves, what is the purpose of development work, what is it for, who does it serve and who gets to say? 

I started this article by saying that development started by the provision of development aid and has since tried to transform towards cooperation. Many Northern-based governments and funders have realised that the development system was built on deep-rooted colonial ideas and that it was time to turn towards more equal partnerships. Hence, turning away from just providing aid from one country to another to working together, exchanging knowledge and learning from one another. Sounds pretty ideal, right?  

Well, Glennie’s take on it was critical 12 years ago and, unfortunately, I have to say it still holds true today: “But while the direction of travel of the international community is broadly to be welcomed, and is in fact inevitable, there are a couple of traps that come with the package. The first is the danger of believing that because there is more talk of co-operation and mutuality, that there is in fact more co-operation and mutuality. There may or may not be. Rich countries (old and new) will still make decisions based on a mix of interest, ideology and altruism, just as they always have; it will take more than a progressive declaration to change the power mechanisms inherent in international relations.”

Looking at the global crises we face it seems absolutely hypocritical to look at Northern based countries as role models: climate crisis, sustainable corporate practices, sustainable supply chains, etc. We cannot talk about development without talking about what we mean by development. 

2. Politics

That conclusion leads us to the second factor, politics. International development is dependent on and influenced by politics. Development agendas and budgets are steered by national governments. Changes in politics influences development policy and therefore also the development agenda. 

National economic constraints and the rise of the right, for example, have posed quite a challenge to securing development budgets. The other day, someone pointed out to me that, yes, it’s important to have sustainability plans for development. However, if next year a new government is elected, the whole development mandate might be switched up. 

Zooming in, politics also plays a role among the actors in the field themselves as well as within organisations. Different agendas and interests might lead to internal conflicts and make it harder to cooperate effectively. 

Of course, states are adamant about promoting their values and international shared values on human rights and democratic systems will continue to be promoted. However they are sometimes applied arbitrarily as seen fit. In the end, this again comes down to the question of why are we doing development and for who, and  who gets to decide?

3. Power dynamics

Third, and very much connected to the previous two points, are power dynamics. Development is  still a system in which, in its simplest form, there is someone giving the money and someone receiving this money. The transaction in itself inherently includes power dynamics. 

These power dynamics specifically have an influence on the way decisions are taken and how knowledge flows. Important initiatives such as “Shift the Power” or localisation are gaining prominence. Yet it is always a question of whether we just talk about these concepts and who talks about them or if we actually see organisations embracing them. The latter part is not easy because it often requires critical introspection from organisations through which they need to question themselves, their reason for existing, their practices and biases. It includes dealing with uncomfortable truth and definitely, giving up power. 

Power dynamics are still unequal in the sector. Two concepts are interesting to highlight here. The first one is decolonising knowledge and the second is epistemic injustice. I will zoom in on these two concepts in future pieces in more detail but the following gives an idea of where knowledge comes from and how it flows:

If we look at knowledge production around the world, we get a sobering image of inequality. Bruce Boyes, writing about the world’s very unequal knowledge cites a 2015 article by Laura Czerniewicz. She states that:

“If the world were mapped according to how many scientific research papers each country produced, it would take on a rather bizarre, uneven appearance. The Northern hemisphere would balloon beyond recognition. The global south, including Africa, would effectively melt off the map.”

That’s not to say that developing new concepts is important and talking about them is as well. As Glennie states: “Language can be an important precursor to changes in reality, especially if it gives power to the hand of reformers in developing countries to insist on more accountability and honesty in analysing complex relationships.” Nevertheless, we have to consider who is starting and learning these conversations, do we listen to them and what change actually results from them. 

Lastly, I’ve recently been introduced to the concept of “epistemic injustice” which was introduced to me by the wonderful Sarah Cummings who does a lot of thinking about knowledge in global development and the decolonisation of knowledge. Epistemic injustice describes the exclusion of people or groups in language, communication and knowledge production. She explains that “epistemic injustice is a particularly serious problem for sustainable development, undermining the global community's ability to deal with ‘wicked’ problems.” 

In her work, she provides a framework for “fair treatment in knowledge-related and communicative practices, for sustainable development and beyond.”

Where do we go from here? 

The previous sections provide quite a grim stocktake of where we find ourselves. And, indeed, I argue that international development should not continue as it is. With that I am not trying to dismiss the crucial work that NGO and non-profit organisations do around the world, contributing to the public good and advocating for the people and planet with no voice. 

However, we need to move from thinking development is about the provision of anything, always constrained and dependent on the benevolence of governments or private donors (inherently based on unequal power dynamics) to a system of mutual cooperation. Think: collective

It might sound naïve but we need to learn from each other to make things work. But can there really be change by a bottom up change or does it require a shift from the top, i.e. where the money is? There is a need to untangle what development is, go back to aid where we talk about pure humanitarian aid, and create a completely new model for sustainable development cooperation.

Rather than leaving anyone discouraged, I want to provide the space for conversation and to highlight innovative, breakthrough ideas and initiatives that we can build on to shape the transformation needed. In this blog series, I will therefore try to make the point that (1) development matters and (2) give direction as to where development can go.

To provide some examples of inspiration in this space. Earlier in the article I refer to the work of Bruce Boyes and Sarah Cummings. They both contribute to the KM4Dev magazine and have developed a wealth of contributions about knowledge for development. They make the case for how we can create a more equal playground for knowledge production, how we can actively work toward epistemic justice and call on the global community in their Open Letter to the UN and world governments to listen to the diverse voices out there by including “multiple knowledges” for sustainable development.

Another inspiring voice is Themrise Khan. Khan provides sharp and critical analysis about systems dynamics in international development and calls for overhauling the current development system by creating global coalitions that are represented by regions. She provides direction on what a new system could look like in her paper: Envisioning an alternative ecosystem for global development and humanitarianism”.

One last example I recently came across is the Expert Group on Global Public Investment. The group recognises that international public finance is critical for sustainable development, but that the current provision of aid is ineffective. The Expert Group is working on a concrete plan for how a new set-up of public finance can look like. As Rt Hon Helen Clark is quoted on the website: “[...]. The Global Public Investment approach is our best bet for modernising international public finance for the 21st century.”

That being said, not all hope is lost. There are glimmers of hope through new, groundbreaking initiatives on the horizon. It’s time we stop talking about what is wrong and connect it to what can be done. 

Quoting a participant of the Good Tech Fest 2024: “We need radical ideas”. Don’t think of this change as revolutionary, think of it as imperative.

Did I miss anything? Follow me in this journey: comment, share and contribute ideas.