By Charles Dhewa
Between key informants and literature reviews, which are the most reliable sources of knowledge in developing countries? There is an unfortunate tendency to under-value information and knowledge from key informants like farmers who are coping with climate change. Traders who have seen the informal market surviving several droughts and food processors who have endured hardships associated with collapsing agricultural industries are also less valued sources of wisdom.
Although a study that gathers fresh evidence and experiences from these people is more reliable than any literature review, such evidence is considered anecdotal and therefore ranked lower than literature review. The rate at which development is taking place in poor countries remains stagnant because academics and other knowledge workers prefer using stale knowledge in books and journals written before the dawn of software.
Pitfalls of relying on stale knowledge
Some of the people obsessed with literature reviews are fully aware that much of the knowledge in developing countries has not been documented into books and journals that can be cited. Local knowledge remains in communities and key informants because local academics and researchers in developing countries are not producing their own literature based on their own history and socio-economic-environmental and political context. In disciplines like agriculture, economics, history, law and engineering, academics and researchers in developing countries are still citing traditional thinkers from the North as if no new knowledge is being generated.
Experiences and lessons that have quietly informed social and economic growth patterns in African countries have not been converted into literature that can be reviewed and relied upon for progress. For instance, had drought experiences in 1992 and other years been carefully documented into development literature, it could currently be cited to inform how communities and countries recover from climate-related setbacks unlike resorting to literature on greenhouse gas emissions in industrialised countries. On the economic front, years of high inflation in countries like Zimbabwe in 2008 should have been a source of literature on how an economy can bounce back from more than 1000 percent inflation to a single digit.
Tapping into fast changing trends
Tracking and analysing changing consumer trends is more powerful than any literature. It can show informative contradictions between young urban youths joining the fast food chain bandwagon and on the other hand previously orphaned crops and indigenous livestock inserting themselves in the market. For instance, wild fruits are becoming commercialised yet there is certainly no literature on how Nyii and Tsvubvu have been performing in urban markets for decades because their market penetration is a less than five year trend, induced by climate change. All these emerging trends should inform development pathways more than resorting to literature review.
Research findings that cite books written more than 10 years ago are meaningless in the new environment characterised by mobile money and the rapid movement of SMEs into the mainstream economy. Literature review cannot explain emerging issues in agriculture and health. For instance, many countries in Southern Africa are now experiencing crop and livestock diseases like Tuta Absoluta, Fall Army Worm and January diseases as well as several human ailments which did not exist a few years ago. You cannot find useful literature on these diseases going back 10 years to 50 years. When literature review is prioritised ahead of real-time knowledge, developing countries end up recycling old ideas at the expense of new ideas that speak to the evolving context. Countries end up doing endless policy reviews when developing new fluid policies is more ideal.
Why not develop frameworks for fluid literature
With the introduction of ICTs and globalisation, developing countries have an opportunity to revisit ways of capturing oral literature and making it relevant to their socio-economic-environmental and political solutions. It is possible to ride on the proliferation of ICT platforms like voice call, emails, chats, twitter and many others that have become critical in combining oral and written expressions of knowledge. Such platforms are an opportunity to review research methodologies which are critical for generating literature, informing development interventions and continuous updating of government policies. Given that most of it has not been documented, local knowledge exists as a fluid body of knowledge within communities and key informants and not authored by a single person or turned into a PDF. For instance, knowledge about climate change is not in the form of literature but a process that has been happening and real people have been experiencing droughts, floods and cyclones.
As opposed to depending on books written many years ago, developing countries need all-inclusive participatory approaches to project design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation based not on physical assets but inclusive knowledge and information sharing pathways that can give communities updates and early warning systems. These can become the basis for informing research methodologies and literature review based on continuously gathered fluid experiences. Currently, field officers in most projects are not able to capture all important details in project reports. A monthly report can only be covered by first week visits to one ward and then a visit to another ward towards the end of the month. The output is called a monthly report yet it will have missed a lot of details in most wards. Students from universities and agricultural colleges who engage with value chains and farming communities do not get information they are looking for and end up resorting to stale literature review. The situation is worse in rainfall predictions where farmers are expected to plan and make decisions based on scant details which cannot adequately enable them to anticipate and plan against risks. In a changing climate, there is definite need fluid systems of gathering and processing evidence rather than doing literature review or waiting for crop and livestock assessments which happen once a year. In Zimbabwe, for instance, the annual national crop and livestock survey report comes out in February/March when much of the damaging take place from winter to summer. Examples of winter damages are related to frost but such details are not covered by the national crop and livestock assessment in order to paint a realistic food situation.
A fluid information system would address such issues through weekly and monthly updates into the crop and livestock survey, keeping policy makers and development agencies accurately informed. Each province now has a university and these institutions have an opportunity to increase their relevance by getting students and relevant faculties to gather local data and contribute to the national fluid survey. Devolution of knowledge should see statistical agencies having a presence at district level so that data is quickly processed for the local audience and needs unlike sending all the information to the capital city and waiting for more than a year to receive processed results. By the time such feedback is received, the situation will have completely changed on the ground, leading to misinformed decisions.
Addressing cases where development projects leave communities hanging
A fluid knowledge platform will fill gaps left by projects when they phase out so that farmers continue working with the market appropriately. Most private companies and so-called off-takers are not permanent institutions. One season they are buying commodities, the next season they are bankrupt leaving farmers without a market. On the other hand, mass markets are always there and projects that shun mass markets in preference for formal companies limit the capacity of farmers to connect with the entire market. By connecting with the market, a fluid information system will not only organize local production but also extend knowledge about aggregation, quality, production calendars and many other aspects. Aggregation starts with aggregating statistics in terms of what is available and what is needed in different markets followed by aggregation of physical commodities in proper grades and specifications.
To what extent have development agencies been hijacked by academics?
It seems one of the contributing factors to the challenges mentioned above is that government departments and development organisations have being infiltrated by academics who cannot connect with grassroots issues. Development interventions should be in the hands of people who stay in communities and clearly understand local challenges and opportunities unlike academics who are more comfortable in lecture theatres where literature review is a key staple. Unfortunately, many development agencies have over the years built rigid structures from district to international levels. Where programs are trying to reach 5000 farmers, the entire national and international flair of the development organisation exerts itself in all the processes. This makes the whole intervention academic because the top officials at the head office are mostly academics hired through the academic qualifications route as opposed to practical qualifications. By default, these organisations convert community interventions into academic institutions and faculties. That partly explains the emphasis on theories of change as if development theories are boxed yet theory building and development is a fluid process benefitting from dynamic sources.