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Leapfrogging Through Local Wisdom: Knowledge Management for Development
Alex Steffen, 20 May 06


On a bit of a lark, I spent my morning off reading the latest issue of the Knowledge Management for Development Journal. Yes, this proves that I am a terrible, probably incurable geek, but the Journal itself taught me a ton about where development, technology and the future are colliding.

The whole issue abounds with interesting essays. While often a bit dry, they all combine insights from the field with new models for getting things done, like "promoting women’s local knowledge," "building a learning network for local government in South Africa," "improving farmers’ livelihoods through exchange of local agricultural content in rural Uganda," and "knowledge management and natural resources in Africa." Just skimming through them gave me a whole different understanding of the current challenges for people attempting ICT4D work.

I found particularly provoking this fascinating interview with Kingo Mchombu (PDF), author of the Sharing Knowledge Handbook (also available as a PDF):

Ideally there should be a strong link between KS and poverty reduction in Africa because, with high application of information and knowledge by the poor, they can substitute and add value to the limited resources they possess. Poverty is complex, it includes not only economic deprivation i.e. low levels of income, for example living below one dollar per day is one of the measures of extreme poverty, but it also includes affordable health services, reasonable levels of education, adult education and lifelong learning, decent housing, access to safe drinking water, access to external resources from Government and donor agencies, food security and adequate nutrition to mention but a few factors. Hence to be a success, poverty reduction strategies need to use integrated approaches rather than a single sector approach.
... In most cases, the information needs of the urban and rural poor are seldom taken into account when they are supplied with information to solve their problem of poverty. The assumption being that they know very little and that is why they are poor, thus the knowledge system of the urban and rural poor is totally ignored when supplying them with external information. Indeed often their very way of life and culture are held responsible for the lack of development.

I've quoted the interview at length in the extended entry, where Mchombu describes at great length the approaches that in his experience do work, and I'd recommend them to your attention.

But what really captivates my imagination here is the way in which I see a marriage of approaches emerging here: a very sensible, community-based approach, which starts by finding and supporting the capacities of the poor, and focusing on the capital the community already has in its relationships, skills and local knowledge, and a redistribute-the-future approach, which recognizes that the tools poor people most need are the ones which help make them as independent as possible from the exploitative systems around them. It's a form of leapfrogging, certainly, but it transcends the technologies involved to look at the relationships and ways of thinking those technologies enable.

I've been hearing a lot of talk recently about the idea of an African Renaissance: the idea that, after centuries of getting the short end of the stick, of slavery, colonialism, post-colonial dictatorships and then globalized exploitation, Africa may finally be finding the right combination of global tools and local models to break free of its problems. Whether such a rebirth is occuring is a topic for another post, but whether advanced technologies can be widely distributed and used to reinforce people's abilities to do what they already know how to do much better -- whether its possible to leapfrog through local knowledge: that seems to me to be one of the more important questions we could ask.

(via Dorine Rüter. Photo: GSO.)

What are the most effective approaches or tools for KS in Africa?

The best approach is to start with an investigation of the information needs to address
poverty eradication which would include an evaluation of the existing information
and knowledge system of the community. The latter should have a component which
looks into the KS elements to establish how the communities access poverty
eradication information at present and what the gaps are. Ever so often, many false
assumptions are made about the information needs of poor people and the absence of
any meaningful information and knowledge system of their own. Such an
investigation should preferably use Participatory Rapid Appraisal methodologies to
ensure not only high participation but awareness-raising and, of course, quick data
generation which can be acted upon.

The characteristics of the community should determine the mix of tools used for KS.
High on the table should be facilitation of networking, which holds a prominent
position as a tool for KS. One way of facilitating networking is by creating
community information centres which also serve as social clubs for the people to
come and play games, sports, drama and other social activities. This would then be
the platform on which information sharing can be accommodated.

Certainly visual communication is of great importance to communities where the use
of print information sources is not always favoured because of low literacy levels.
This would include the use of videos, pictures on the walls, and posters to convey
messages concerned with poverty issues and other behaviour change goals. For
example, wall charts which show progress on such issues as infant mortality,
attendance at immunization campaigns, production of agricultural crops, adult literacy
and primary school attendance, etc. are all valuable in showing the community where
it stands against these goals.

Oral communication is also very important as a tool in addressing poverty issues as
most of the people rely solely on it for KS. This can be woven around discussion
forums facilitated by adult education and community development tutors or even
religious leaders, regular talks given by agricultural and livestock extension workers,
public health workers, and school teachers. Radio listening clubs, particularly for
development programmes such as health, adult education, agriculture, and small
business management, is another useful tool. This could be enhanced by discussion
forums where the issues raised in the radio programme are discussed further and its
application to the community made more explicit.

Print materials in the form of books and pamphlets, textbooks, and recreational
reading such as novels and plays can also be a valuable tool in poverty eradication.
The contribution to education in general at primary, secondary and adult literacy
levels is crucial to achieving the objectives of educational programmes.

ICTs are increasingly being used for KS in many rural and urban communities in
Africa. The key problem is that ICTs rely on ‘infomediaries’ as most of the urban and
rural poor lack ICT use skills. Indeed, the lack of local content reduces the value of
ICTs as tools for KS. However, in the long-term, ICTs have great potential because of
their power to share information over a vast geographical space and time span, thus
achieving economies of scale in the creation and use of content. Given that there are
core common areas of information needs for addressing rural and urban poverty, one
could envisage content development from a central location to address the common
core areas of need, focusing on accessing and adapting global information and other
forms of external information, shared over a nationwide network on poverty
alleviation. The information needs which are location specific and dependent on
climate, agricultural practices, and cultural heritage (e.g. indigenous knowledge)
would be created with local communities.

Another crucial and enabling tool is participation of the community through a
committee system which is representative of all sections of the community. The
whole ethos of KS for poverty eradication should be towards making people
empowered by the new knowledge rather than more dependent. Through such
participation it would become easier to facilitate discussions on information and
knowledge as both a factor of production and public good which can help the
community to achieve its development goals. Part of the challenge of empowerment is
to enable the community to use information and knowledge to think for themselves
and about their situation and how to work together to get to solutions. The community
should learn to create their own meaning from both incoming information and their
own traditional information and knowledge in the light of social and cultural changes
which have and are taking place.

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Comments

Shoot. I meant to work in a reference to distributed, collaborative microfinance. Oh well, draw your own connections...


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 20 May 06

I think this is a very interesting perspective of knowledge management.

I am keen on finding out more as I would like to contribute to KS among Kenyan women involved in microfinance projects.


Posted by: lizgElizabeth on 22 May 06

knowledge management system can be of great use in corporate , governance , community , education , health , tourism and every sphere .knowledge need identification , knowledge acquisition , knowledge stotage , knowledge retrieval , knowledge distribution and knowledge awareness may be part of knowledge management system .


Posted by: RPLAHIRI on 22 May 06



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