Wednesday, April 02, 2003


There are a lot of things we all know, or at least things that someone we know knows. Where I live, these things include how to drive a car, or use a personal computer, or deal with a fast-food restaurant. There are also a lot of things that only a few people know, like how to develop a new vaccine, or predict the weather accurately, or modify the source code of Windows, or make policy for the Federal Reserve Bank to help stabilize inflation.

In developing countries, the pattern of common knowledge may be different than where I live, but there is still such a pattern. For example, a lot more people in poor countries are farmers than in rich countries, and so there is a lot of widely shared common knowledge about growing crops and raising livestock. Of course the common farmer knowledge in the highlands of Peru might be quite different than that in China’s river basins or Niger’s Sahelian fringe. But overall, more people in developing countries probably share the same common knowledge than in developed countries.

I suggest that there is a lot less of the uncommon, specialized, highly technical and scientific knowledge in poor countries than in rich countries. Building this "uncommon" knowledge capacity is a key issue in the field of Knowledge for Development.

In developed countries, a lot of different people have different kinds of specialized knowledge. But knowledge systems work because of the way knowledge has been institutionalized. Organizations have been created to develop, organize and utilize knowledge in specialized fields: vaccine research laboratories, weather bureaus, software firms, or Federal Reserve Banks, to keep with the examples above. A variety of specialized links between such organizations and the rest of society have been institutionalized: between laboratory and manufacturing firm; between weather bureaus, the media and public; between programmers, software production facilities, and the market; between the Fed and banks, the legislature and the executive branch of government, the media and the stock market. Moreover, the legitimacy of these organizations as sources of authoritative knowledge in their fields has been institutionalized.

Thus, building knowledge capacity in a developing nation is not simply training lots of knowledge specialists, but also involves developing the specialized knowledge organizations, and the (even less fully understood) task of building the other institutions that interconnect organizations and legitimize knowledge as authoritative.

Unfortunately, the most important bodies of uncommon, specialized, highly technical and scientific knowledge tend to be complex, difficult to learn, requiring of a specialized vocabulary to fully master or communicate, perceived as arcane by others than their gurus, and “out of sight and out of mind” of most people most of the time.

The knowledge work of the kind I am describing is also highly analytic. Its analytic demands are beyond the experience of any but experts in terms of measurement quality, amounts of data gathered, data processing, and modeling. The analytic infrastructure that they require -- of supercomputers, high speed Internet, costly scientific instruments and the like -- are also beyond our common experience.

Reporters and development professionals share in not fully appreciating such knowledge. The science and technology news seldom really covers science and technology broadly, but is more often focused on “newsworthy,” emotionally-charged stories. It more often covers events than trends, and more often those likely to be easily appreciated by large numbers of people than those representing important scientific or technological changes.

In agriculture and health, donor programs often focus on core science and technologies for those sectors, but many of the key scientific and technological sectors do not enjoy adequate, or indeed any donor support. Even in agriculture and health, many of the ancillary and supportive technologies and scientific fields are ignored.

I think a part of the problem is that very few reporters or development professionals in donor agencies have ever professionally mastered a scientific or technological field. Few have worked as senior professional meteorologists, engineers, applied chemists or physicists. Nor has their education prepared them to properly appreciate the role and importance of specialized scientific and technological knowledge in society, much less the role in social and economic development. And indeed the exceptional sectors may further illustrate the point, for in these fields many of the development professionals have indeed worked as technologically trained professionals: as agricultural researchers in the agriculture sector or as physicians or public health experts in health.

I think, this situation results in ICT for Development projects focusing almost entirely on telephones, personal computers and the basic Internet of email and the World Wide Web -- the applications that are common knowledge in developed countries and donor agencies. These are important, but where are the projects that focus on complex applications of ICTs to support the highly specialized knowledge workers playing vital parts in their societies? Few and far between!

The knowledge economy leaders in the donor agencies have done a service directing attention to the problems of industrial innovation in developing nations. However, it seems likely that they too have failed to recognize the importance of a variety of “uncommon” knowledge organizations and institutions. Again, development projects that seek to develop the broad capacity in nations to institutionalize scientific and technological knowledge activities of these specialized kinds are few and far between.

This situation is especially unfortunate in that donor assistance and media attention are desperately needed to help and encourage developing countries to build these scientific and technological capacities. In the field of ICTs for example, the high-end computers and data links, the remote sensing facilities, and other elements of the S&T information infrastructure are expensive, and are hard for developing nation leaders to justify to their peoples. That is why I have made entries in this blog from time to time featuring elements of the needed uncommon knowledge capacity and the S&T information infrastructure in developing nations.

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