How to overcome the knowledge gap: study the rich

10 October 2012

I have talked about this in several occasions -and have certainly mentioned this idea in a few posts on this blog- but have never written a post about it. International development donors remain as the most important source of funding for economic and social policy think tanks in developing countries. Even in rapidly growing economies such as India, Aid dollars fund an important proportion of its research. Donors are increasingly concerned with studies that address the real and immediate problems faced by these countries -and in particular by the poorest among them. As a consequence a crucial component of any knowledge body is being missed: learning about others.

Sure, donors like the idea of south-south learning. This is alright and there are great opportunities to do so. I have always argued that Latin American researchers should be reaching out to other parts of the developing world. Not only are they cheaper and much better qualified than most desk based researchers in developed countries but they also have the advantage of a more recent experience of greater relevance to African and Asian development challenges. Recently, there has been quite a bit of demand by Arab scholars and policymakers for democracy researchers from Latin America, for example.

But learning from the developed world is still important, even if some think of it as neo-colonial. Southern scientists can benefit from working in northern labs. Young economists can benefit from access to much greater resources in northern universities and financial bodies. Public health managers can learn from NHS. Why would a Malawian health minister want to get advice from some health advisor whose experience is limited to other countries with struggling health systems when he or she could learn from those running the NHS? Of course there are differences between the two contexts.. but so are there between Malawi and Kenya. And differences do not invalidate what can be learned; the challenge is to adapt what one learns.

My theory of why there are so few cases of direct learning (engineer to engineer, economist to economist, etc.) is that ‘development experts’ would find themselves out of a job. Imagine a UK Aid in which each department (health, education, etc.) had a section dedicated to working with developing countries? DFID may be reduced to managing logistics.

Anyway, developing countries need to know more about other places, too. The idea that the only useful research for a developing country is local is worrying. There seems to be an assumption that the Aid industry, through its development studies ‘experts’, will provide the global and developed country expertise (maybe via multi-country policy research programmes). Local think tanks can focus on local questions while the northern based can fill in the gaps in their literature.

A much better model, in my mind, is one in which developing countries study developed countries (and any other country they want to study, really) in an effort to learn by themselves what they need to learn and therefore rely less on others to tell them what they should and should not know. It has worked for the Chinese who have several international studies think tanks -and it certainly works for the US, Britain and other developed countries that have dedicated a great deal of resources to study others.

It should not surprise anyone that developed countries fare better than developing counties when negotiating free trade agreements. The former have the support of several research centres and researchers who have been studying the latter for decades. They even use developing country scholars ‘against’ their own countries by poaching them to work in Latin American or African schools or hosting associations such as the Latin American Studies Association that invites Latin American scholars and Latinamericanists to, among other things, explain Latin America to the US.

Foreign policy, military policy, security (the domestic one, not the ‘lets keep us free to terrorism’ kind) and other sectors are also off-limits for donors as these are not seen as pro-poor enough. However, as developing countries are called to played greater roles in the global arena they must also improve their foreign policy skills. Better prepared for foreign policy, South American countries would have managed a lot more and a lot faster in UNASUR, intra-African relations might be smoother and more productive than they are today, and in general developing countries may have been much more capable at making their voices heard in the UN and other muti-lateral bodies.

So why not fund or help set up a Kenyan Centre for European Studies, a Nigerian Institute for North American Studies, a Middle Eastern Centre for the Study of Democratic Societies, and other such organisations?

If anything, the next time a so-called expert tells policymakers in a developing country that they should do something, they will be able to consult with their own experts.