Platforming: Simple questions addressing new knowledge architectures

Development Policy20 Nov 2011Kees Biekart, Alan Fowler

The recent government paper on a new Dutch knowledge policy for international cooperation is relevant far beyond this country alone. We agree that the debate it has created is important and should be held in English, if only because a wide constituency in the Global South has a right to engage. The policy is, after all, about knowledge to bring change in their own (Southern) societies as well as in Dutch society.

Several participants in this debate have rightly observed that globalization increasingly generates very new knowledge agendas. New questions and demands from the Global South are ‘pushing up’ to Northern aid circles. Examples are the geo-politics of ‘harmonizing’ aid with non-OECD donors, such as Brazil, India and China; sharing risk in ‘fragile’ states; mutuality in dealing with illegal immigration; and achieving equity in trade agreements. In this light, the questions posed so far by ‘The Broker’ are possibly too narrowly focused on ‘how to organize new knowledge platforms’ in the Netherlands.

We therefore see the need to have a discussion at a higher level. Whatever the form or organization of knowledge production for global cooperation might be, we have to ask ourselves the question ‘what multiplicity of knowledges are we talking about; where are they located; and how can they be connected to benefit global processes of social change’? Answering these questions means being clear about some key issues.

There are many types of knowledge and ways of knowing, as well as multiple places where new knowledges are generated. Power is an implicit issue, particularly in terms of what knowledges are ‘privileged’ by whom, to serve what interests with what transparency. With respect to global issues of development, the time has passed that academic knowledge is automatically valued higher than that of practitioners or policy makers. There is a welcome tendency towards productive dialogues between ‘thinkers’ and ‘doers’, which is becoming an artificial distinction anyway. There is movement away from a situation where development knowledge is privileged by Northern agents and institutions. Any new knowledge platforms will have to deal with this plurality.

Recognizing the existence of this ‘plurality of knowledges’, and the implicit power dimension linked to them brings challenges. One is to combine plurality and power, as it is understood in critical social studies, towards what international cooperation wants to achieve: generating capacities for social change. This process is happening at other locations than the Global North, with significant implications for the way in which envisaged platforms are going to be embedded.

A new networking-driven knowledge architecture is emerging. Multiple hubs are linking a wide range of researchers, practitioners, activists, institutions and ideas that were previously disconnected. A creative role of established Northern institutions can be to facilitate this decentralized embedding of knowledge dialogue. Doing so implies making sure that social change also reduces a Northern knowledge monopoly on resources, talent, key journals, facilities, and other assets.

In fact, this is happening already. Just look at how larger Asian and Latin American countries are financing their own knowledge development by paying scholarships for their top talented scholars to study abroad. Aided by technology, slowly but surely knowledge infrastructure is becoming more horizontal.

Essential, therefore, is that high quality academic research on global issues of international development, social justice and equity – the field ISS works in and of which the themes of the proposed knowledge platforms are all part – is treated as a global endeavour, where professional standards are used to achieve social-political objectives. We need to adopt a ‘career+capacity’ perspective where international students are respected and effective as agents of change in their own countries. As Henk Molenaar rightly emphasizes in his blog, the Global South only benefits from a strong, independent and solid academic system that, embedded in global peer networks, is able to define its own knowledge agenda for each particular context. Effective platforms for knowledge development are thus by definition simultaneously strongly rooted in various societies whilst also being part of integrated global knowledge networks.

The pitfall of the newly proposed platforms is that they may become isolated Northern hubs following the beaten tracks and continuing to define their own agendas. ISS, however, would propose to carefully consider the design and establishment of the Dutch knowledge platforms so that they will become self-energising global knowledge networks. These will be enabled to provide and transmit capacities and embodied knowledges in ways that benefit social change processes through which global issues of international development, social justice and equity are addressed.