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Is knowledge meant to solve technical problems or change the world?

Achille Mbembe.

[Editor’s note: This is the second post on Peter da Costa’s reflections on a meeting of think tanks in Pretoria. The first can be read here.]

During my time as a doctoral student writing about African expertise and power struggles over development I was perpetually intrigued, if ultimately somewhat perplexed, by the writings of the undoubtedly brilliant Cameroonian political scientist and philosopher Prof. Achille Mbembe, who teaches at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research. In Pretoria, I was fortunate to hear him deliver a stirring keynote address during the opening dinner of the think tanks’ summit on Monday 3 February, during which he shared the following thoughts:

  • We’re living in times in Africa where scientific knowledge is contested and often repudiated in the name of common sense;
  • A fundamental change of perspective is needed, one in which African analysis and policies start from a point of view that Africa is at the epicenter of changes happening globally;
  • The role of Africa is deeply connected to what happens globally – we can no longer afford to interpret our problems as if they were separate from the rest of the world;
  • There’s a huge, ever-increasing hunger for socially-relevant knowledge and expertise;
  • The gap between knowledge production and knowledge utilization has never been so critical as today – existing knowledge is mobilized to buttress powerful positions;
  • There’s a disconnect between changes in our societies and our ability to interpret them;
  • We know so much about what needs to be done, and yet it’s not done. There’s a lot of ‘dead’ knowledge everywhere. This is a political, not an epistemological, problem;
  • In order to deal with this political (and institutional) problem, we need to reanimate knowledge;
  • There’s a fundamental difference between problem-solving knowledge and world-changing knowledge – the latter requires critical analysis;
  • Ultimately, policy is not only about the quest for improved efficiency on the basis of evidence. It’s also about socially reflexive knowledge, knowledge that is interpreted and open to interrogation.

My notes may not be comprehensive, and I was unable to get hold of the original text. Nevertheless, what I have summarized above resonates with a lot of what I hear around the continent about the political economy of knowledge production.

To paraphrase Prof. Mbembe, there’s knowledge that offers technocratic solutions to problems defined by experts. Which is all well and good. But unless knowledge is critically grounded, it cannot and will not change Africa or the world.

What do you think?

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Clara Richards #

    Hello Peter, thanks for sharing this. Each point is very relevant and could trigger multiple discussions! I’d like to focus in two points that called my attention:

    The first one, “Ultimately, policy is not only about the quest for improved efficiency on the basis of evidence. It’s also about socially reflexive knowledge, knowledge that is interpreted and open to interrogation.” The second part of this message, that policy is about socially reflexive knowledge and it should be open to interrogation, needs to be emphasised. I am working in Zimbabwe at the moment and it struck me the lack of interest and appetite from stakeholders to discuss, talk about and debate knowledge. What we try to do is stimulate the use of research by policy-makers, after thinking and rethinking the way we approach our work there, we realised how important it is to raise awareness and open the debate of the importance of knowledge among the general public. In a context where information, knowledge and evidence are not valued by those who make decisions, there is a need to generate reflection and debate towards what these terms mean. We try to give space for questioning knowledge and realise how it can ultimately produce policies that make sense. We believe it is key to focus on building a strong platform for discussion, where knowledge is reflected upon and where the general public can understand better what role it plays in decisionmaking. The efficiency of policies – hopefully – comes as a result of this, as a result of a society that values that added value of knowledge in policies. There is a need to embrace knowledge first , not only for policy-making but for people’s daily decisionmaking.

    Another statement that I think is worth debating is “There’s a lot of ‘dead’ knowledge everywhere. This is a political, not an epistemological, problem”; I’d like to learn more about what you understand by dead knowledge.

    In summary, I agree with most of the points, there’s certainly a need of knowledge, and I’d like to add, fundamentally that which is produced locally.



    March 25, 2014

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