Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Valuing local knowledge in development communication

This eLearning platform based in Nigeria encourages a participatory approach to teaching sexuality and life skills based on experiential learning. The five topic areas of the nationally approved Family Life and HIV/AIDS Education (FLHE) curriculum are communicated directly to adolescents using illustrated 'info cartoons', quizzes and games. http://www.learningaboutliving.org/south
In his discussion of development theories ("FAMILY TREE OF THEORIES, METHODOLOGIES AND STRATEGIES IN DEVELOPMENT COMMUNICATION"), Silvio Waisbord provides insight into Brazilian educator Paulo Freire’s work on advocating for a culturally conscious model of development communication. As Waisbord notes, early development theories in the 1960s “tried to domesticate foreign concepts, to feed information, to force local populations to accept Western ideas and practices without asking how such practices fit existing cultures” (18). The early development models of modernization and diffusion are weak because they fail to take culture, local knowledge, and belief systems into account. Instead, they blame “traditional culture” in Third World countries as the primary hurdle or “’bottleneck’ that prevented the adoption of modern attitudes and behavior” (3). In dismissing the importance of culture and in neglecting to communicate through (instead of over) culture, early development models did not fare well because theorists had mistakenly identified Third World countries’ lack of information as the reason why they failed to modernize like First World countries.

Today, we have a different view of local culture and knowledge. They are no longer burdens, but incredibly helpful tools. The old "traditional perspective according to which “traditional cultures” are backward and antithetical to development interventions" has been tossed out in favor of participatory and bottoms-up approaches, thankfully (36). 

Curious to learn more about how local knowledge may figure in development, I searched online for more data and came across a Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) document detailing why local knowledge is important. I learned that local knowledge may include but is not limited to the following:
  • Agriculture, knowledge related to crop selection, intercropping, planting times.
  • Animal husbandry and ethnic veterinary medicine, knowledge of breeding strategies, livestock characteristics and requirements, plant uses to treat common illnesses.
  • Use and management of natural resources, knowledge of soil fertility management, sustainable management of wild species.
  • Health care, knowledge of plant properties for medicinal purposes.
  • Community development, common or shared knowledge provides links between community members and generations; and
  • Poverty alleviation, knowledge of survival strategies based on local resources. 
  • Source for all bullet points above: http://www.fao.org/docrep/007/y5610e/y5610e02.htm

“Because what populations know is considered wrong, local knowledge is viewed as obstacle and unnecessary in development interventions. Overcoming ethnocentric conceptions is crucial.” The FAO provided an example of how local knowledge could have assisted an aid organization in averting a food crop failure:
"Higher yielding sorghum varieties were introduced into Ethiopia to increase food security and income for farmers and rural communities. When weather and other conditions were favourable, the modern varieties proved a success. However, in some areas complete crop failures were observed, whereas local varieties, with a higher variance of traits, were less susceptible to the frequent droughts. The farming community considered the loss of an entire crop to be more than offset by the lower, average yields of the local variety that performed under more extreme conditions. An approach, that included local farming experience, could have resulted in a balanced mix of local and introduced varieties, thus reducing the producers’ risk." (Source: http://www.fao.org/docrep/007/y5610e/y5610e02.htm)
As we participate in conversations about development and communication, we must possess awareness “that understandings of information and knowledge are different,” Waisbord cautions (36). “Interventions also need to be sensitive to the fact that local cultures do not necessarily fit philosophical assumptions about individual rationality that are embedded in traditional models (36).”

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