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

25 March 2014

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?