Selecting Research

RDI Network
September 2021
5 min read

Over the last few decades there has been increasing consensus that development needs to incorporate local knowledge. But why is addressing local knowledge important, how is it gathered and what considerations do we need to keep in mind? 
– Development needs to recognize local knowledge because it is intrinsic to communities. Local knowledge encompasses how people live in and understand the world according to their cultural values and environment. Local knowledge is built into how people are socialized and is embedded in behavior and desires. All communities living in particular context over time form local knowledge. It is a part of knowledge systems, through formal and informal structures. 
– Local knowledge will remain relevant to development because it is persistent. It is passed down through generations because it provides people with both utility and meaning. Its efficacy is based on how it has been adapted to local ecosystems and resources and addressed needs over time. People also value local knowledge as a form of identity preservation, using it to define group membership and bolster community solidarity. The desire for local cultural preservation is often even strengthened when it is threatened, or in response to the recognition that local knowledge is perceived as inferior.  
– Local knowledge has been overlooked by development. Development has systematically valued formal, academic and scientific knowledge over customary and traditional knowledge. Local knowledge may also be dismissed based on the knowledge bearer’s position in society and assumptions about their incapacity. This has excluded people and communities from development and rendered them subjects rather than agents of development. 
– But local knowledge enables effective development interventions. It provides an alternate source of knowledge to address the complexity of environmental and socio-economic challenges. By providing a diverse source of knowledge it can also help to address diverse needs and competing interests. It can also provide a recourse for problems that defy modern solutions. 
– It informs accurate research and appropriate policy. Development assessments based on aggregate measures and snapshots can obscure inequalities. Local knowledge addresses these gaps, by focusing on the experience of the poorest and most marginalized. It is also important to assess concepts of development, such as poverty and peace, as they are understood at the grassroots. Engaging with local knowledge is part of the process of building relationships with the community, can foster ownership of development, local capacity and sustainable transformation. 
– Considerations for development researchers when selecting sources of local knowledge. While local knowledge is pervasive, it is also uneven and situational. People within the same community have different access to information, beliefs are not homogenous, and interests vary. Furthermore, because local knowledge is diffuse in everyday life, it is often difficult to communicate in words. Accessing local knowledge requires dedicating time and resources. Interviewees and local knowledge brokers with language capacity and cultural understanding are engaged. 
– Local knowledge production recreates hierarchies of knowledge. Development researchers face ethical questions of whether and how to compensate interviewees and local researchers. International researchers are compensated for formalizing local knowledge, so the case can be made that interviewees should be compensated for sharing their stories. However, this may set precedents that local researchers can’t match. Local researchers also face a situation where they are relegated to a subordinate role as research assistants, with a diminished recognition and role in shaping research, and difficulties negotiating compensation for their engagement. 
– Local knowledge is essential, and considering how to engage with it, even more so. While there is recognition of the importance of local knowledge to development research, this in and of itself does not address the power dynamics. Development practitioners need to continue to address how to meaningfully and ethically engage local knowledge throughout research, policy, programs and evaluation. 
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Photo by Jason Goodman on Unsplash

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