Does power push knowledge when it comes to development in arid and semi-arid areas?

Reposted with permission from ASSAR: Adaptation at Scale in Semi-Arid Regions

By Daniel Morchain

The more I think about development challenges, and the more I see and hear people talking about them, the more I think they come down to a struggle between knowledge and power. Knowledge in the sense of who acquires the right, the space and the legitimacy to convey their knowledge – and who doesn’t. And power in the sense of...power.

Photo credit: Abiy Getahun/Oxfam

Photo credit: Abiy Getahun/Oxfam

In a recent blog post, Logan Cochrane reflected on the book Decolonising Methodologies by Linda Tuhiwai Smith. He wrote: “even when exploitation is not explicit, there is (...) ‘a cultural orientation, a set of values, a different conceptualization of such things as time, space and subjectivity, different and competing theories of knowledge, highly specialized forms of language, and structures of power’ (p. 42), which act to reinforce the dominance of one way of knowing over another."

Ahead of the upcoming World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought, Oxford University’s School of Geography and the Environment organised a conference in which Dawn Chatty, a social anthropologist and academic, spoke about the artificial pressures put on nomadic peoples by governments to settle. Although environmental sustainability is often – and at least partially erroneously – argued simply as a case for leaving these primitive lifestyles behind, economic and political agendas, as well as self-interest, are more often the true drivers. Again, as in the analysis shared by Cochrane and Smith above, the imposition of a widely accepted knowledge over a marginal one triumphs.

Of course knowledge doesn’t just come from lived experience, I mean, from the wisdom in our luggage. Science has helped us understand the world so much better. Let’s take human-induced climate change. It’s a fact, right? Yes. It’s also true that we need to do something about it. At least if we care about the future. But beware: science can be used by power holders to block out ‘inconvenient’ sources of knowledge. What I challenge is when the urge for climate change adaptation action is used to impose a given knowledge – sometimes alt-facts by politicians, but also sometimes, reliable, accurate and plain good knowledge coming from peer-reviewed processes in the natural sciences and from climate modelling – over people with knowledge that, because of their marginalisation, have no power to gain recognition.

Weisser et al* say it better than I have: “The answer to one of the key questions in adaptation research (...) will remain incomplete as long as one talks only about changing climatic conditions”. It’s the so what about people and planet that will not only complete the answer, but should be its foundation. At present, though, the balance is overly tilted toward prioritising one type of knowledge over another. This imbalance is used by powerful actors worldwide to maintain control and ownership over the development agenda.

Two weeks ago the UK’s Arts & Humanities Research Council held an International Development Summit, at which Prof. Peter Piot, Director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, argued that science today is about excellence and not relevance. I was glad to hear him say that this has to change radically. He meant, though, an increased emphasis on relevance in the sense of impact, usefulness and usability. This is much needed, definitely, but the change also has to be understood in the sense of opening up science, genuinely, to a multitude of knowledge within and outside academia.


About the Author:

Daniel Morchain is the Global Adviser for Climate Change Adaptation, Resilience & Agriculture at Oxfam, and the project leader for ASSAR 'Adaptation at Scale in Semi-Arid Regions'.

* Weisser, F., Bollig, M., Doevenspeck, M. And Mueller-Mahn, D. Translating the ‘adaptation to climate change’ paradigm: the politics of a travelling idea in Africa. The Geographical Journal. Volume 180, Issue 2. June 2014, Pages 111–119