The use of Traditional Knowledge in Development Contexts: Problems and Opportunities Part 2

The following article is a continuation of The Use of Traditional Knowledge in Development Contexts: Challenges and Opportunities Part 1. Local knowledge systems are increasingly being recognized by development organizations, NGOs and governments as valuable sources of knowledge which can contribute to, and in fact determine, the sustainability of projects. It has been claimed that with this increasing focus on community participation we are actually witnessing a shift in the development paradigm to one which includes local perspectives and knowledge(s). It is very apparent however that the actual use of TK is highly political; someone chooses what part of the TK is used and what is left out. This is where it becomes problematic and where you can still see the old paradigms (that the West knows best) resurface.

Traditional Knowledge and Rights discourse

TK also needs to be understood “in the broadest of terms to encompass not only people’s understandings of the social universes they inhabit, but also of their rights” 1, and this can be perfectly illustrated by the fact that TK is increasingly being found in indigenous rights discourse. Laurie et al. (2005) describe how Indigenous social movements have become important development actors in recent years. As a reaction to neo-liberal structural adjustment policies in the 1990’s, indigenous groups, through international networking and political mobilization (especially apparent in Bolivia and Ecuador) “became visible [...] also due to the multilateral requirement for indigenous participation and attention to social difference within beneficiary groups”2 .Consequently the terms ‘Ethnodevelopment’ and ‘development-with-identity’ came to the forefront of developmental projects as a way to include such groups and combat the social inequality which was understood to be a consequence neo-liberal policies2.

Bebbington (1996) discusses the evolution of one such alternative in Ecuador. The “farmer-first” initiative arose as an attempt to build on farmers’ knowledge and participation in agricultural technology and project planning, based on the idea that the farmer is really the only expert 3. This approach had both political and theoretical motivations. The political motivations, apart from increasing participation, were also:

to encourage the democratization of agricultural organizations, to support ideas of social equity, and to challenge prevailing “taken-for-granted” power relationships in which the rural poor are always conceived of as [...] the objects of somebody else’s development strategy. 3

The theoretical objective was to suggest that, alongside Western perspectives, there are equally valid “native” perspectives and opinions 3. This “farmer-first” approach had a number of positive implications, as it helped change attitudes towards indigenous peoples’ knowledge as well as helping put rural people’s agency back into the developmental picture. However, it did fail to address a variety of issues, and consequently failed to fully achieve its goals in a number of ways. Bebbington (1996) criticizes this approach due to the fact that it often “constructed an essentialized conception of indigenous agriculture that is homogenized, static, and easily taken out of socio-economic, political, and cultural context” 3. By simply referring to it as “Indigenous technical knowledge”, the literature insinuated that it was a coherent body of knowledge. Furthermore, the literature homogenized rural people’s experiences in a way which suggested that all rural people are farmers 3. This exposes the risk of oversimplifying and generalizing TK, as well as the contentiousness of its representation.

Inclusion of Traditional Knowledge into Development Projects

The inclusion of TK into development projects remains problematic. It is clear that many of the historical attempts to include TK have been superficial at best, and although TK has become increasingly used in projects, one could argue that it still has not represented a radical break from the hegemonic representation of science and the environment. As Pottier (2003) notes, despite an increasing interest in TK as a possible “antidote to the failures of externally driven, transfer-of-technology focused, top-down development” 1, the initial search for TK began simply because “if local knowledge had anything to offer, it was because science could make use of it”1.

Consequently, development projects which include TK have historically continued to treat such knowledge, and the people to whom that knowledge belongs, within the frameworks of the dominant neoliberal and ‘Western’ categories. Thus we can see that, despite a claim to increasingly participatory methods of development, the political aspects of recuperating local knowledge has impeded a full shift in the paradigm as inequalities derived not only from neoliberalism, but also as far back as colonialism, remain pervasive. TK continues to be hampered by the existence of several, often contradictory, stereotypes and problematic representations of indigenous peoples.

This is evident in Novellino’s article (2003), where he presents an extreme example of when developers use TK in a way which borders on the abusive. While he does acknowledge a shift in the developmental paradigm in that the involvement of local communities in developing projects is recognized now as a necessity, it is clear that the relationship, due to miscommunication on both sides, retains much of the hierarchical and patriarchal aspects of the past development models. Insensitive tools, such as questionnaires that ask inappropriate questions, and stereotypes contribute to miscommunication4. Furthermore, Novellino (2003) illustrates how Community Based Forest Management (CBMF), rather than helping empower indigenous people, simply:

strengthens government control over indigenous people’s lives [...] indigenous peoples’ role in their own territory is reduced to that of stewards of the public land [...] the contract mandates that Batak themselves must guard their area from their own practices, such as swidden cultivation 4

He consequently analyzes this situation as a seduction on the part of “experts”, as indigenous people are lured into believing that “confessing” their own knowledge makes it finally useful, however “to seduce is to weaken” 4. In this case, outside developers manipulated the situation so as to gain control of the knowledge which indigenous people possessed, a clear example of the dangerous pitfalls and politics surrounding the recuperation of indigenous knowledge. Here it becomes apparent that the development paradigm has not experienced such a great leap forwards as might be initially presented, and many of the hegemonic conceptions of indigenous knowledge remain pervasive.

What is it that makes the inclusion of Traditional Knowledge so difficult?

I was reading through the Arctic Council Indigenous Peoples Secretariat website in search of information related to the use of TK, and I stumbled upon an article written by Anne Brunk (2013). In it she comments on the Council’s recent Ministerial meeting in Kiruna, Sweden, where “[ministers recognize] that the use of traditional knowledge and local knowledge is essential to a sustainable future in the Arctic, and decide to develop recommendations to integrate traditional and local knowledge in the work of the Arctic Council”5. Interestingly however, it was not decided when these recommendations were meant to be completed by, and did not offer any sort of plan. The only concrete goal which was agreed upon was set by the Arctic Minister, who has requested the Senior Arctic Officials  “to recommend ways to increase awareness regionally and globally on traditional ways of life of the Arctic indigenous peoples and to present a report on this work at the next Ministerial meeting in 2015”5. Brunk consequently concludes that the Foreign Ministers of the Arctic states and their officials for some reason feel more comfortable discussing traditional “ways of life” rather than traditional knowledge, and are therefor more willing to set a deadline for a report on the former. I find this very interesting, because ways of life and knowledge, although related, are definitely not the same thing.

So why does the mere mention of traditional knowledge make development organizations, governments and decision-makers nervous?

A grassroots participatory method brings with it a number of challenges, not only due to the conflicts arising out of cross-cultural communication, but also the political dimensions which accompany such interactions. Sillitoe and Marzano (2009) outline a number of difficulties which development continues to encounter in the use of TK, including: the contentiousness of accessing and representing TK in a sympathetic way, its dynamic nature which results in constantly changing knowledge and relationships, the local specificity and the danger of oversimplifying TK and local practices in the aim of fitting it into developmental frameworks6. While all forms of knowledges (remembering that TK is not coherent or static) result from their equally valid and valuable cosmologies, there is always a question of power at play. This results from the historically, and continuing, hegemonic discourse of Western science:

[TK] has not been able to negotiate on an equal basis with official scientific knowledge, but has instead been shaped by what is offered by outsiders, who make strategic choices about which “local knowledge” is heard and conformable to their scientifically given environmental goals, and then ventriloquised as the voice of the community” 7.

It can be still assumed by developers that science is the ‘right’ way, and locals can feel that their own TK is not as valuable. When we think about knowledge we consequently also have to think about power. Skinner (2003) argues that despite this rhetoric of inclusion and participation, “in this allegedly post-colonial and post-industrial era, local recipients of development – their indigenous knowledge and culture – are still assumed to be barriers to rational development” 8. This comes from a very powerful hegemonic discourse surrounding development and the place that indigenous people have within the globalized world.


TK will never be simple to understand or to involve in development, but complexity and diversity, rather than being seen as a hindrance and inconvenience to development, should rather be understood as presenting multiple opportunities. Sillitoe and Marzano (2009) rightfully conclude that “only when all perspectives are taken together can we hope to achieve a more rounded and better understanding of the social and natural environments, and the potential for sustainable development” 6. However, it is not enough to simply hear these perspectives, they must be properly listened to and treated equally. Ideally, we should draw on the strengths of all of these knowledges and there should be a two-way flow of information6. This article intended to illustrate how the continuously flawed use of TK and disrespect for it in practical applications of developmental projects is a representation of an incomplete shift in the development paradigm. The rhetoric continues to be one of participation and community involvement, but the hegemonic Western perspectives on science and development have hindered this final step. Ultimately, the methodology behind the inclusion of TK needs to be refined in a way which does not end up distorting the knowledge and reinforcing the old structures, and this can only be done with the full cooperation, respect and partnership between developers and local communities. We live on a planet saturated with different understandings, cosmologies and realities, and that is what makes this world so fascinating and beautiful. However, it is also time that all those different realities are given the same opportunity to provide solutions to the current global crisis, in fact I think it is the only way which we will be able to adapt to the changes we face on this warming planet.

Richard Atleo puts it beautifully when he writes: “the current global crisis is the darkness that precedes the light [...] light is represented by the principles of recognition, consent, respect, and continuity. And light is the final destination of life.”9

1 Pottier, Johan, Alan Bicker, and Paul Sillitoe (eds) (2003) Negotiating local knowledge: Power and Identity in Development (London: Pluto Press).

2Laurie, Nina, Robert Andolina and Sarah Radcliffe (2005) Ethno-development: Social Movements, Creating Experts and Professionalising Indigenous Knowledge in Ecuador Antipode, 39(3): 470-496.

3 Bebbington, Anthony (1996) “Movements, modernizations and markets: Indigenous organizations and agrarian strategies in Ecuador” in: Richard Peet & Michael Watts (eds.) Liberation Ecologies: Environment, Development, Social Movements (London and New York: Routledge)

4 Novellino, Dario (2003) “From Seduction to Miscommunication: the Confession and Presentation of Local Knowledge in ‘Participatory Development’”, in: Johan Pottier, Alan Bicker, and Paul Sillitoe (eds.) Negotiating Local Knowledge: Power and Identity in Development (London: Pluto Press).

5 Brunk, Anne (2013) Traditional Knowledge [Online] Available at: 18 March 2014].

6 Sillitoe, Paul and Mariella Marzano (2009) Future of indigenous knowledge research in development Futures, 41: 13-23.

7 Blaikie, Piers (2006) Is Small Really Beautiful? Community-based Natural Resource Management in Malawi and Botswana, World Development, 34(11): 1942–1957.

8 Skinner, Jonathan (2003) “Anti-Social ‘Social Development’? Governmentality, Indigenousness, and the DFID Approach on Montserrat”, in: Johan Pottier, Alan Bicker, and Paul Sillitoe (eds.) Negotiating local knowledge: Power and Identity in Development (London: Pluto Press).

9 Atleo, E. Richard (2011) Principles of Tsawalk: An Indigenous Approach to Global Crisis (Vancouver and Toronto: UBC Press).

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