Complexity trap: Local vs. global knowledge in development work

5/12/2008 | Christian Kreutz

The world wide web offers a growing variety of expertise on all kinds of topics. This global knowledge, such as the scientific domain, has generic character. The expertise is important, especially to tackle all sorts of challenges, but without including the local context could be quickly useless. Often, the applied knowledge lacks an interdisciplinary approach and disregards local and indigenous knowledge.

The German professor Dietrich Dörner describes it accurately in his book the "The Logic Of Failure: Recognizing And Avoiding Error In Complex Situations." Problems are seen logic to tackle, but are, in contrary, far more complex than firstly thought.

Faced with problems that exceed our grasp, we pile small error upon small error to arrive at spectacularly wrong conclusions. We too often ignore the big picture and seek refuge in what we know how to do - fiddling while Rome burns. (Book review)

In a simulation for a development project, Dörner proves how this can lead to failure, and in many cases, efforts have no sustainable impact. One key challenge is to solely rely on global knowledge and state of the art expertise and disregard the local knowledge.

Local knowledge is a collection of facts and relates to the entire system of concepts, beliefs and perceptions that people hold about the world around them. This includes the way people observe and measure their surroundings, how they solve problems and validate new information. It includes the processes whereby knowledge is generated, stored, applied and transmitted to others. (Source: FAO)


Indigenous knowledge are traditions and practices of certain regional, indigenous, or local communities. The growing importance of indigenous knowledge and technologies can be seen, for example, for biodiversity conservation.

Therefore, efforts towards knowledge sharing are a key to make projects work. Kingo Mchombu, author of the Sharing Knowledge Handbook has an interesting point in that regard:

credit: angela7dreams

In most cases, the information needs of the urban and rural poor are seldom taken into account when they are supplied with information to solve their problem of poverty. The assumption being that they know very little and that is why they are poor, thus the knowledge system of the urban and rural poor is totally ignored when supplying them with external information.

It is puzzling to see how often a well intended transfer of knowledge is seen as the right way. As Joseph Stiglitz suggested, most learning initiatives in the development sector have tried to scan globally and apply locally. Also Ben Ramalingam argues: "This ‘pipeline’ approach to learning seriously underestimates the complexity of aid work."

To my understanding, there is a growing need to link the local with the global in development work. Sharing and mixing knowledge is as important as relying on an interdisciplinary approach. To have people and organizations going this path and linking theses spaces are becoming even more important in the future. My hope is that the social web provides a framework for this broad knowledge sharing and collaboration, but this I will describe in my next post.