Revisiting knowledge for development

By Pierre Jacquet, President, Global Development Network

Beyond the short term costs and challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic for developing countries, this post takes a more long-term view, starting from a less discussed lesson of COVID-19, namely, how it has revealed a deficient culture of dealing with uncertainty and the role of science in society. The pandemic has shown both that ignoring science endangers lives and that scientists typically disagree on the best course of action. Science reveals true knowledge, but knowledge always remains incomplete: it therefore cannot deliver a blueprint for action, but it informs decisions under uncertainty and risk mitigation. The real potential of scientific knowledge is in interpretation and judgment. This has important implications for the knowledge-for-development agenda.  

Since about a quarter of a century, when former World Bank President James Wolfensohn labelled the Bank a “knowledge bank”, the idea that development strategies and practices need to mobilise sound knowledge has become a driver of development aid thinking. However, the subsequent knowledge-for-development programme has erred. This is not due to development research itself: it has become a vibrant segment in research departments in the best universities of the developed world and has improved our understanding of development challenges and productively shaped international debate and development policy thinking. Moreover, with the rise of experimental work and random control trials, it has also hosted a much-heralded advance in empirical work. But the knowledge for development agenda has ignored and even compounded three issues which, taken together, doom its effectiveness.

“The real potential of scientific knowledge is in interpretation and judgment. This has important implications for the knowledge-for-development agenda.” #DevMatters

First, the production of development knowledge is heavily concentrated. Most development research takes place in developed country research centres and universities, and by researchers in developed countries. According to the Scimago database, for example, over the last two decades, less than 2.5% of citable development research documents emanated from low-income countries, about 10% from lower middle-income countries, and more than 75% from high income countries. Concentration is even higher for all social sciences. This implies a de-facto distorted view of development challenges as symptoms of a pathology for which adequate treatment resides with developed-country-doctors. With such concentration also comes the risk that research themes and methods are directly related to developed countries’ historical experience and fields of specialisation, which may or may not be relevant from a developing country perspective.

Such concentration, however, is to be expected since higher incomes lead to higher research budgets. Concentration may also be an effective way to organise the production of knowledge. It is a global public good and exhibits increasing returns. Places that concentrate expertise are those where the best research can take place. But here comes the second issue, namely an implicit confusion between knowledge production and knowledge use. The former is a global public good, the latter is not. Knowledge use is embedded in specific contexts and has political, social and cultural dimensions. It should be considered as a process in itself, distinct from knowledge production. This is not what happens: while knowledge use is recognised as important and insufficient, it is generally seen as the result of research translators or researchers, who have some talent in research communication, disseminating actionable research to the users. In line with this view, development researchers are strongly encouraged to make “policy recommendations”, as if development policy (and policy in general) were a technocratic process transforming scholars’ recommendations into scientifically expected outputs.

This approach is mistaken, and not just because it is too deterministic. To be used, scientific knowledge needs to be not only validated by peers, through seminars and conferences organised by the best universities; it also needs to be accessible and understood by others, especially those who are in a policy advisor position, interpreted, intermediated and disseminated through debate. While production of research and knowledge can be externalised, use is local and requires capacity to appreciate academic contributions.

“The production of research in the South is not only about placing scientific articles in the best reviews; it is also about intermediating existing scientific knowledge.” #DevMatters

Building research capacity in the South is crucial to that value chain of scientific knowledge. The social value of research is not restricted to the production of new scientific knowledge. It also includes the value added brought by researchers in owning, critically assessing and disseminating existing knowledge and using it in shaping a better understanding of development challenges, in sustaining an informed debate and in providing arguments for the consideration of policy makers. The production of research in the South, therefore, is not only about placing scientific articles in the best reviews; it is also about intermediating existing scientific knowledge and using rigorous methods of analysis, data collection and interpretation to inform the debate and address crucial policy challenges. This cannot be done only by foreign researchers working on any country’s policy issues. If successful development is about using knowledge, then much more investment should be put into developing research capacity. This is the third issue: the knowledge-for-development agenda has privileged the production of academic development knowledge much more than the kind of research education that is needed in developing countries for successful academic research use.

As major policies and international solidarity face post-COVID “aggiornamento”, the time has come to rebalance the knowledge-for-development focus somewhat away from exclusive attention to knowledge production, to more interest in development impact and the role of academic research to promote knowledge use. This calls for more efforts to build research capacity as part of the Southern development process. Moreover, this is a powerful way to build local ownership; a central principle of the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness that deserves more than lip service and is crucial to support developing countries’ agency in the pursuit of their own development goals, including the SDGs and participation in the fight against climate change, the protection of biodiversity and more generally collective provision of global public goods.