The use of Traditional Knowledge in Development Contexts: Challenges and Opportunities Part 1

The fact that an awareness that “technologically sophisticated societies arose” in the Americas in advance of European development has only recently come to light means that indigenous lifeways and knowledge systems remain relatively unknown and unacknowledged.1

In the summer of 2012 I was delighted to be accepted as an intern for the Inuit Circumpolar Council of Alaska (ICC-AK). I helped out with their Food Security project, which has as its end-goal the creation of a framework on how to assess food security from an Inuit perspective. In most discussions and policy decisions surrounding food security, the term is simply based on calorie intake; literally whether you have enough food to survive. To Inuit, however, food security means so much more, and includes cultural aspects. This experience really demonstrated to me the politics surrounding the use of Traditional Knowledge and the importance of its incorporation in today’s discussions surrounding development, especially within the contexts of climate change.

During my masters in Environment and Development the use of Traditional Knowledge (TK) is a key issue that we discuss, and is one I find very interesting. 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. The definition of TK varies, but the Inuit Circumpolar Council provides a clear explanation:

Traditional knowledge is a systematic way of thinking applied to phenomena across biological, physical, cultural and spiritual systems. It includes insights based on evidence acquired through direct and long-term experiences and extensive and multi-generational observations, lessons and skills. It has developed over millennia and is still developing in a living process, including knowledge acquired today and in the future, and it is passed on from generation to generation 2(emphasis my own).

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.

I think there are many signs that the paradigm is on the right way towards a more equitable development practice which is based on more justice and community participation, but it remains clear that 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. Consequently the following article will be analyzing this shift in the development paradigm as well as the attempts that have been made to use TK and their shortcomings.

A shift in the development paradigm

In recent years it is evident that the way we think about development, and the aims of development, have changed. Bottom-up, negotiated and situation-specific participation has become an increasingly widespread goal in development in contrast to the top-down, ‘blue-print’ modernization approaches of the past3. The previous models were based on “expert-led diagnosis of problems such as modernization and transfer-of-technology […] and Marxist-informed dependence”, and what they had in common was a complete neglect of local understandings 4.

However, these past models failed to address growing poverty and vulnerability around the world, and after witnessing the failure of numerous projects resulting from their lack of concern with local voices, the development paradigm has  increasingly shifted to a more bottom-up approach. It is clear that development projects can no longer ignore local knowledges and practices, for a “lack of respect for others’ ways leads to offensive interference in their lives”5.

What makes Traditional knowledge unique?

Traditional knowledge, as is apparent from the definition provided above, has various unique qualities which differentiates it from ‘Western’ positivist knowledge. In his writings on the steps to an ecology of life, Ingold begins his discussion with a short story from his own field experience of mustering reindeer in Finnish Lapland:

When pursuing reindeer, there often comes a critical point when a particular animal becomes immediately aware of your presence. It then does a strange thing. Instead of running away it stands stock still, turns its head and stares you squarely in the face.6

Biologists have explained this behavior as an adaptation to predation by wolves, as both animals are given a chance to take a last breath and harness their remaining energy in preparation for the final phase of the pursuit, where either the reindeer succumbs to exhaustion and is killed, or the wolf fails to outrun the reindeer6. Ingold describes how the Cree have a very different explanation for this behavior (which ultimately means that reindeer are easy to hunt) as their TK tells them that that critical moment is one of acknowledgement between the reindeer and hunter: “the animal offers itself up, quite intentionally and in a spirit of good-will or even love towards the hunter […] killing appears not as a termination of life but as an act critical to its regeneration”6. Without going into great ethnographic detail, this latter explanation makes sense within Cree cosmology, just as the Biologists’ explanation makes sense to their own. (If you are interested in this topic, I highly recommend reading Ingold’s “The Perception of the Environment”- see bibliography).

It is apparent however how such different views can be the source of great misunderstanding and conflict within management and development contexts, especially considering the Western discourse of modernity and humanity. Humanity, Ingold (2000) writes “is distinguished from nature […] modern science distinguishes itself from the knowledge practices of people in ‘other cultures’ whose thought is supposed to remain somewhat bound by the constraints and conventions of tradition”6. It is from this perspective that TK has often been branded as myth, because “it is one culture’s experience and wisdom”, and ‘false-hood’ “because it is too locally based to be aware of potential environmental impacts downstream” 7, and thus incomparable in value and truth to Western science.

Western science has however come about as a result of very specific historical, cultural and social contexts which informs a particular understanding of the environment and the place that humans occupy within the world. This is often expressed as the dichotomy between humanity and nature, which ultimately means that Western science is understood to be an ‘objective’ study of natural phenomena6 due to a separation where humans are understood to be above and distinguished from nature.

This is not a universal understanding however, and many cultures have a very different approach to the environment resulting from an understanding of it being alive and “saturated with personal powers of one kind or another” rather than being simply a “passive container for resources that […] are there for the taking”6. TK is consequently the resulting knowledge of living within an environment for a long period of time, it is inherently local and is passed down throughout the generations. Western science often differs in that it is comparatively dealing with short-term observations and is created through positivist ‘testing’.

It must be emphasized that the intention here is to provide an overview of the differences between these knowledges and their creation, not with the purpose of juxtaposing them as opposites to one another (which is a false representation), but rather as a way of illustrating the conflicts and complexities of using often contrasting knowledges together for developmental purposes. We have to be extremely wary of ‘othering’, and refrain from creating anyone into “heroes and villains in resource conservation”8.

Western perceptions of the Environment and impacts on Development

It is apparent however, that these conventionally Western perceptions of the environment have had a great impact on the way development itself is perceived. In his article about the factors behind deforestation in Indonesia, Dauvergne (1993-1994) points out the importance of the Indonesian government’s attitudes toward ‘development’ (which in itself remains a contentious notion). He argues that their attitudes “are rooted in colonial experience and based on a Western understanding of development” 9 which is “a set of attitudes and values that is chiefly concerned with shaping the world of nature through science and technology to make life more prosperous” 9. As a direct result of this conceptualization of development, “Industrialization is equated with modernization, with progress, with a better and healthier life for all” (Dickson quoted in Dauvergne)9. This ultimately fed into developmental theories and the hegemonic developmental attitudes of neoliberal countries.

To clarify, hegemony is a term coined by Gramsci, and refers to “a prevailing common sense formed in culture, diffused by civic institutions, that informs values, customs, and spiritual ideals and induces “spontaneous” consent to the status quo”10. It is clear how developmental organizations such as the World Bank, IMF and Western NGOs, due to their neoliberal backgrounds and the hegemonic ideas which they promote, would be resistant to the inclusion of TK in developmental frameworks, as well as the influence of elites who remain skeptical of such knowledge. Indigenous people have been, and continue to be, colonized in a variety of ways, and their alternatives could be construed as counter-hegemonic.

Stay tuned for Part 2, which will cover Traditional Knowledge and Rights discourse and the common problems surrounding the inclusion of Traditional Knowledge in development projects…


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

2 Inuit Circumpolar Council (2013) Application of Traditional Knowledge in the Arctic Council [Online] Available at: <> [Accessed 15 November 2013].

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

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

5 Sillitoe, Paul (1998) The Development of Indigenous Knowledge- A New Applied Anthropology Current Anthropology, 39(2): 223-252.

6 Ingold, Tim (2000) The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill (London and New York: Routledge).

7 Forsyth, Timothy (1996) Science, Myth and Knowledge: Testing Himalayan Environmental Degradation in Thailand Geoforum, 27(3): 375-392.

8 Dove, Micheal, Daniel Smith, Marina T. Campos, Andrew Mathews, Anne Rademacher, Steve Rhee and Laura Yoder (2009) “Globalisation and the Construction of Western and Non-Western Knowledge” in: Paul Sillitoe (ed.) Local Science vs Global Science: Approaches to Indigenous Knowledge in International Development (New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books).

9 Dauvergne, Peter (1994) The Politics of Deforestation in Indonesia, Pacific Affairs, 66(4): 497-518.

10 Peet, Richard (2002) Ideology, Discourse and the Geography of Hegemony: From Socialist to Neo-liberal Development in Post-Apartheid South Africa Antipode, 34(1): 54-84.


One response to “The use of Traditional Knowledge in Development Contexts: Challenges and Opportunities Part 1

  1. Pingback: The use of Traditional Knowledge in Development Contexts: Problems and Opportunities Part 2 | EcoPost·

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