Development and the Knowledge Problem: Towards an open source development sector?

Posted by / 13th October 2014 / Categories: Opinion, Polis / Tags: , , / -

Knowledge about development is temporary, diffuse, and not locally owned. Apart from a few large International organisations, the almost infinite amount of data gathered by (International) non-governmental organisations (NGO) is completely inaccessible. This configuration, in which the interests of individuals and organisations are not aligned with the sector´s general purpose, is detrimental for effective development. In a world where knowledge means employment, such a configuration is hard to break through. But if the sector started sharing development knowledge openly, would it make itself redundant?

Over the past decades, mountains of valuable information have been gathered about pretty much every development issue imaginable. From crop yields per acre to training manuals for civil society groups, and from exploratory research on seasonal migration to impact studies of literacy campaigns; there exists a whole universe of baseline studies, impact studies, manuals, databases, and evaluations.

Some of this information is freely accessible at the online platforms of large international organisations such as the World Bank, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation, and Transparency International. Access to such data is great for comparative research. However, the bulk of the existing data about development is gathered by INGOs and small-scale NGOs that work from international to local scales and that keep their research to themselves. The number of INGOs can still be counted (around 40.000 worldwide), while the number of NGOs can only be guessed. India was estimated to be home to 2 million NGOs in 2009, one for every 600 citizens. Considering that each of these organisations collects a variety of data each and every year, the combined knowledge is almost infinite.

So data published by big international organisations is just the tip of the iceberg. The specific and local knowledge is completely intransparent and inaccessible. Many people in the sector seem to acknowledge this problem, but only few point out or do something about it.

Knowledge about development is temporary, diffuse, and not locally owned

Knowledge is temporary because the people that own it come and go. Very few foreigners are committed to one issue in one region for a lifetime. Most world-changers come for a few years, make a contribution, up their street credit, and move on. After all, that is what is best for one´s career and that´s what counts. The interests of the sector as a whole and those who depend on it thus fail to align. In the meantime, the beneficiaries who should benefit from the knowledge accumulated in the sector stay empty handed.

The temporary nature of knowledge has been exemplified during the past months by the ebola crisis in West Africa. Besides the obvious and horrendous public health disaster, the food shortages, the security threats, and the virtual economic standstill, Guineans, Sierra Leoneans, and Liberians have also been forced to say goodbye to most of their NGO workers. Contrary to a few brave health workers and volunteers that poured into the region, most traditional NGO workers have gone the other direction, waiting for the storm to blow over. As months go by, it becomes clear that many of those who intended to leave temporarily feel compelled (or are forced) to look for other career options, taking with them lots of built up experience and expertise. From the individual´s perspective this makes complete sense, but it is disastrous for those who stay behind.

Knowledge is diffuse because it is either stored with temporary experts or with the internal documents of NGOs and International organisations. The true origin of the knowledge problem lies here. The competitive nature of the sector, in which access to donor money seems to be a zero-sum game, causes organisations to keep knowledge internally rather than sharing it freely. On top of that, organisations are also afraid to publish on failed projects. After all, those NGOs that fail to deliver might miss out at the next round of proposals.

Data from ´competitors´ cannot be accessed, meaning that newbies have to invent the wheel over and over again. Consultants that monitor and evaluate projects suffer from – and contribute to – the same problem. The lack of centralised information leads them to – unknowingly – replicate studies that were already done by ´competitors´. On top of that, the quality of their work cannot be controlled because there is no possibility of peer review. So it´s not only about good knowledge being inaccessible, but also about bad knowledge being undetected! Nobody seems to really care though, because on an individual level everyone on the donors’ side seems to benefit. Newbies get more time to settle in, consultants keep on creating work for themselves, and everybody lives to work another day.

Finally, knowledge is not locally owned. One would perhaps expect local populations to know all about their development; they should by now be experts about methodologies, interventions, and the impacts of the NGO projects in their region. After all, for many aid recipients, development is their daily bread. They are the only ones who will be around in the long term and they have an obvious interest in what´s going on.

In reality, local populations are largely outside of the information flow. They don´t have a subscription to the newsletter. NGO´s and International organisations study them, and consultants ask them thousands of questions about the impacts or projects, but the results are mostly taken home and the only ones that really learn anything are those who do the studies.

The uncomfortable truth is that a world in which locals lead their own development knowledge is a world in which many expats, experts, and consultant become redundant. In the information age, information is power. For many people in the development sector, this means that information is employment. Giving that away for free is shooting oneself in the foot.

The development sector is thus not much different from normal business sectors, where information is sensitive and where owning information gives one a competitive advantage. And yet, the sector claims to be different, to work for the greater good. Its members tend to work for not-for-profit or public actors, and as such cannot solely focus on profit margins or competitive advantage. For them to be effective and outcome focused, considering sharing their knowledge with other sector members should be on the table: sharing knowledge among peers in order to mutually strengthen the sectors outcomes would distinguish it from other sectors, and be consistent with claims about their charitable nature.

Towards open source development

Data about development is plentiful in virtually every imaginable region and sector. If it were available as open source data, the accumulated knowledge would probably be bigger than that stored at academic storages. One can only begin to imagine the research possibilities, ranging from big data to local anthropological studies.

If knowledge were permanent, centralised, and locally owned, the development sector would benefit greatly. Donors and NGO´s would not have to waste thousands of dollars on duplications of studies. Independent consultants would truly be independent. Failing NGOs would be easier to identify, and knowledge would be owned by those who it´s all for: local populations.

For the moment, development as an open source is only day dreaming. Data is not widely available and is stored with self-interested individual experts and competitive organisations. As long as knowledge about development is not locally owned and publicly shared and stored, it cannot be used optimally to deal with urgent issues in the sector. Donors will lack comprehensive insight, projects and evaluators will be unaccountable, and locals will stay in the dark. For knowledge to be permanent and widely accessible, those who own it will need to share it.



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About the author
Thomas Kruiper is a core team member at ReSeT. He specialises in conflict resolution, international development cooperation and governance.

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