Friday, 25 March 2011

Thoughts on demand for knowledge in SA development

I was very much struck by this excellent discussion of demand for knowledge on KM on a dollar a day. In the last few months of just nibbling at the edges of knowledge management, I've been struck again by a resistance to the introduction of outside knowledge when discussing projects and local implementation. Perhaps this is partly a South African problem. I would like to say that it is restricted to the field I've recently been working in but experience in other development sectors suggests that isn't true.

Implementers generally don't seem to want to know what research says. Even when research says they should be getting good results or what they're doing is the thing most likely to work, they're resistant to trusting research and knowledge gathered by other people (I assume because they'll then be expected to use it more widely). This is a short-term focus for me at this point, and the work I'm doing is probably not crucial, but the lack of interest in and active resistance to outside knowledge and information bothers me because, if it is widespread, it affects the effectiveness of the whole field of development in the country.

My frustration is less important than the clear frustration of some of the implementers I worked with: this knowledge, this outside information seemed to bother them for the same reason formal monitoring and evaluation processes bother them - because many implementers feel that formal measurements focused only on observable change do not capture the "real" impact of the projects, the human transformations. This makes me sad. Comments like this one, made to me several years ago, are a problem for me: "we know that these results don't really tell the true story because this person we worked with has much better leadership skills than he had before". They're a problem, firstly, because the project in question had absolutely nothing to do with developing leadership skills but, more importantly, because this kind of comment presupposes that the individual in question could not have developed leadership skills without this particular organisation going in there and 'improving him', making the implementers most important, rather than the results.

More and more, I'm drawn to measurable aid and development. Soft and fluffy probably has a place, but I'm not sure the expertise and time of development/aid professionals should be spent where impact cannot be measured. If people are not interested in using all the best possible knowledge to achieve the aims of their projects, are they really the right people to be investing precious development funding in? Ian Thorpe is more charitable and suggests that perhaps knowledge production needs to be more end-user focused, to generate buy-in and demand. Also, that organisational leadership needs to drive a focus on learning and using knowledge. That's probably true. The shift for implementers from being the inventors of solutions and the saviours of communities to using every available tool, including local knowledge and research, to help to create sustainable, measurable solutions is a difficult one. Funders also probably have a role to play - better results require better inputs, not only in terms of administration, reporting and targets but also in encouraging implementing organisations to upgrade their inputs in terms of knowledge and awareness of new ideas.

I don't know enough about knowledge management to speak generally but in my experience of development in South Africa, there is a huge chasm between knowledge, research and evidence and the implementation of development projects, both in government and in the NGO sector. I'm convinced it cannot be good for results and I wonder what could be done to make it better.

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