Transforming Traditional Knowledge Systems: Progressive or Not?

During the 1960s and 1970s, there was a clear top-down approach to development in involving the transfer of information. Information was viewed as something to be transferred from “experts” to “peasants”, creating a power dynamic that resulted in little to no effect for the targeted population. Cultures and practices of these populations, many of which are indigenous populations, were neglected in this process. As more development research continued to take place, academics and development practitioners began to realize the insufficient methods of this simplistic approach, and began to place more value on traditional knowledge systems. Such systems are embedded in the culture and society of these populations, so failing to recognize them seemed to create more problems rather than fix existing ones. Researchers began to study the diverse ways in which information is produced, stored, and transferred in these indigenous societies, placing much more value on these systems. On the surface, this shift in focus is extremely progressive in that fact that development, specifically involving ICT, is becoming more of a bottom-up, participatory approach as opposed to a an elitist framework deriving from ethnocentric principles. Tim Unwin, in his book ICT4D presents this transition in a very positive light.

I, however, have some issues with this progression. I do agree that existing cultural and societal systems needs to be recognized and taken into account in development sectors, not only information transfer. Without sufficient knowledge a community and the embedded systems that are organically carried out in the community, there is no way to produce any positive impacts or avoid oppression of any kind. Yet, this newer approach discusses intentions of utilizing these existing systems to deliver contemporary development objectives, such as implementation of ICT. The World Bank initiated its Indigenous Knowledge Program for the purpose of aiding development practitioners to incorporate indigenous/traditional knowledge into the activities of development. In other words, development practitioners want to find a way to blend the MDGs and indigenous knowledge and culture together to produce development. My issue here is how transparent these motives are, and how indigenous knowledge (referred to by the World Bank as IK) is actually being taken into account. To what extent is adapting contemporary development activities, a main one being ICT implementation, compromise the integrity of a specific culture or society. If indigenous knowledge is so important to the practice of development, then why is it still altered and transformed to fit ICT and MDG standards. There are ways of using indigenous knowledge to promote development without necessarily changing it, or “modernizing” it. this “blending” of contemporary development objectives and indigenous knowledge does not seem like a bottom-up approach in my opinion. A bottom-up approach is using solely indigenous knowledge and systems and altering them according to the standards of that specific society, and not according to standards set up by the UN.

As Unwin states many times in his book, information transfer is a very important factor in development, for it is not only about transfer, but about production, storage, and communication. That is why societies have very clear systems for information communication. Though ICT can be seen as a progressive tool for development, it can easily undermine a culture’s existing information systems. For example, illiterate societies has very complex oral traditions and systems for which their knowledge is stored and transferred. Incorporating ICT into the inner workings of such a society ruins such traditions and undermines culture that has been developing for centuries. A bottom-up approach for ICT with such a society would be asking members of the community if they wanted their knowledge to be technologically stored for the future, thus allowing some sort of recording device for the purpose of preserving their culture, not changing it. I feel that too often, information transfer is valued over cultural preservation and integrity, using ICT as a hegemonic tool masking as development to essentially create an e-capable world. ICT can be extremely positive, but not when it is reduced to old modernization theory practices and fails to recognize that simply combining with indigenous cultures is not very different from neglecting it all together. Bottom-up development comes from putting MDGs aside for a brief moment to discover capabilities of indigenous knowledge and systems without immediate assistance from external sources.


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