Salesmen used to make a living selling enormously expensive multi-volume encyclopedias which would tell you everything you needed to know about everything. Then came the vastly cheaper pocket-size CD ROM. And now there’s the Internet, for the price of a telephone call. Suddenly, knowledge seems cheap and accessible.
If we’re to believe the World Bank’s recent report, Knowledge and Development, after several millennia of human intellectual endeavor, we’ve come of age. In fact, the Bank has taken to calling itself the "knowledge bank," as if it were the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the Yellow Pages rolled into one – a kind of modern version of that optimistic Victorian institution, the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. It’s the proud possessor of "an unparalleled reservoir of knowledge … accumulated over the past 50 years in more than 100 countries." And thanks to the Internet, it can finally share this reservoir with the rest of us.
But what does this actually mean for resolving age-old inequalities and alleviating poverty, or for bringing us closer to the promised land of renewable energy, full employment, and rising living standards? And are we any the wiser?
To the Bank, knowledge is capital which can be invested in development through new information and communication technologies (ICTs), most obviously the Internet but also new digital networks and mobile and satellite telephones. It recognizes there are tremendous challenges for poor countries, and that, for poor and marginalized communities, the information gap could turn into an information chasm. Nevertheless, the Bank argues, the opportunity for knowledge capital to make spectacular development profits are greater than ever before. Managing this knowledge on our behalf, it claims that the results will be widespread benefits and the establishment of a new golden knowledge standard.
For example, the Bank has set up "knowledge infrastructure" networks which contain best practice case studies, lessons learnt, and analysis. Want to know how to design a state-of-the-art credit scheme for women-headed households in Djibouti? Click here. No more frustrating telephone calls or faxes to the little NGO you think ran a similar project in Tunisia. It’s all at your fingertips in seconds.
While there are real gains to be made in this brave new world of knowledge management – and a genuine desire to make knowledge work on behalf of the poorest – there are also real conundrums. To start with, the Bank and other knowledge brokers imply there is a knowledge standard. Like the encyclopedists of old, for the Bank a fact is a fact and best practice is best practice – not just a point on the way to better understanding. The danger is that with the ITCs comes a new hierarchy of knowledge.
If you’re in one of the Bank’s networks, you exist. Indeed, there’s proof of your existence. But a huge amount of knowledge won’t be there, particularly when it comes from outside the technocratic and scientific community: indigenous and private knowledge, local language, not to mention knowledge too valuable or sensitive for the possessor to share.
The Bank also fails to distinguish between information on the data base and the intellectual effort needed to turn it into knowledge. The networks are managed by individuals who must accept the vast amount of information they promote largely on trust. But these network "anchors" aren’t alchemists; they can’t so easily turn raw information into golden knowledge, or evaluate the information on behalf of those whose lives the knowledge is designed to benefit.
The advantage of such networks is that they are public and can be very interactive, enabling those with the resources to endorse, challenge, or supplement existing information. But just as it’s difficult for the Malian filmmaker to win international distribution, let alone an Oscar, so is it difficult for the uninvited to contribute to the mainstream websites, and impossible for the unconnected. From the development perspective, this unconnected knowledge is often the most valuable and productive.
Then there’s the problem of authority. Are we to assume that because something is labeled "knowledge" and appears on a blue-chip website that it’s the unvarnished truth? Take the controversial issue of genetically modified crops (GMCs). The commercial developers of GMCs have their own sophisticated public relations system, churning out apparently objective facts mixed with humanitarian rhetoric. But they’re challenged by environmental groups that also claim to employ an objective standard of knowledge. Research scientists add their own tested but incomplete evidence. As a result, the public is thoroughly confused. We’re unlikely to gain much enlightenment by consulting a World Bank knowledge network.
Our best bet for making sense of all the competing information is to subject it to intense and sustained public debate. Only if the competing positions and the often-contradictory evidence are publicly debated in print, on television and radio, and in social and political gatherings will we be able to arrive at some consensus about what to do with these different sets of knowledge – and develop an agenda for action. What we need in the new "knowledge society" is diversity; a multitude of knowledge brokers, a Babel of banks. Where ICTs can make a real difference is in providing access to these different and competitive data banks – which is actually all the so-called "knowledge banks" can claim to be. In conjunction with the media and civil society forums, that would enable all of us to engage in well-informed, constructive, and democratic debate.
Nigel Cross is director of the Panos Institute in London. A Panos position paper on knowledge and development is available at www.oneworld.org/panos. Copies may be requested by sending
e-mail to email@example.com.