Lived Experience and the Advocates of Local Knowledge

Fig. 5.1
Resurrection of indigenous knowledge in Jaipur, India. This channels system reflects ancient knowledge of water conservation. The channels bring rainwater from the surrounding hills to Jaigarh Fort which was built circa fifteenth to eighteenth centuries. There they fill three underground tanks, capable of storing almost 30 million litres of water. The system is surprisingly still intact and so efficient that even today it is opened up in times of need to supplement the municipal supply of the city of Jaipur, for example during droughts and other times of increased demand. (Photograph Frank Abbott July 2014)

It is also interesting to note that the idea of local knowledge and its variant appears to be more pertinent to people who live predominantly in rural areas in poor countries or are marginalised groups in rich countries (for example North American Indians). It is not unknown to use the term among affluent social groups, but in poor rural communities it is seen as being much more relevant at two levels—(i) to livelihoods and survival; (ii) to a way of life and identity. It is probably because of this that local knowledge has featured significantly in debates, policy and practice concerning development aid interventions, where invariably it is linked to local environments and where the weather in the form of rainy and dry seasons has always been a primary concern.

A further contribution to the debates, that may be obtained from development aid reports and the academic literature associated with the discipline of development studies, concerns the process of incorporating local knowledge into appropriate interventions. Much has been made in this literature of participatory practices, where professional expertise meets local knowledge to ‘do development’ together in partnership. In the idealised version of the participatory practice, everyone’s input is equally valid and a positive process of dialectics takes place, out of which good interventions emerge where experts and locals alike have a strong sense of ownership. In this version, inclusive, direct, democratic practices have ensured that local knowledge is valued and been incorporated into good interventions.

Of course the real world is not like that, and the development studies literature has provided many refreshing critiques of participatory processes. We introduce these as the chapter progresses, but to give you a taster, albeit crude: Leroi, whose book about Aristotle and science featured strongly in Chap. 3, also had a view on the evolution of direct, participatory democracy in Athens, circa fourth century BC:

Public life… was squalid. Every citizen could go up to the Pnyx and vote on the legislation of the day. Many did – if only for the sake of the three obols they got for attending. The result was institutionalised mob rule [where] demagogues roused the rabble (Leroi 2014: 316).

Nobody is suggesting that participatory development practices are like Leroi’s description of ancient Athens, but, as in that extreme example, ever-present are the underlying power relations between actors that pervert the ideal.

5.2 Local Knowledge and What Works

This section concerns the practice of local knowledge in adapting to climate change impacts. Generally speaking, the practical use of local knowledge is the predominant of the two ways in which it appears in the climate change, environment and development literatures, as identified above. We cover the use of local knowledge to affirm a group’s identity—the second way—in Sect. 5.3.

Note the phrase ‘adapting to climate change’ in the paragraph above. Local action does not usually result in actions that attempt to mitigate, still less stop, climate change per se. To do so would require at least stabilising the concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere in order to halt global warming. While mitigation actions might be local, such as personal reduction in energy consumption (especially by richer consumers) and planting trees to absorb carbon dioxide, the knowledge that they rely on is the generalised science of anthropogenic warming and its sources. Local knowledge, on the other hand, tends to be used where current climate change is an experienced contemporary fact, the need to address its impacts is pressing and actions to adapt to the situation are therefore unavoidable. Mitigation and adaptation as concepts related to climate change are the focus of Chap. 6, which expands the definitions that are suggested here.

Thus local knowledge gives rise to local actions which usually comprise local adaptations to climate change. In rural areas of poor countries it is possible to find examples at almost every turn. In Sect. 5.1 we mentioned the (now) annual ‘Community-based Adaptation Conference’ whose venue is either a sub-Saharan African or an Asian country. It shares local practices and ideas, and ensures that innovations, which would otherwise be unseen or ‘below the radar’, are recorded and disseminated to a wider audience. Since its inauguration in 2005, the conference has recorded a rich seam of local innovations for adaptation. Box 5.2 gives some examples from the 2010 conference which was held in Tanzania, East Africa.

Box 5.2 Below the radar innovations in adapting to climate change from the Community-Based Adaptation Conference 2010.

The annual Community-based Adaptation Conference is organised by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) based in London.

For two days prior to the 2010 conference in Dar Es Salaam (the capital city of Tanzania), participants undertook field trips to see practical examples of community-based adaptation. The following are taken from the official report of the conference, which was produced and published by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), a policy research institute based in Winnipeg, Canada, with offices in Ottawa (Canada), New York (United States) and Geneva (Switzerland).

Petra Bakewell-Stone, Pro-Natura International, offered highlights of a visit to the Kisarawe District, 50 km west of Dar Es Salaam, which included vulnerable communities affected by drought and water shortages. She said it remained to be seen whether the conditions were a result of climate change or mismanagement. In one of the coastal villages visited, the group witnessed a successful community project that was adapting to climatic changes by shifting to more sustainable mangrove harvesting after many agricultural sites had been submerged or abandoned.

Million Getnet, Haramaya University [Ethiopia] discussed his group’s visit to three villages in the coastal Mukuranga region, which has seen an increase in temperatures and erratic rainfall in recent years resulting in drought and water shortages that have had a significant impact on maize and rice production. He said that to adapt to the situation, some of the villages have shifted to cassava production, a drought-resistant crop, as well as diversified into poultry production.

Nanki Kaur, IIED, told participants about a visit to a site in the Kinondoni Municipality, Dar es Salaam, close to the hotel venue, where increased rainfall intensity is having a significant impact on urban slums. She noted that communities have found innovative ways of coping with the impacts of climate change that do not require external support and huge investments, such as using rubbish as a flood defence.

Source: IISD (2010: 5).

For readers who might question the word ‘innovation’, note that participants in community-based adaptation invariably put their (local) knowledge to productive use with the materials that are available to create something new. That is a general definition of ‘innovation’ (Chataway 2005). Historically, the term evolved as a driver of capitalist economies, triggered by competition which forces private sector firms to do new things either in terms of their processes or in developing new products. This remains its major use. The innovations in Box 5.2, however, are triggered by the threat, already being experienced of climate change and are drivers of the process of adaptation.

Box 5.2 illustrates the diversity of local innovations in adapting to climate change. Local knowledge put to local use is nothing but contextual in terms of place. Also notable in these examples is the apparent absence of organisation and coordination at a larger scale. No government or international aid organisation is attempting to oversee and steer the processes of innovation. No scientific or other expert advice is being offered. The adaptations are driven by the collective needs of the communities themselves. More, these below-the-radar innovations are taking place irrespective of whatever adaptation is being attempted at larger scales (for example, large-scale flood defences). They are a far cry from the universal science of climate change and of attempts to reach international agreements through United Nations conferences. It is as if they exist in a parallel universe. This is what IIED Director, Camilla Toulmin, said in a closing speech to the 2014 conference:

My own understanding of adaptation and reliance1 draws very much from following over the past 35 years the process of change of a small village in Mali, West Africa… Over that period, they have been dealing with drought, managing scarce water, and growing different crops and diversifying livelihoods, and this has given me a fundamental respect for the knowledge, innovation and capacity that we find at field level in village communities across the world (Toulmin 2014).

A major role of the Community-based Adaptation conference, however, is to create an international community of communities that are adapting. It publicises their innovations, promotes sharing and supports the most vulnerable communities. As its organiser, the IIED situates it within a broad aim of ‘Empowering Communities to Adapt to Climate Change’. The current IIED website describes the rationale as follows:

Community-based adaptation to climate change focuses on empowering communities to use their own knowledge and decision-making processes to take action. (IIED, no date).

Recent conferences have made a concerted attempt to broaden the remit beyond sharing and supporting examples of already existing adaptations. This is reflected in themes of recent conferences. For example, the 2011 theme was ‘Scaling up beyond pilots’, by which it meant ‘focusing on the need to spread CBA knowledge and practical lessons horizontally across communities and vertically across levels of governance and action’ (IISD 2011: 1). In 2013 the theme was ‘Mainstreaming into Government’ by which it meant institutionalising community-based adaptation into international, national and local planning and processes’ (IIED 2013). The 2014 conference in Kathmandu, Nepal, launched a declaration—‘The Kathmandu Declaration on Financing Local Adaptation’—which called for strengthening national and international finance for local adaptation to climate change, and for steps to ensure that it reaches the most disadvantaged communities (IIED 2014).

The Kathmandu Declaration was significant because, once the subject is raised of outsiders financing local adaptations, the rules of the game inevitably become modified away from simply observing, publicising and sharing what is already happening without such finance. Whether this money comes from the private sector, national governments or international aid organisations, they will want to know how it is spent and to a significant extent will want to determine how it is spent. While ‘upscaling’ and ‘mainstreaming into government’ both inevitably require engagement with wider groups of stakeholders, involving some loss of power to self-direct local innovations, the balance is tipped even further if the other stakeholders are bringing finance to the negotiating table.

It is for reasons such as these that participatory processes between ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ have been proposed and developed to address the challenges of multi-stakeholder engagement involving local and expert knowledges. Ayers and Forsyth (2009) state in relation to community-based action on climate change:

A community-based approach considers that adaptation strategies must be generated through participatory processes, involving local stake-holders and development and disaster risk–reduction practitioners, rather than being restricted to impacts-based scientific inputs alone. As such, expertise in vulnerability reduction must come from local community-based case studies and indigenous knowledge of locally appropriate solutions to climatic variability and extremes…. From a community-based adaptation standpoint, climatic changes are acknowledged by trying to understand locally observed, historic patterns of change in ways that are meaningful to local people.

5.2.1 Sharing or Extracting Knowledge Through Participatory Processes: The Contribution of Development Studies

The principle of participation is therefore simple: both local and external stakeholders engage and share their knowledge and agree what to do in, for example a climate change intervention, and within the constraints of the budget.

Thanks to Development Studies, however, we have a wealth of analysis and debate about participatory processes, from firm advocates to those who have considered it a ‘new tyranny’. The champion par excellence has been Robert Chambers who argues that too many development aid interventions are based on positivist, exclusive, expert knowledge, where professional development experts sustain ‘their own reality that they transfer to others (Chambers 1997: 54). He has insisted, therefore, that outsider experts should ‘hand over the stick’ and listen to the knowledge of local ‘beneficiaries’ of development interventions (Ibid.). This will lead to better interventions and local ownership through a democratic process of deliberation (Ibid: 188). These arguments were later mainstreamed by the large international development institutions such as the World Bank, which produced three books on the overall theme of ‘Voices of the poor’ that took on board and to a large extent institutionalised ‘participation’ within its own processes (Narayan and Petesch 2002; Narayan et al. 2000a, b).

In contrast to the enthusiasm of Chambers and others, the ‘tyranny’ critique focuses on the failure of participation to address issues of power and politics, issues which pervade all spaces where international development interventions are created. This critique was brought together in an edited collection by Cooke and Kothari (2001). Of direct interest to our book, other authors of that period focused on the knowledge dimension of the tyranny, suggesting that local knowledge was extracted by development experts during participatory processes. To be fair, Chambers (1997: 111, 214) had previously suggested that this is a potential danger but the later authors were more strident. For example, writing about urban planning, Rakodi (2000: 21) suggested that the participatory methods applied to town planning and decision making had resulted in little more than ‘more aware and better informed “outsiders”’. Meanwhile the World Bank and International Monetary Fund were demanding that recipient poor-country governments of their financial loans produce Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) that involved participatory processes. A review by Craig and Porter (2003: 54) described them as a ‘Third way for the Third World’ where knowing the population is crucial for success. They elaborated by stating that PRSPs are supported by ‘enhanced information and statistical methods for identifying, mapping, measuring and reporting on poverty, as popularized by publications such as “Voices of the Poor”’.

One of the authors of this book, Wilson (2006), reviewed these debates with respect to a common pejorative label of development interventions at that time. This was that they are ‘technocratic’, in other words defined, designed and implemented by experts, or ‘knowledge elites’, which stripped the interventions of all politics and refused alternative ways of thinking about the problem. Chambers had been one of the leaders of the charge on this, strongly criticising mainstream development interventions for being bad, top-down and undemocratic. Wilson’s review, however, suggested that a transition was taking place from the classical definition of technocrats as ‘knowledge elites’ in international development to a new kind of technocrat, ‘learning elites’, of the early part of this century whose job it is to extract and assimilate local knowledge. To perform the role of learning elite, however, requires a methodology that is different from the usual census-style statistics gathering. Participation fitted the bill exactly and became new methodology of choice (Wilson 2006).

Wilson’s critique drew on Foucault’s (1979) notion of ‘governmentality’—the art of modern government—which requires knowledge of the population to be governed, with the aim of enhancing its productive potential. In Foucault’s own words: ‘The population is the object that government must take into account in all its observation and “savoir”, in order to be able to govern in a rational and conscious manner. The formation of a “savoir” proper to government is absolutely bound up with the knowledge of all the processes related to population’ (Ibid. 18).

Extracting knowledge for the learning elites was, in Wilson’s view, a prime example of this Foucauldian notion of governmentality. However, while the governmentality argument is a neat formulation of what happens to local knowledge during participatory processes, it is too neat. Yes, power relations exist between the different actors, but the very fact that outside experts might wish to extract local knowledge for purposes of governmentality provides some leverage and power to the holders of that local knowledge. As such, participatory processes may have all kinds of unanticipated effects (Cornwall and Andrea 2004: 85) where the potential exists for ‘genuine negotiation’ between the locals and other actors (Leach et al. 2005: 217). Foucault’s notion of governmentality and Cornwall’s analysis of participatory processes are further analysed in Chap. 10.

It is in this vein of deepening and moving beyond knowledge extraction and tyranny analyses that Sam Hickey and Mohan (2004) edited a follow-up book to the original collection by Cooke and Kothari. This book examines the positive possibilities of participation alongside the tyranny argument. Such possibilities include using participation to engage with a ‘radical political project on the basis of promoting citizenship’ and, where it cannot claim to be transformative, ‘to find a new “gradualist” language to extol its virtues’ (Hickey and Mohan 2004: 20).

5.2.2 Local Knowledge, Power and Participatory Processes in Environmental Studies

The above debates that abound in development studies are also present in the environmental literature, although they tend not to go into the same depth. One reason for the comparative neglect is, perhaps, the strength of the underlying idea in environmental discourse that we all must pull together to safeguard our environment, including our climate, otherwise the consequences for life on earth could be dire. Thus, Frank Fischer who wrote a book substantively about local knowledge, experts, participatory processes and the environment (Fischer 2000) echoes much of Chambers’ (1997) work in relation to development studies. Fischer notes the importance of local contextual knowledge to challenge the scientific emphasis on “generalisable knowledge”; claims that local knowledge is the primary product of participation; and that ‘ordinary local knowledge’ is important for ‘problem identification, definition and legitimation’ (Fischer 2000: xii, xiii, 217). These comments that concern integrating local knowledge into mainstream deliberation about the environment, however, could easily have been written by Chambers. The same could be said of Fischer’s ‘solution’, which is to reconstruct professional practices so that experts are also facilitators who listen to what the locals have to say and to accept their realities. Again like Chambers, he recognises the ‘social and political’ problems of enacting this solution, offering that ‘much will depend on a commitment to participation on the part of both professionals and society as a whole’ (Ibid: 191, 192). Asking for such voluntaristic ‘commitment’, however, appears to evade the crucial issues of power relations, and hence politics that forms a central tenet of Fischer’s book.

Finally, while noting the possibilities for integrating local and expert knowledge through participatory processes, Fischer also alludes to the extractive potential when he states that ‘ordinary citizens… can also contribute a form of knowledge—local knowledge—that the professional expert requires’ (Ibid: xii). While critiques of participation in development studies are pejorative about the extractive potential, this citation suggests that Fischer is at least neutral and possibly positive about it.
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