Knowledge and policy: navigating a spaghetti junction – showcasing a new book by the Overseas Development Institute

Lousie Shaxson - Knowledge, policy and power in International Development

Lousie Shaxson – Knowledge, policy and power in International Development

On the eve of the Kstar Conference 2012, Louise Shaxson – senior research fellow in the Research and Policy in Development (RAPID) programme at ODI – presented key findings from the new book Knowledge, Policy and Power in International Development – A Practical Guide.

Over the past two decades, academics, policy-makers and practitioners have increasingly argued for improved use of knowledge in formulating development policy. Recognising that the path from knowledge production to the pages of policy is not a straight, but long and winding road fraught with conflict and power, the book seeks to provide practical guidance on how to navigate the knowledge-policy interface more successfully.

Why does it matter?

Formulating development policy and experiencing development in practice are often said to be two different worlds, that speak two different languages, and which bear no relation to reality on the ground. Yet research has proved time and time again that improved use of knowledge in policy development leads to improved development outcomes.  This relationship needs to be strengthened. The crucial question is how.

Sandwiched between knowledge production and policy development, knowledge intermediaries, as the book outlines, have become increasingly important conduits in bridging the gaps between knowledge and policy and have become part of a burgeoning field whose expertise are increasingly relied upon. Yet there remains a creaking cavity in terms of understanding what works, when and where. Combining academic analysis with practical evidence from the field, this book fills that void by picking apart tensions and power relations which may have confused the relationships between knowledge and policy in the past and provides readers with guidance on how to ensure knowledge remains at the heart of policy development, implementation and evaluation.

Rather than trying to develop a one-size-fits-all model of how knowledge affects policy, the book emphasises that knowledge plays a myriad of roles throughout the policy process. Discussion focuses on the effects of political context, actors’ interests, values/beliefs and credibility, types of knowledge and the knowledge interaction process to explore how knowledge fulfils or muddies its role in international policy development.

As the Kstar Initiative focuses on the role of knowledge intermediaries, Louise Shaxson focused on how to smooth the path between knowledge producers and users to improve interaction between knowledge and policy.  Speaking at the showcase, Louise said:

“As knowledge intermediaries, we are all about telling stories and using it for the greater good. And as we come together here at the Kstar conference, I hope our new book will make a useful contribution to debate”.

The book highlights important discussion points to draw upon throughout the Kstar conference. Most importantly, knowledge intermediaries are a source of innovation and change, but we should be cautious of the inherent challenges intermediaries face.  First, any activity by an intermediary is inherently a political one as it changes the balance of power between knowledge producers and users.  Second, intermediaries need to be very conscious of how values, beliefs and interests affect who is considered to be credible and must work to ensure that all voices are heard loud and clear.  Third, the most effective intermediaries will work with all types of knowledge: research, knowledge from citizens and knowledge from practice.  Finally, and crucially, intermediaries need to know when their work is useful and (once the processes they have put in place are self-sustaining) when they need to step aside and let development happen of its own accord.

What you can do to better facilitate knowledge interaction

To overcome this complexity, the book presents experience from case studies in Peru, Ecuador and Bangladesh, among many more, and offers a practical framework for understanding knowledge intermediary functions, and most crucially, guidance on when and where to implement.

Prior to the conference, we got the chance to speak to two co-authors of the book – David Walker and Nicola Jones – and asked them the purpose behind writing the book, what they perceive to be the most important challenges facing practitioners who work across the policy-knowledge interface and what guidance their research points to in terms of improving the relationship between knowledge and policy.

As Louise emphasised, the intersection between knowledge and policy appears to be fraught with complexity. Academics, policymakers and practitioners may feel daunted and overwhelmed by the complexity in relations between politics, actors, and different types of knowledge. But on finishing the book, and digesting the case studies and practical frameworks, they will feel reassured about how and where to engage in the knowledge-policy interface more successfully.

Action is not impossible, valuable lessons can be learned by looking at past experience and understanding what works when and where – a conversation we look forward to continuing at the Kstar Conference 2012.

Participate in the conference discussion by subscribing to daily updates on the GDNet blog and keep up to date with discussion by following #Kstar2012.

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