How external expertise can undermine local community knowledge

Many rural communities in developing countries are now more familiar with external experts and consultants who visit them to ask questions about their situation and go away never to be seen again. Using consultants and external experts to gather information or conduct evaluations is not an entirely bad idea. Outsiders can sometimes better see what is hidden in local people’s plain sight.  Like a fish which does not see the water in which it is swimming, local people may no longer be conscious of their situation. However, from views recently gathered by eMKambo from smallholder farmers, traders and community leaders, organizations which use consultants and external experts to gather information or conduct evaluations may be blind to several downsides of this practice.

how-external-expertise-can-undermine-local-community-knowledge

Instruments of social control

Besides undermining local people’s judgment, external consultants and experts are often used to assert social control in ways that do not recognize local people’s collective capacity to generate wisdom and value their resources. The fact that much of the data collected by external experts and consultants does not come back to inform local institutions and decision-making implies people are left with no dependable sources of evidence. It becomes difficult to know what is real and what is not authentic. Local people end up favoring facts that justify what they already know when alternative views could be more beneficial.

Use of external expertise without building local expertise also undermines people’s capacity to form bonds of common interest based on common experience. In fact, the underlying message of such practices is that local people cannot trust themselves but should follow experts in every aspect of their lives such as nutrition, food production, health, environmental management, income generation, education and many other aspects. Leaving everything to experts strengthens elite power and versions of meritocracy that makes it hard for local people to gain control of their lives, individually and collectively. There are many cases where donor money is being used as an instrument of control and power.  Ideas and narratives that are funded receive saturated media coverage when superior local knowledge is barely mentioned.

A case for better ways of valuing local resources

Excessive dependence on experts also weakens local people’s capacity to value their resources without using money as the main proxy. How can communities make collective decisions in valuing their commodities and natural resources when their sources of information remain fragmented irrespective of billions of dollars spent in their name? Farmers need to know the value of their commodities beyond money.  What is the true value of a crate of tomato or a goat if produced well? It is not enough to say it’s worth $8. What does a dollar mean in relation to potatoes, tomatoes, chickens, fruits, milk, goats, sheep, cattle and other assets?

The majority of developing countries currently don’t have models for understanding commodity values without using dollars and cents. However, nothing stops policy makers and development agents from considering other factors like nutrition, healthy, wealth creation potential, environmental contribution and multiple uses in valuing local resources before getting to dollars and cents. What is the socio-economic value of a commodity before it is given a dollar value?  What is its environmental value?  Tobacco is valued in dollars and cents without considering environmental and other factors. Same with minerals.  After taking all these factors into account, it should be possible to assign specific weights to commodities from which comprehensive valuation can be derived.

Supply and demand should not be used alone to determine the value of agricultural commodities. When there is a glut of tomatoes, for instance, it doesn’t mean the nutritional value, taste and quality of the tomatoes will have gone down.  The same amount of water, labour and inputs will have been used to produce it. Where the monetary value of livestock on the market will have gone down due to over-supply, it does not mean a reduction in value because the cattle will have consumed the same grass, water, labour and other inputs as those fetching high prices during shortages.

Correct valuation will inform resource allocation

What is the value of an irrigation scheme in terms of land, water, soils, the environment, customers and other factors? Answering this question factually will reveal benefits and costs, taking into account people, animals, wildlife and other elements of the whole ecosystem in which the irrigation scheme is located.  Irrigation water, soil and labour have alternative uses. Correct valuation will show the extent to which resources are either being over-utilized or under-utilized for the sake of earning dollars.

When a government allocates budgetary resources to the ministry of health, it considers the importance of human life. The value of a good road network influences the size of budget allocated to the ministry of transport. Likewise, the value of agricultural commodities should influence budgetary allocations to the ministry of agriculture. How do developing countries value investment opportunities, minerals, land and associated benefits? In the absence of smart valuation criteria, developing countries limit their valuation to money and equipment brought by investors yet these may constitute a small part of the value of resources.  Investors end up assuming a big brother mind-set because they bring money and equipment.

 

Charles@knowledgetransafrica.com  / charles@emkambo.co.zw / info@knowledgetransafrica.com

Website: www.emkambo.co.zw / www.knowledgetransafrica.com

eMkambo Call Centre: 0771 859000-5/ 0716 331140-5 / 0739 866 343-6

6 thoughts on “How external expertise can undermine local community knowledge

  • It would be interesting to have direct testimonies of (smallholder) farmers themselves on this topic. I also know of research that farmers have learned over the years to exploit external support to the maximum, not letting themselves influence at all by what external ‘expert’ had to say but just shrewdly making use of the practical physical inputs that were made available (sorry I do not have the reference at hand).

    • Dear Peter,

      I agree with you. There are several cases where farmers quietly select ideas/approaches that are coming from outside and blend with their experiences to produce something entirely new. We can gather enough testimonies to fill a whole book.

      Regards,

      Charles

  • This is excellent knowledge. I have spent the last thirty years training experts and communities to acquire skills of gaining local knowledge for progressive development of us human beings in many sectors. The work of David Werner ” Helping Health Workers Learn”, ”Training for Transformation” movement (published by Mambo Press) and Robert Chambers book putting ”People First” are for me more relevant now than they were in the 1980 and 90s.
    There are effective and highly interactive methods of working with local knowledge which provides data in a process that leaves local people and experts benefitting from the process.

  • While agreeing with the statement that local people cannot see their pifalls/shortfalls hence external consultants and experise are sometimes constitute a better options for evaluating them yet ti ensure better evalaution it will always be better to have a joint team comprised of local and external consultans and expertise. By the way in Sudan we alos have a proverbs that reads “the camel cannot see its bending neck”. If difficult to have a joint team, it would be better to use nonconventional methods i.e participatory methods for evaluation as these methods enable external consultants to obtain adequate information.

    • I like that proverb Prof Mahmoud. After realizing that bottom up approaches are not entirely sufficient, we have been experimenting with a combination of bottom up and top-down approaches. Circumstances under which both approaches function well and don’t cohere are beginning to emerge. I will prepare a blog post about our experiences so far.

      Regards,

      Charles

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