Chief Executive Officer, Knowledge Transfer Africa (KTA), Zimbabwe
Working at the intersection of formal and informal agricultural markets in Africa, I am getting frustrated by the realization that policy makers and development agencies take action when they have run out of options, not on the basis of knowledge. For example, governments and their partners start building marketing infrastructure and addressing sanitary issues when there is an outbreak of a disease, such as cholera or typhoid. Before that outbreak, all knowledge and evidence will be ignored or used partially. Emergencies, like cyclones, tend to trigger more resources and attention than knowledge that demonstrates how such emergencies could be avoided or mitigated. Responding to emergencies is certainly unsustainable and leads to misuse of scarce resources. When decision makers take action on the basis of emergencies and lack of options, we can’t talk of sustainable development but dangerous short-termism.
If a small proportion of all the knowledge being generated in the world is applied, we will address most of the wicked problems such as climate change, malnutrition and poverty. It seems the contested nature of knowledge fuels poor decision making since self-interest begins to carry the day. When policy makers see that knowledge generators such as researchers have no consensus, they resort to their own alternative sources of advice. My dream is a knowledge society where all these issues receive adequate attention and resolution. At the moment a lot is known, including the right answers or evidence, but responsive action is missing. An increase in sources of knowledge is also increasing the amount of time and resources one needs to invest in order to arrive at the most useful answers. My other concern or ambition is how knowledge brokers can effectively use their skills to redistribute power in ways that democratize knowledge. In my part of the world, I work with communities who practice knowledge management without giving it that name. What would it take for those who hold power to recognize such practical wisdom as knowledge that can change the world? While several UN agencies continue to do commendable work, how can they recognize their impact (positive and negative) on local knowledge generation and use?
There are many cases where voices from local communities and institutions are not taken seriously until a UN organization raises the same issues. For how long are UN organisations, the World Bank and other big organizations going to continue using their symbolic power to elevate issues that should be conveyed by local communities and institutions? Symbolic power in the form of logos and the convening power of UN organisations represents a hierarchy of credibility which makes it appear what these organisations say should be considered the first truth, followed by what comes from government authorities and lastly, local community views. Even if intuition from local communities are more authentic and reliable, symbolic power makes what comes from the UN agencies and the World Bank more believable to global audiences. Tackling the above issues will position Knowledge Development Goals as an ideal filter for Sustainable Development Goals.