13 Feb

Know Thyself: The Roots, #SDGs and the Agenda Knowledge for Development

This essay is a part reflective piece, part policy consultation response to the ‘Agenda Knowledge for Development’.

“Any individual can contribute to the advancement of knowledge societies. No matter if politician, entrepreneur, employee or any kind of citizen, everyone should have the opportunity to cultivate his/her knowledge through learning, reflecting, reviewing, sharing, connecting, creating, inventing, applying, preserving, and through the improvement of skills that help to work globally – like language skills and intercultural competence.” Goal 11.2, Agenda Knowledge for Development: Knowledge Development Goals

Up until last year, it did not fully dawn on me that the Root’s Phrenology album cover was based on the work of Franz Joseph Gall, the physician who developed the field of phrenology. Gall’s theory of phrenology was that you could assess one’s character and personality by ‘“reading” bumps and fissures in the skull.’

Above: Phrenology album cover by The Roots, which is based on the theory of phrenology, conceptualised by Gall (below).


Above: From the 1848 edition of the American Phrenological Journal.

I struggled to process the fact that The Roots cover, original in its presentation, was nevertheless a representation of an earlier concept, developed by Gall. I did not want to accord primacy to someone else because (asides from being a huge Roots fan) it meant acknowledging authority (=legitimate power) of the concept to someone else.

This experience is part of an ongoing reflection I’m having about knowledge, and three aspects of the knowledge-power relationship: how it is conceptualised, legitimised and used in the global development agenda. As theoretical as this may appear to be, it is an important exercise to undertake because the sustainable development agenda is, after all an idea which proposes an alternative arrangement of the global development architecture. If we take a historical overview of the global development agenda, each era has been marked by new ideas of global development; from modernism in the 1950s and 1960s and the dependency movement, to neo-liberalism and the free markets ideology in the 1980s, the rise of the global civil society and the charity model in 1980s and 1990s, the aid/ free-trade discourse in early 2000s to the current era of sustainable development model.

To my surprise, there are only 11 references of the word knowledge in the Sustainable Development Goals text. Knowledge in the sustainable development paradigm, is simultaneously a state (the nature of sustainability), an output (sustainable development goals) and a theoretical approach (sustainable development). Despite this, I conducted a textual analysis of these 11 references, though a critical discourse analysis is the most effective approach as done by knowledge ecologist, Sarah Cummings.

Of these references, there are at least three main observations which can be made regarding the idea and the role of knowledge in the post-2015 agenda.

Knowledge as function

The first observation is the functionalist role of knowledge in the SDGs. Knowledge is perceived as a means to an end, to develop individuals to have the most productive (= economic) capacity to ‘participate fully in societies’, and contribute to the achievement of the goals. The functionalist role of knowledge, is mainly situated within the discourse of science and technology, more specifically forms of development which can benefit the state. This makes me wonder whether the principle of universality in the SDG agenda, the idea that the SDGs agenda is applicable to every country, is about homogenising (promoting an agenda which increases likeness between contexts) or localising development (promoting an agenda which recognises difference of contexts)?

Knowledge as output

Knowledge is conceptualised as an output, a commodity, with little reference to the process involved in defining this commodity. There are several references to different types of knowledge commodities, including ‘scientific knowledge’, and ‘traditional knowledge’, for example, in Goal 2 on agricultural productivity. I propose an alternative definition of knowledge not only as an output but also as a process, more specifically, a negotiation of power, whereby certain ideas supporting the status quo of the existing global development architecture, are consolidated and legitimised as ‘knowledge.’ Hence, traditional knowledge in the SDG agenda text is situated within the context of agriculture, the main assumption being that traditional/ non-scientific forms of knowledge can exist in the context of agriculture and so are authorised.

Knowledge for institutional development rather than individual development

Knowledge is explicitly referred to in four goals: ending poverty (i.e. agricultural productivity), education (for the purpose of economic and sustainable development), oceans and marine conservation and the global partnership for development. The emphasis on knowledge is how it can be revised, innovated and propagated for the development of the state. Knowledge enables economic productivity which means ‘all countries stand to benefit from having a healthy and well-educated workforce with the knowledge and skills needed for productive and fulfilling work.’ It also facilitates international co-operation through the development of knowledge mechanisms such as the online Science Technology and Innovation platform.

The Agenda Knowledge for Development: Knowledge Development Goals

The Agenda Knowledge for Development is an important contribution to the Sustainable Development Agenda because it ensures that knowledge in the SDG agenda promotes rather than limits the transformative potential of the agenda itself. It does this by questioning the assumptions, tools and infrastructure associated with knowledge in the agenda. Created through public consultations from 50 stakeholders, the Agenda consists of 13 goals in addition to a global partnership framework and mechanisms for follow-up and review of progress. I have developed a theoretical framework across two main intersections, knowledge adaptation and knowledge mitigation, to organise these 13 goals.

My definitions of knowledge adaptation and knowledge mitigation are:

Knowledge adaptation: Goals that adjust to the existing knowledge infrastructure with the aim of enabling more equitable, plural and sustainable knowledge ecosystems

Knowledge mitigation: Goals that reduce or eliminate any future risks or effects which might inhibit the potential of equitable, plural and sustainable knowledge ecosystems.

The internal-external intersections organise the goals according to those which respond to the external factors impacting knowledge development (external) and the goals which respond to our evolving understanding/conceptualisations of knowledge itself (internal). Some of the goals contain sub-goals addressing both internal and external changes so my analysis is in relation to the overall result arising from the achievement of these goals as opposed to the sub-goals in each goal.

Having reviewed the 13 goals in this manner, I propose two additional goals, to be added to the Agenda Knowledge for Development, outlined below:

 Goal 14: Agenda-setting

Agenda setting in the global development infrastructure is a fundamental site for action towards more progressive and equitable knowledge ecosystems. Addressing the knowledge politics and frameworks at this stage of the decision-making process enables us to identify the processes, actors and contexts which undermine the potential for pluralistic, diverse, and inclusive knowledge societies.

Goal 15: A sustainable agenda for knowledge

The idea of sustainability has been integrated into the global development agenda, to the extent that sustainability and development are indivisible concepts. Similarly, the agenda for knowledge should explicitly outline the idea of sustainable knowledge. This can be integrated as an over-arching principle of the agenda itself or as a means of implementing the Agenda for Knowledge.

Have you read the Agenda Knowledge for Development? Check it out and share your thoughts! 🙂

P.S. If you have never heard of The Roots, you have really been missing out. In the spirit of ‘knowledge-sharing’, here’s a classic.

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