Head of Global Knowledge, Practical Action
In the seminal work ‘Small is beautiful’ published in 1973, Fritz Schumacher wrote: ‘The gift of material goods makes people dependent, but the gift of knowledge makes them free – provided it is the right kind of knowledge, of course. The gift of knowledge also has far more lasting effects and is far more closely relevant to the concept of ‘development.’ Schumacher was the founder of Practical Action and for the last fifty years we have sought to share knowledge with, and between, some of the world’s most marginalised communities in order to tackle poverty. So it is no surprise that I feel most strongly that there needs to be greater attention to improving knowledge flows and knowledge systems within the SDGs. The challenges of the 1970s have been replaced by new challenges like the digital divide, which we must turn into opportunities. But improving people’s access to appropriate knowledge in appropriate formats, at the right time is a critical element of empowerment, and of a journey out of poverty.
There is enough knowledge in the world to answer most of the biggest questions of global poverty and climate change. More research is not needed. The solutions that will help us achieve the SDGs on water, agriculture, energy and gender, for example, all exist. But the knowledge is not held by the right people, or in the right format. It is not actionable. There are systemic barriers which must be overcome and an enabling environment must be created. The development industry, and everyone tackling poverty across the world, also face enormous challenges of knowledge management. As an industry we are poor at learning. Our activist culture, and focus on fixed term, three year projects, does not encourage us to learn from our work or from each other – and this failure challenges our legitimacy. When Schumacher founded Practical Action (as the Intermediate Technology Development Group), his focus was on knowledge transfer from North to South. In 2017, we know that we have much to learn from people living in vulnerable communities, as well as share with them. So building a two way, more effective knowledge system, which includes people who are the very hardest to reach, will bring great benefits to us all.