The motivation to write my book, Gender, Power and Knowledge for Development (read the introduction online here) has come out of 17 years of trying to understand what development means, how development is actually undertaken, and why this idea might matter to the global challenges we collectively face. This engagement resulted in growing questions around received wisdom – what assumptions do we make about how we might ‘do’ development well? Why do some ideas, methods, or investments seem to have so much traction or command so much attention?
One bit of received wisdom that the World Bank endorsed in 1998 and which was subsequently taken up by a range of actors at exponential speed was the idea that development was being held back because people lacked knowledge. So it followed that the more people knew, the more enabled they would be to act to improve their lives by, for example, holding governments to account or making different choices in relation to their livelihoods, children’s education, or nutritional intake. And as technology has become cheaper we can now produce and disseminate information with greater speed and efficiency and at a lower cost than ever before. And so knowledge for development became an established and standalone approach to supporting more progressive development outcomes. And nowhere was the knowledge gap presumed to be wider than for poor women living in poor countries.
Having ended up in a job in which I was producing the glossy reports and websites central to this strategy, I decided to undertake doctoral research that began with two questions: what were individuals and organisations who were reading the reports I was writing, or visiting the website I was updating, actually doing with the information I sent them, which focused on gender and development? Did they read it, share it, translate it, send it to their partners or to the women in communities in which they worked? In pursuit of answers to these questions I chose a Northern knowledge intermediary, GDKS (a pseudonym) that sent out information in both print and electronic forms. I followed their information trail from the Global North to New Delhi, India to find answers to my questions. My research was inspired by a positive notion that knowledge – something that seemed simple yet intangible – held within it the possibility of really making people’s lives, and poor women’s lives in particular, better in developing countries.
In following this information trail, however, I found my enthusiasm quickly turn to disenchantment. It started to feel that the emphasis on knowledge was being handed down as a tick-box exercise, a belief that women needed knowledge but without any real insight into what they need to know or how they might act on that information once they’ve received it. The assumption seemed to be simply that ‘if you make information available to local women, local development will ensue’. But if that information is only available in English then no such process can take place. If marginalised women are merely beneficiaries or recipients of information, or are treated mainly as sources of data, then we can never understand what marginalised women need or want to know or what gaps they identify, knowledge or otherwise, that matter to them. It felt like information was produced and disseminated for its own sake – as a show of expertise, to lay claim to a particular agenda, or in order to secure funding. On campaigns to change anti-homosexuality laws, this seemed a reasonable strategy, but efforts to ‘train’ poor women in micro-credit, nutrition, or hand-washing seemed to re-hash old myths around the knowledge needs of ‘backward’ societies and the women living in the Global South. And it seemed to me that I met some passionate and talented people that, despite their best efforts, nonetheless seemed to operate in a bit of an elite bubble. Here English was spoken, websites were designed, books were launched, conferences planned, and the nature of the knowledge generated and then shared in this space seemed untroubled by concerns around how the voices of marginalised women should or should not feature in their work.
All of this felt unrelentingly negative, and as a former development ‘practitioner’ myself (whatever this means!), I was never keen for my research or its worth to be measured by the narrow metrics of academia. I wanted it to matter to real people, so many of whom work hard to make people’s lives better. But I also needed to acknowledge that this model wasn’t working, and ask how do we change it? The starting point has to be to invert how we undertake these processes – whose ideas matter? What is the nature of any information gap, how do we work out whether it exists and what it might be, and what are people meant to actually do with the information they are given? We also need to reflect on how we communicate, given the diversity of drivers for engaging with development. If we want to raise awareness of an issue, then a website may be appropriate. But if we want to give voice to the realities of the lives of marginalized groups, we need to find ways to create more than just superficial or symbolic dialogue, and this requires that we listen and learn, not simply release glossy PDF reports that, as the World Bank found, are very often not read.
Listening, learning, and dialogue may not provide all of the answers, but at least it would mean that we have started to ask the right questions.
Lata is also the author of Whose feminism counts? Gender(ed) knowledge and professionalisation in development’, Third World Quarterly, and one of the editors of Negotiating Knowledge: Evidence and experience in development NGOs (Practical Action Publishing, 2016).