Cracks in the knowledge system: whose knowledge counts and whose knowledge do we need?

24 November 2020
SERIES OTT Conference 2020: the 3rd online event 14 items

[The summary of this session was written by Marília Ferreira da Cunha, Digital Communications Officer at On Think Tanks.]

This session, organised by INASP, brought together an expert panel, representing a range of sector perspectives, to reflect on some of the key issues outlined in this paper (In)equitable knowledge systems: before, during and beyond a pandemic

Panelists: Prof Maha Bali (American University in Cairo), Dr. Joy Kiiru (Mawaso Institute and University of Nairobi), and Chalani Ranwala (Verité Research)
Host: Jon Harle (INASP Director of Programmes)

Key takeaways

John Harle from INASP framed the session stating that in the last nine months we have paid more attention to communities and how to transform the process of producing knowledge into a more inclusive one: where we are from, who we are, and what languages we speak either help or hinder us. These are not new problems, however the pandemic has exacerbated them. We have deeper questions: Whose ideas count? How are ideas valuable? How do they translate what gets funded- and what gets published?

Equity matters. However, this is often followed with a ‘but’. It matters, but there is a need to maintain quality and standards. It seems equity and excellence are opposite sides of the spectrum; and excellence is assigned by those who have the power, who control the knowledge. The focus on the capacity to produce and communicate is understood as a process of change and that is why we should listen and learn from others.

Maha Bali from the American University in Cairo gave several examples of how inequalities were exacerbated and others were inequality decreased during the pandemic. 

An obvious benefit has been free online conferences, which are available to all those who have time and access to the internet. However, there is still a bigger presence from North than from the South.

Maha referred to the social justice model by Nancy Fraser: Who has the power to decide who gets to speak? How can technology change the way we interact with each other? Platforms are limiting and empowering. There are still barriers, for example, where authoritative governments can monitor even more and access more information. 

Another important aspect are the resources needed. When talking about access, it is not just access to digital, but access to the language of technology and digital literacy.

Chalani Ranwala from Verité Research also highlighted the importance of access. Going digital means increasing access to knowledge that was not available before. For example, it is now easier to have more inclusive events. It is easier to have more variety in the voices heard. 

Moving conversations online has opened the way to be more inclusive at a lower cost. However, moving information online might mean that some communities are not receiving the information in the correct way. There is a need to think how to reach out to all communities. 

Joy Kiiru from Mawaso Institute and University of Nairobi also mentioned another important aspect: Africa cannot adapt to Europe’s restrictions to combat COVID-19. Realities are different, it is not possible to rely on knowledge created by other countries. How to create this knowledge? 

What can be done practically to make learning and knowledge production more inclusive and equitable?

Maha pointed out that in Egypt, for those who had the resources, the move to digital was relatively straightforward. For those who do not have a support process the process was much more difficult. Another aspect is that people usually want to go directly to the tools, but don’t think about priorities, values and processes behind them. It is important to address the social needs of people.

Chalani highlighted the importance of language and how to overcome its barriers. In Sri Lanka, a trilingual language country, much of the academic knowledge is only in English, which is a huge restriction to reach different communities. Knowledge and research must be accessible in all languages, there should be an active effort to adapt and disseminate in local languages. Sharing knowledge should be packed in a way that many people can consume.

Joy stressed that bias can limit an individual, who might perform below their ability because of those perceptions. Research is funded from the outside, someone wants to dictate research, without appreciating the local knowledge and understanding context. 

From the chatbox


How research excellence is neo-colonial 

Community-building resources for online 

Questions and comments:

In this new normal how do we ensure community engagement amongst higher education institutions, when much of research work has shifted online?

How much of the communities we are engaging with are themselves able to communicate or collaborate online? Depending on what the field is, it may not be possible.

Your discussion on language made me think of a study with domestic workers done by Martha Farrell Foundation; wherein domestic workers themselves conducted the study in THEIR language in their community through a participatory approach. The study was very insightful because it was done BY the workers FOR the workers.

Given what Joy said about where the money comes from and how the agenda is decided, how do we break that? We, the Global South, don’t have the money and need money to do this critical work. So what to do? MNCs? Philanthropists? CSR?

It is possible to tackle inequality at global level (e. Access to research)? Countries in the Global South create their own, small self-sustaining, self-serving system? Thus national scholarly publishing systems become compartments, isolated from the global publishing system?

Watch the video to find out how the panel answered these questions.