Negotiating Local Knowledge: Power and Identity in Development.
Johan Pottier, Alan Bicher, Paul Sillitoe (Eds).
(London: Pluto Press, 2003, 332 pp.)
Dario Novellino; sets out clearly the framework of this collection of anthropological essays; on the role of local knowledge in conditions of social change. “While the involvement of local communities in developing projects is today recognised as a necessity; there is still a tendency to underestimate the role of the factors that jeopardise successful communication; between development workers and local people.
The conditions under which people may decide to ‘disclose’ their ‘knowledge’ and make their needs explicit; are very difficult to create. Interaction between community members and project workers (for example; developers or conservationists); seldom leads to mutual comprehension.
Frequently; negotiation builds upon a number of misunderstandings; that may be fostered intentionally or spontaneously due to differences in cognition, expectation, background knowledge, language and attitudes.”
Local knowledge related to development and social change; includes empirical knowledge of plants, animals, weather, the environment; but also moral values and conduct.
Local knowledge is not a fixed body of facts; but rather a pool of ideas; which is drawn upon for specific purposes; and to meet specific needs. As with all pools; there are flows of new ideas from outside. Local knowledge never stands still; it is dynamic and strategic; giving rise to a plethora of diverse knowledge; which are socially embedded.
All knowledge is power. Knowledge is acutely political; because what is excluded; and who is qualified to know involves acts of power, authority, and legitimation. Thus; the importance of knowing gender relations and class-status differences; when looking at expressions of local knowledge.
Local knowledge is also ideology. Raminder Kaur; in his essay studies; the way attitudes toward the nuclear weapons of India and Pakistan; are reflected just three months after the nuclear weapons tests of 1998; in the Ganapati festival in Mumbai (Bombay).
The Ganapati Festival.
Within the Ganapati festival; there are parades with floats or fixed shrines; which display socio-economic tableau; which are presented to Ganapati; the elephant-headed deity; also known as Ganesh; who is considered ‘the remover of obstacles.’ As Kaur notes “The public Ganapati festival; as we know it today; was started by Bal Gangadhar Tilak in the 1890s; as a means to circumvent colonial laws prohibiting collective gatherings.
By using the pretext of a religious festival; and the British reservations; against interfering in the religious affairs of indigenous communities. Tilak was able to disseminate his political views; to large audiences. Similarly; today’s political uses of the festival; represent dynamics of nationalism; with differing political motives and contexts.”
Here; we see local knowledge and values; integrating a new political factor — the nuclear weapon tests; of India and Pakistan — into a religious framework — the idea that a god can remove obstacles; which men have created – and the expression of different attitudes; to nuclear weapons in a religious festival; which had already been transformed; so that political views could be expressed.
“Modern Information Warfare Versus Empirical Knowledge: Framing ‘The Crisis’ in Eastern Zaire, 1996”.
Two other essays deal; with the use of local knowledge — or what is said; to be local knowledge — in cases of political violence. Johan Pottier; one of the editors; presents a study “Modern Information Warfare Versus Empirical Knowledge: Framing ‘The Crisis’ in Eastern Zaire, 1996”.
The United Nations has been increasingly drawn; into the violent political situation of Zaire; now Democratic Republic of Congo; in part as a consequence of the 1994; genocide in Rwanda; its spillover effect in Zaire; and the political-economic rivalry of the new leadership; in both Rwanda and Uganda.
Knowledge of the local situation in eastern Zaire; held by academic writers; was largely overlooked; by the ambassadors at the UN; while they accepted the position of the Rwandan government; that the Tutsi in Kivu; were persecuted because of their ethnicity by Rwandan Hutu; who had fled Rwanda; and continued the genocide. As Pottier states:
“The events in eastern Zaire, 1996; illustrate the danger — already well understood in debates on technology — that ‘local knowledge’ is still treated as homogeneous; incontestable and applicable over fairly extensive areas.”
“The Global Flow of Knowledge on War Trauma: The Role of the Cinnamon Garden Culture in Sri Lanka”.
Another essay dealing; with the consequences of violence; is Alex Argenti-Pillen “The Global Flow of Knowledge on War Trauma: The Role of the Cinnamon Garden Culture in Sri Lanka”. The Cinnamon Garden is an area of the capital Colombo; where are housed many NGOs dealing with mental health; humanitarian aid workers; and other Sri Lankan intellectuals.
There is a growing awareness; that war and armed violence leaves; deep scars upon people; which influences their future behaviour. These scars are called; in the largely Western mental health vocabulary “post-traumatic stress disorder”; and are thought to predispose people; to further violent upheaval; and ongoing cycles of violence. This action and its consequences; is what is known in both Hinduism and Buddhism as karma.
The problem facing modern; Sri Lankan mental health workers; is to translate terms from English; and its Western analytical framework; into terms understandable by rural Sri Lankans; who had been caught up in the violence; and counter-violence of the Government versus the leftist JVP insurgency; in the south of Sri Lanka.
The same problems of war trauma; exist in the better known conflicts of the north; between the Government and the Tamils.
Mental Health States.
Much of the terminology for mental health states; exists in Buddhist philosophy. However; in practice; many rural Sri Lankans; while Buddhists; have not studied Buddhist philosophical thought.
When a religious service; or rite is needed; people go to find a monk; who will do the ritual. Thus; when some mental health words; are translated into Colombo-style ‘high Sinhala’; neven though the term has Buddhist roots; it is understood with dificulty by the people; who are to be helped. Yet at a popular level in rural Sri Lanka “mental illness”; is seen as a total inability to function; and so the lasting; but subtle forms of post-conflict trauma; are not seen by village people as a mental illness requiring care.
Three Levels of Approach.
In this Sri Lankan case; there is a need for three levels of approach. The first; is an understanding of the ‘local knowledge’ — the way people understand their feelings, ideas, motivations, the consequences of action.
The second level; is an understanding of Buddhist philosophical thought; which colors; but is not identical with popular perceptions. Buddhism has long been concerned; with the way in which feelings and ideas arise; and how they influence action. However; time and practice; has given Buddhist monks; and their institutions a crust; which makes the healing aspects of Buddhism; largely unrecognized.
The third level is Western mental health; especially those elements; which arise from a study of war-torn societies. While it is difficult to be a ‘cultural broker’ or a ‘cultural facilitator’; in order to be helpful; one must feel at ease; with these three levels of analysis.
The Development Process.
These essays are a useful presentation of the ways; in which local knowledge is used in the development process. As has been pointed out; development is
“often a messy business of decisions that have to be taken in difficult circumstances; on the basis of inadequate knowledg; reactions, counter-reactions and compromises; and it always constitutes a learning process for all involved.”
Rene Wadlow, President, Association of World Citizens.