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Who produces development knowledge?

This blog was originally published on the Christian Aid Intranet, 30/03/2018

​Last week I went to the annual BOND conference  where I attended a panel focused on 'leading from the global South'.  Many of the arguments were predictable and well-rehearsed, highlighting various issues which we would also emphasise in Christian Aid; such as the enhanced legitimacy, knowledge, trust, on-going presence/staying power organisations from the global South bring.

However, I was pleased to hear Jessica Horn (Director of Programmes from the African Women's Development Fund) taking a slightly different approach, identifying the importance changing the narrative and viewing the 'global South' differently: “African women are always talked about, but never listened to….we are not all grassroots, we are diverse and we bring different analysis.”

She continued to highlight that while there has been extensive African thought, such as on the concept of rights emphasising communitarian rights as well as individual, and detailing issues of intersectionality and complexity long before the words had become trendy internationally; this knowledge is not always well captured and documented, and therefore struggles to get out there to be known. For her, if the global South is to lead in development; this means working so that more people in the global South write, speak and get heard. This includes unpacking and challenging the “economy of knowledge production” and to value contributions of knowledge from the global South.

As co-Head of REL, this was music to my ears. In REL we focus on building the research and evidencing capacity of our staff (and potentially partners) because we believe that the extensive knowledge and analysis located within our country staff, partners and programme participants is currently not well known or used – and that this limits our impact on poverty.  

Moreover, we are aware that there is a challenge within the academic sphere in relation to what research outputs should look like. Academics face pressure to publish their findings in international 'high ranking' academic journals. For international read European/North American; the majority of these journals are published in English with specific conceptions of what good research and evidence practice looks like – based on western research traditions. The journals privilege specific styles which often lead to the exclusion of those writing in English as a second (or third or fourth) language; or those who have taken a different type of research approach. And yet, the contents of these journals is influential in terms of wider debates on development pathways and priorities.

What are we doing? / Supporting global knowledge

In REL, our aim is to challenge this, to position Christian Aid as an organisation that produces robust and legitimate evidence, but that also challenges common conceptions of what good evidence looks like. We want to work to draw together the knowledge and perspectives of our partners and communities that we support, and to support these voices to be heard in new and different arenas, to challenge assumptions on who produces research and whose knowledge counts. This is why we are investing in our 'evidence for development professionals course' and other capacity development initiatives. As I listened to the debates I felt pleased that Christian Aid has invested in this type of work, promoting evidence and knowledge from the global South.

What should we do more of? / Encouraging global listening

But in a later session I was reminded that while there are various initiatives that support better research, documentation and evidencing from the global South, there is less attention to supporting better consumption of this evidence.

For example, Molly Anders from Dev Ex highlighted that while there is extensive citizen journalism across the global South, and that social media has made this possible, there is very low consumption of this journalism in the global North. We still look to 'known' sources to get our development evidence and this tends to be produced by those resident in the UK, or working for outlets headquartered in the global North.

I realised that like many debates in participation we can tend to spend too much time focused on 'empowerment' of individuals and not enough on working with those in power to encourage better listening. I was left asking myself what bridging role can an INGO play in bringing together those producing knowledge in the global south and with potential audiences whether these are people in the global south or global north? How involved should we be in the process of translation between groups of people? And what does this mean for whose capacity REL is trying to develop?