Knowledge infrastructure

Development Policy20 Apr 2010The Broker

How to organize strategic thinking?

This explores the questions of how, with whom and in what organizational context can we ensure that feasible country or region strategies are developed? How do we consolidate this to global research? In other words, what knowledge infrastructure is required? Following is a summary of questions emanating from the debate so far:

  • Should the country or region strategies be the main guiding principle for a development-oriented knowledge policy, or are there any other criteria which need to be taken into account? Global trends, for example, in so far as they do not directly relate to the countries in question? Or thematic criteria? A related question is whether we should specialize in specific fields of knowledge, such as water, agriculture, constitutionalism and civil society? If so, would it not be better to avoid a supply-driven bias and focus more on global areas? Or should the focus rather be on general and strategic analysis?
  • How can we create a (North-South) ‘co-production’ of knowledge and a knowledge infrastructure which is cross-disciplinary and open to ‘dissonant voices and different development paradigms’?
  • How can we enhance the legitimacy of country or region strategies? How can we expand the diagnostic processes, making them transparent and open to the public at the local and international levels, i.e. civil societies, migrant diasporas, business communities, NGOs? Which stakeholders (only experts, for example, or also local civil society) are going to participate in this process, and during which phase will this occur (during the formulation of the country strategy or afterwards, following the publication of the summary), and how should this be organized (e.g. via online debate)?
  • Should a new knowledge development institute be established? And should it be a global issues centre that focuses on global themes? What kind of centre should it be? A traditional set-up with a number of experts doing research, or should it ‘broker’ existing and new knowledge and adopt a network approach (think-tank 2.0)?
  • How can we avoid separating country strategies from global research and ensure that local and global issues are consolidated?
  • What models for strategic analysis (country, regional and global) are available, and how can we determine where the gaps are?

One approach to Dutch knowledge policy is thematic specialization. According to the WRR, the Netherlands can offer added value in the fields of water, agriculture, the constitutional state, HIV/AIDS and society building/civil society. These are themes all with their own scope: some are quite technical, others much broader. Some contributors responded to these suggestions approvingly, while others were more critical. A great deal was certainly said about the role of civil society (and therefore also about the relevant knowledge) in development; in fact, it was the focus of dozens of contributions. In this context, Johan te Velde even advocates a Scientific Council for Non-Government Policy (WRNR): ‘Because the WRR scrutinizes the essence of the NGO sector much less thoroughly than the bilateral channel, the recommendations are insufficiently grounded. It would be good to take a close look at civil society, in the way the WRR has done with the bilateral channel. This would be a task for a WRNR, led by an experienced NGO figure, supported by an (inter)national team of scientists specialized in civil society research. … This would embrace the original policy theories of civil society, the new insights, the consequences of government financing, links between civil society theories and other theories about social movements, democratization/pluralism and culture and identity and political processes…. It would, in any event, be useful when it comes to explaining NGOs’ theory of change.’

Paul Hassing is concerned that the focus on the added value of Dutch research will lead to a supply-driven bias, for example in agriculture, one of the areas in which the Netherlands is strong. He asks, ‘What does this Dutch expertise mean for a demand-driven, country approach? Will the expertise not have an undesirable effect and burden bilateral policy, in particular, with agriculture interventions, without this perhaps being the most important priority? Would it not then be more prudent to link expertise to global themes? That is, themes in which there is global interest and which are not related to national development in a narrow sense.’ Willem van Genugten also suggests that the Netherlands should specialize in global themes: ‘As regards the choice of theme, I personally think that there are a great many people still to be won over concerning the interaction between the environment, development, security and (international, regional and local) justice.’ He also refers to the relationship between intellectual property rights and development as a possible Dutch spearhead.

On the other hand, we should in fact move away from the distinction between Dutch and Southern research, which implies that Dutch specialization alone cannot take the lead. One of the important conclusions of the WRR report is that scientific research must be based on and embedded in the local context of the country concerned. Willem van Genugten endorses this point. He is positive about the fact that the WRR talks ‘not in terms of knowledge transfer from highly developed countries to developing countries, but in terms of shared knowledge development and knowledge exchange’. He quotes the WRR regarding agricultural knowledge and concludes that the report contains many ‘useful observations and warnings: science which has become increasingly removed from the possible users of knowledge and techniques, the lack of a scientific network that facilitates local innovations, knowledge innovation as the co-production of science and practice, context specificity’. The important thing is therefore the joint production and embedding of knowledge. Later, Van Genugten writes that ‘scientific research must accept its limitations. But if it wants to be both excellent and relevant, researchers, research institutions and research financers cannot avoid immersing themselves in the context in which it has to be carried out and in the sections of the entire chain which the results can affect. Such an approach also requires an attitude led by problems and not the scientific disciplines used to generate adequate analyses and solutions. That is something different to “demand-driven” … but the underlying demand does play an important and eventually decisive role when it comes to setting up the research, the choice of research method, etc. That generally makes it more difficult for scientists trained in one discipline, but also more relevant and eventually perhaps even more satisfying. The latter also applies, in any event, to the co-producers of the knowledge in the South.’

Not only must North and South cooperate, so do the various academic disciplines. The WRR refers to a knowledge infrastructure which has to be cross-disciplinary and adds that it also has to include ‘dissonant voices and different development paradigms’. Knowledge production in the field of development is currently dominated by the World Bank. The Council quotes, with its consent, the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, India, which advocates a broader ‘conceptual infrastructure’.

And a last important condition that has to be taken into account is the involvement of the local population in knowledge production. ‘However, an important question’, according to Willemijn Verkoren ‘is whose knowledge a policy should be based on. Far more attention should be devoted to tapping into and developing local knowledge and local research capacity. This is the only way to achieve endogenous development processes’.

Legitimacy of country strategies

This idea of a ‘co-production’ of knowledge links up with the demand for legitimacy of Dutch development policy or, more specifically, of the country or region strategies which have to be drawn up on the basis of diagnostics. The WRR and the contributors have commented on this matter in a variety of ways. One of the suggestions by the WRR is to make country strategies explicit and public so that they become open to discussion and to contributions by other experts and organizations. Frits van der Wal agrees. He proposes making ‘a broad and thorough analysis of the current partner countries as regards the opportunities and binding constraints. … This analysis must be a product that builds on existing material and to which interested and properly informed people from the business community, government, migrant diaspora, knowledge institutions, NGOs, etc. have actively contributed. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs could facilitate this and ensure that an accessible and transparent discussion of essential issues relating to the political economy, culture, history, comparative benefits, etc. takes place.’ In addition, this could serve as a basis for ‘the organization of an optimally objective process in which choices are developed related to the issue of where, which country and/or region-specific points of departure could, in all probability, help realize the most effective and efficient solutions. It would be effective because of the focus on real bottlenecks and efficient because we have expertise which has been demonstrably mobilized from or within the Netherlands.’

Maarten Brouwer goes even further and suggests that development policy accountability should be made country-specific: ‘A more politically oriented type of accountability is urgently needed at the moment, one that clearly indicates why the Netherlands wants to take on a specific role. In my opinion, this would result in accountability that should also focus on what is being achieved in our partner countries. This kind of country-specific accountability would also lead to a consolidation of accountability in our partner countries and in the Netherlands. Wouldn’t it be a significant step forward if political accountability in the Netherlands was inspired by local accountability in a partner country, by means of prior political deliberation between parliamentarians from both countries, for example?’

Niels Röling proposes setting up regular ‘citizen’ juries, although his focus is more on global issues. He does think that a separate agency – NLAID – would be a good idea ‘but then one which has more to offer than ex-development workers’. An NLAID set up like this (Röling appears to be talking more about a separate organization in the Netherlands rather than country offices) would also ‘assume a formal role on behalf of parliament (global “conscience”)’. The ‘citizen’ juries would serve ‘as an addition and adjustment to the compromises made by parties in power and as a means of emphasizing the opposition’.

Think-tank 2.0

The WRR calls for the setting up of a global issues center. It believes that this would increase knowledge of coherence and of global and regional relationships. A number of contributions endorse this appeal, and the idea of a think-tank or knowledge institute in the field of development cooperation has been raised regularly over the years.

Ik volsta in dit commentaar verder met het van harte onderschrijven van de aanbeveling om de kennis die in Nederland (nog) aanwezig is in vele instellingen (ik noem daarbij vooral de instituten voor internationaal onderwijs als ISS te Den Haag, UNESCO-IHE te Delft en ITC in Enschede), veel meer in te zetten in het kader van ontwikkelingssamenwerking. Mede op basis van deze instituten, die ver buiten onze landsgrenzen faam genieten, is thans een initiatief op zijn plaats – ook in The Broker door de hoofdredacteur bepleit – om in Nederland een denktank op te richten, met internationale uitstraling. Met de uitvoering van deze aanbeveling uit het WRR-rapport zou een belangrijke stap voorwaarts gemaakt kunnen worden, die kan leiden tot een aanzienlijke verbetering in de Nederlandse ontwikkelingssamenwerking. Nederland zou daarmee ook zijn ooit vooraanstaande positie op het gebied van ontwikkelingssamenwerking, zoals in de tijd van Tinbergen, weer kunnen veroveren.

However, the question is not so much whether such a body should be set up but rather what form it should take. Should it be modelled on the British Overseas Development Institute, the American Center for Global Development or the German Development Institute, or perhaps a development institute like Clingendael, the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, which has experts in a variety of fields? Perhaps one should think in terms of more modern organizational structures or, to use a well-worn term, a ‘think-tank 2.0’, a network organization that brings together experts from various disciplines and sectors in a flexible manner, tailored to meet given strategic demands. This network approach is endorsed by several people (Opschoor, Nijman, Bruggeman, Molenaar).

As far as the analytical agenda is concerned, the suggestion to enhance development knowledge in the Netherlands is well-taken, and so is the plea for concerted research on global issues. Having said that, I believe that it is neither sufficient nor necessary to think of one national institute for that (as suggested on page 236). Rather, we should take a network approach to realize the necessary capacity.

Let’s stimulate the formation of global networks of both Northern and Southern universities which cooperate in the area of education and research (see also the proposals by Luc Soete and others). Universities of developed countries are united in all kinds of “excellent” research alliances, but there is ample room for sharing expertise and experience with universities of developing countries. The emergence of these kinds of global networks is worth supporting.
Agri-ProFocus is (volgens mij) zo’n recent initiatief dat zich sinds 2006, in de luwte van het debat, gestaag ontwikkelt. Oplossingen voor de versnippering in OS worden hier gezocht in een thematische netwerk- en ketensamenwerking benadering. 29 Nederlandse organisaties, bedrijven en kennisinstellingen zijn nu aangesloten…met als doel het bundelen en delen van de beste kennis, kunde en ambities op het gebied van landbouw en ontwikkeling en als focus het bevorderen van boerenondernemerschap. …. In 2009 heeft het Agri-ProFocus partnerschap deze netwerk- en ketensamenwerking benadering in in 7 Afrikaanse landen breed opgestart. Eerste stap in elk land was het maken van een gezamenlijke context analyse. Geen algemenen analyse maar een inventarisatie van de bestaande praktijk van de Nederlandse actoren afgezet tegen sectorale nationale programma’s op het thema landbouw en ontwikkeling …Een klein Agri-ProFocus ondersteunend team van “network facilitators” zorgt ervoor dat kennis en kunde ook buiten de vaste partnerrelaties om gekoppeld worden en dat er indien nodig andere spelers ingeschakeld worden. Gezamenlijke kennisontwikkeling en uitwisseling staat centraal. Ik noem het graag organiseren over de grenzen van organisaties en landsgrenzen heen.
Ik onderschrijf van harte de verschillende aanbevelingen (oprichting van een instituut of netwerk voor global issues, sterkere rol van de coherentie-eenheid, een minister voor ontwikkeling én mondialisering).

Wouldn’t the function of such a think-tank primarily be to consolidate the considerable amount of available knowledge intelligently and efficiently, and to establish links between individual knowledge networks and scientific communities, most of which currently function separately from each other? And take it one step further by also including NGO networks, local civil society networks and the diaspora. Awil Mohamoud writes that one of the ‘five key ways that the potential of the diaspora can be further harnessed towards the development of their countries of origin and to Africa as a whole … is to support the transfer of social capital from the skilled diaspora to institutions and programmes for technical and vocational education and training in Africa. Compared to Asia, Africa has not invested much in technical education in the past decades’.

The WRR argues, in relation to knowledge management for development, that the ministry in The Hague ought to assume the role of ‘knowledge broker and link’. A similar broker function could also provide the basis for a new style think-tank. Any planned or performed research could then be used to fill in gaps that have been observed in the available knowledge.


The WRR appears to be suggesting that knowledge production on global issues must be kept separate from more locally-oriented knowledge, the contextual analyses or diagnostics which should ultimately lead to country or region strategies. There are some arguments in favour of this. Leo de Haan believes that a ‘country-specific approach is the most realistic option. However, if Dutch development cooperation should concentrate on a limited number of partner countries – which is very doubtful because of the enormous diversity in “country interest” in the Netherlands – then hopefully Dutch research centres and centres of expertise will not just blindly follow the prevailing trend. It should be remembered that knowledge of the specific is only useful when there is an understanding of the broader picture: specialization is significant only when it is put in a broad comparative perspective’. The WRR report makes another implicit argument. Knowledge of global themes, global public goods and policy coherence is still in its infancy. On the other hand, a danger with global research is that it no longer relates in any way to local development cooperation goals, e.g. self-reliance or poverty reduction or human security. It therefore makes sense to ask whether the country or region strategy resulting from contextual analysis ought to be the starting point for a global issues centre? Shouldn’t that be the guiding principle while planning new research (i.e. research that focuses explicitly on global opportunities and constraints), and shouldn’t that research, in turn, feed and perhaps modify that strategy? Or should such localized efforts be a task for country offices in the countries in question?


It would be good to draw up an overview of models and instruments which may be useful for a contextual analysis or diagnosis, to compare these and to assess whether and how they could be used. For example, the WRR report refers to DFID’s ‘drivers of change’ analyses and also mentions the Netherlands Directorate-General of Development Cooperation’s (DGIS) Strategic Governance and Corruption Assessments (SGACA.) And Frits van der Wal refers to DGIS’ Multi-Year Strategic Plans and Stability Assessment Frameworks, and Ireland’s Country Assessment Strategies.

Sinds 2004 stellen ambassades 4-jarige strategische plannen per land op waarin onderbouwde keuzes voor een beperkt aantal sectoren en thema’s worden aangegeven; er zijn voorbeelden waarbij die keuze gebaseerd is op zgn. Stability Assessment Frameworks waaraan analyses ten grondslag liggen m.b.t. de conflictfactoren (bijv. in Rwanda), of op gedeelde visies opgesteld met andere donoren (bijv. in Ethiopië waar de analyse, focus en aangrijpingspunten in de Ierse Country Assessment Strategies afgestemd werden met die in het Meerjaren Strategisch Plan van de Nederlandse Ambassade in Addis Abeba). Pogingen om de partners van AgriProFocus leden in zo’n 7 geselecteerde landen beter strategisch te laten samenwerken met elkaar en onder meer Nederlandse ambassades in het bevorderen van agrarische bedrijvigheid, zijn ook stappen in de richting van een bredere land-specifieke samenwerking waarbij effectiviteitverbetering en zelfredzaamheid centraal staan. Eind vorig jaar is begonnen met het in kaart brengen van alle officiële ontwikkelingsfondsen die vanuit Nederland richting de partnerlanden gaan. In nogal wat landen zijn de bedragen die via ambassades beschikbaar worden gesteld namelijk kleiner dan de Nederlandse uitgaven die in dat land via BZ directies, NGOs, multilaterale instellingen, bedrijfsleveninstrumenten, etc., uitgegeven worden.

Continue reading: the original four sections of the Special report in issue 19 of The Broker Magazine (april 2010)

  1. Getting the basics right – General principles for a new development policy
  2. Going global – Alternative political projects
  3. Identifying obstacles – Strategic choices through context analyisis
  4. Building a new structure – Institutional architecture for global development