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Should we use “indigenous knowledge”… even if it’s wrong?

By 30 November 2011

In recent years, there has been a surge of interest in international development circles in protecting and using indigenous knowledge. Countries such as Kenya and Nigeria have set up agencies to systematically evaluate traditional medicines while NGOs, such as Practical Action, evaluate and document indigenous knowledge on a range of topics.

These developments mark a welcome change from approaches that assume that external actors know best. However I do disagree with some international development thinkers who believe that indigenous knowledge is as valid as research based evidence when it comes to deciding what works, and therefore what policies to make.

Indigenous knowledge is the knowledge that has been gained by communities based on their experience and observations, usually over long time periods. The problem with using this to inform policies is that there are many examples of populations which have shared knowledge about what works- which is in fact wrong. Without appropriate scientific testing, this information should not be used to decide policy.

To give an example from my own country, the UK, there is a large population of people who would argue that, based on their experiences and observations, homeopathic remedies work. Unfortunately research evidence tells us unequivocally that this is not true and that in fact there is no evidence that these remedies work better than placebo treatments – although admittedly placebo treatments do work remarkably well!. (Please note, I am referring here to homeopathy which is quite a different thing to herbal treatments.)

Its worth noting that ‘indigenous knowledge’ can be found in a range of different communities. A good example comes from the medical community. For decades, doctors working in emergency settings have treated critically ill children by giving a large initial infusion of saline (salt water). This ‘indigenous knowledge’ had been gained by the population of doctors due to their experiences and observations over long time periods and it was so well established that no one thought to test it. However, recently, to the shock of the medical community, a trial comparing different types of infusion found that the children in the control group, who received no infusion, actually did best.

I am not for one second suggesting that indigenous knowledge should be ignored. For a start, it is a wonderful source of testable hypotheses.  Many commonly used medicines (for example aspirin and quinine) started their lives as ‘traditional remedies’. In addition, it is crucial that we understand what people believe in order to make sensible policy decisions. For example, if many people believe that a vaccine is associated with infertility, policy makers need to respond to that belief even if it is factually incorrect- for example by funding increased education. Incorporating responses to these beliefs also means that we need to be respectful of the beliefs that people may strongly hold.

However, when it comes to figuring out if something ‘works’, indigenous knowledge is not a reliable source of evidence. The whole point of basing policy on research evidence- as opposed to people’s untested beliefs- is that the latter are often wrong.

P.S. I have avoided the questions here of intellectual property rights and indigenous knowledge- it’s a really important issue but I will leave it to someone else to blog about…