On Knowledge Hierarchies of Development

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I explore the relationships inherent in the production of knowledge within Southern think tanks (STTs) as an attempt to understand how, and in what ways local and independent organizations, their initiatives, and their staff of researchers are linked to global processes of knowledge and power.

Knowledge and Power
Michael Foucault, in his analysis of power, demonstrated how power and knowledge are closely related. Simply put, power is capable of producing forms of knowledge that dictate social relations at a particular period in time. Conversely, power draws on knowledge to appropriate and legitimize itself (Rabinow 1991, Gould 2008).

Hans Weiler, at the Stanford Department of Political Science points out four facets of the relationship between knowledge and power as described by Foucault, that help us understand knowledge creation in STTs and the inevitable donor-recipient relationships that surround them. These are: 1) established knowledge hierarchies; 2) the relationship of reciprocal legitimation between knowledge and power; 3) the transnational knowledge system of the international division of labor; and 4) The political economy of commercialization of knowledge.
Different forms of knowledge are endowed with varying status.

Most STTs give preference to research that is situated within a positivist framework where research is founded on the principles of empiricism, objectivity and rational thought as compared to research that may be more subjective or that follows  alternate belief systems. This benchmark within STTs (and NTTs) reflects the hegemony of western thought and philosophy over the global knowledge system. The hierarchy of North over South manifests in multiple ways.  The institutional arrangements tend to favour knowledge produced in the North. Even with the rise of southern institutions, it is northern-based institutions that are widely accepted as the leading knowledge producers.  Development theories and methodologies that shape southern research are also derived from northern institutions.  In addition, the financial, political and military hegemony of the north determines the hierarchy in terms of prestige, resources, and influence of knowledge institutions in the North over their southern counterparts.   

Hierarchies within STTs also illustrate the North’s influence over the South. The overall organisational set up of STTs is adopted from a northern model of institution building. Hierarchies play out as clear distinctions between management and staff, and, between researchers and administrators; as such the end product (such as a publication) is negotiated through the power plays that exist within research institutions. These hierarchies also reflect the credibility attached to qualifications earned from northern institutions. In a large number of STTs, staff that have received their higher education from Northern institutions tend to occupy senior or management level positions. It is these persons who have greater control over research agendas which in turn reinforce the northern-positivist outlook to local knowledge production.  

Knowledge legitimates power and, conversely, knowledge is legitimated by power
In the case of northern donor funded research, locally generated knowledge by STTs is used as the rationale by donors to fine-tune their interventions and shape future aid policy. Conversely, donor organisations in the North tend to set the development agenda for the south thereby deciding which areas need further research, and subsequently which think tanks should receive funding. That is, donor interventions gain legitimacy from locally generated knowledge, and, in turn, locally generated knowledge derives its legitimacy from its acceptance by donors who accord special standing to one kind of knowledge over another. In order to attract funds from donors, the type of knowledge generated by STTs, is largely shaped by the needs and requirements of northern institutions.

International division of intellectual labour
This is the division of labour where ‘key intellectual tasks’ such as setting the theoretical agendas and methodological standards are held by a relatively small number of ‘institutions…located in the economically privileged regions of the world (Weiler 2009)’.  
Most southern think tanks are bound by northern donor’s Terms of Reference (TOR). These guidelines provide the methodological and theoretical frameworks that STTs are expected to follow. Apart from ensuring research that is deemed ‘high quality’, adherence to these guidelines can determine the STTs reputation amongst donors and access to subsequent funding.

One of the perks of being an awardee to research related grants from Northern donors is that STTs get free access to otherwise very expensive, high quality research papers. The high costs are usually a barrier to access for relatively under resourced STTs. Paradoxically, recent moves to provide free access to information by Northern institutions entrenches the hegemony of the North over the South by facilitating wider dissemination of north-generated information and further strengthens the positivist discourse. The recent Open Access initiative of the World Bank to provide all World Bank published information free of charge is a case in point. It would be interesting to know why the Bank has decided to provide free access at this point in time.  

The ‘knowledge market’
The economy today is more reliant on knowledge production than it has even been. Access to high quality knowledge largely determines an organisation’s ability to compete in the market economy.
To survive, most think tanks need continued access to funds, which in Sri Lanka, are largely from foreign donors, including MNCs and philanthropist foundations. These institutions ascribe to the neo-liberal framework in which the ‘politics of production and profit are arguably the most powerful dynamics’ (Wiener 2009), which means that knowledge outputs that are labeled independent and objective research are in many cases influenced at a pre-natal stage of knowledge production.  The situation is compounded when knowledge production takes place within political environments that also have little tolerance of an alternative perspective.   

These observations illustrate how development theory, methodology, practice and work culture in STTs are significantly influenced by Northern institutions and constrain the ability of STTs to challenge the dominant development discourse of positivism and neoliberalism.

The Rise of the South
Resistance from southern development institutions against a largely north influenced development agenda is taking place at two levels.
At the think tank at which I work, a number of conflicts have risen in negotiating the research agenda with a northern think tank that is also the ‘leader’ of a northern donor funded global research consortium. I would like to highlight one observation in particular.

As part of the international division of labour in the transnational knowledge system, it is the ‘northern think tank that takes responsibility for the ‘global study’. Southern partners are limited to being local experts, without the space to engage directly with the global discourse. The conflict arises when local researchers attempt to address local knowledge gaps that don’t fit in with the partner’s need for information that is comparable across multiple countries; or vice versa. Subsequently, research methodologies developed by the Northern think tank (to fit the global study) are contested by the local organisation that (in the local context) sees fit to use an alternate methodology.

I notice that there is a concerted effort from within the local organisation to contest for applying methodologies that they believe would better suit the context. In addition there is a gradual attempt from within the organisation to influence the northern donor and therein the global discourse.

At a global level, with the emergence of the BRICS countries there has been a push for the south having its own development agenda. This agenda is to be championed by the setting up of a BRICS development bank (by 2015) that will seek to address issues of development, poverty and inequality within the south that northern institutions such as the OECD bloc and World Bank have largely failed to tackle.

However, the southern agenda, at both the level of BRICS and the think-tanks, seem to exist within the same discourse that is espoused by their northern counterparts.
It will be interesting to see the extent to which the BRICS bank parallels the World Bank in terms of its mandate, policy design, and organisational structure. Its seems likely that even if the BRICS bank hails a ‘new paradigm’ for development in the south it will still derive its power and legitimacy by conforming to the hegemony of positivism and neo-liberalism.

Similarly, the aspiration of people within the think tank to influence the global discourse is partly dependent on the organisation’s ability to produce high quality research. In order to assess the quality of its research the organisation prescribes to the globally accepted standard, which is measured in terms of the ‘validity, reliability and generalisability’ of the research, all of which are proponents of the positivist framework.

A stronger, more consistent resistance to the dominant discourse comes from feminist critiques, subaltern literature, violent protests, hunger-strikes, and dharna’s. However, the resilience of the positivist and neo-liberal paradigm and its ability to co-opt contradicting and alternate voices within its highly elastic framework, implies the need to persist with alternate interpretations and new possibilities.

“The Monday Morning Question” is intended to be a forum to communicate diverse perspectives on reimagining development.  Although this conversation began as part of the Center for Poverty Analysis’s (CEPA) annual symposium in 2012, the ideas that are presented via the column are not limited to CEPA’s ideological stand on development.Today, we invite Mr. Aftab Lall, an intern at the Centre for Poverty Analysis to shed some light on the relationship between knowledge and power in the global system. His article presents a different point of view to that of Mr. Sarath Fernando in “Sri Lanka’s Development Debate and the Role of NGOs” published on 30th of August, 2013, in the Monday Morning Question Column.

The article was first published in The Island on 09.09.2013

Read 19848 times Last modified on Tuesday, 03 December 2013 04:19

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