Popular wisdom

Popular wisdom

Niaz Ahmed Khan

[ Dr. Niaz Ahmed Khan is Professor of Development Studies at the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh and Honourary Research Fellow, Centre for Development Studies, University of Wales, UK. ]

INTEREST in common people's wisdom and resource use technologies have moved to centre- stage in the recent years. The localised and socio-culturally bound knowledge and technologies are examples of cost-effective and sustainable strategies for poverty alleviation and rural development. 

They are, thus, referred to as "best practices of indigenous knowledge." To call these activities "best practices" is to suggest they can and should be replicated, that ideas can and should be generated from them, and that they can and should contribute to policy development. 

The current decade has witnessed an overarching interest in popular wisdom and traditional practices concerning resource management in the rural Third World. The growing emphasis and interest in indigenous knowledge (IK) and perceptions are partly due to the disillusionment with the so-called centralised development interventions based on the formal "scientific" and "expert" knowledge.

The need and the rationale for increased research on IK have now been well established by scholars and practitioners in the field. There are a number of good reasons for systematic exploration of the present and the potential role of IK in development. 

First, IK's main strength lies in the fact that it is deeply anchored in the local socioeconomic fabric and, therefore, enjoys wide social acceptability. 

Second, indigenous practices generally have a problem-solving (down to earth) focus. These are often low-cost, time efficient, flexible and adaptive. 

Third, in the face of the gradual disillusionment with the mainstream development and planning models (e.g. modernisation, transfer-of-technology, blue-print planning), a more humane, democratic and participatory mode of development has become increasingly popular. IK as a development paradigm fits smoothly into this current orthodoxy. 

Fourth, the recent governmental policies in Bangladesh (in line with many other developing countries) have given increased recognition and attention to indigenous wisdom and practices. The New Agricultural Extension Policy, for example, notes: "It is recognised that farmers own indigenous technical knowledge is often environmentally sustainable, and efforts should be made to support and learn from farmers, as well as the formal research system." The Forestry Master Plan (1993-2012) and the National Forestry Policy (1994) also underscore the need for promoting rural peoples traditional forestry practices, including homestead plantations. 

Fifth, academic research on IK is still at a nascent stage. Because of the above reasons, one can convincingly argue that it is clearly an opportune time for us to advance in indigenous knowledge work. 

Despite the growing enthusiasm about IK, the concept still defies a universal definition. Its relationship with "modern" or "scientific" knowledge is also ambiguous. One commonly cited perspective on the nature of IK is the following: "IK, which is also referred to as "traditional" or "local" knowledge, is embedded in the community and is unique to a given culture, location or society. The term refers to the large body of knowledge and skills that has been developed outside the formal educational system, and that enables communities to survive. Human beings have been producing knowledge and strategies enabling them to survive in a balanced relation with their natural and socio environment. As IK is closely related to survival and subsistence, it provides a basis for local-level decision making in food security, human and animal health, education, natural resource management and various other community based activities."

The key scholarly literature on the subject alludes to the following major characteristic attributes of IK:

IK is knowledge of rural people themselves and, therefore, is grown and developed in relative independence of external or exogenous influence.

IK is not generally codified or written down in formal language or form.

It refers to the whole body of knowledge, including values, concepts, perceptions and beliefs of a particular local community.

It is inherently a diverse and multi-faceted knowledge system with varied expressions.

It is socially and culturally specific, constructed, and bound.

IK is typically developed in the process of local people's experiments with varied livelihood, survival and coping strategies.

Traditionally, popular wisdom has most effectively been used in mitigating the problems and difficulties which surround popular lives, i.e. the life and living of disadvantaged local (rural) communities in the developing societies. Rural people's knowledge exists in innumerable forms among innumerable groups of people in innumerable environments. 

The above analysis and reckoning are expected to instigate and prompt further research and widespread public interest in this vital area of knowledge that it is so intimately connected to, and remarkably manifested through, common people's day-to-day survival.

Research in indigenous knowledge (IK) is at a nascent stage in Bangladesh. Although occasional references to local "native's" and "tribesmen's" knowledge are found in the literature of the British colonial period [e.g., T.H. Lewin's The Hill Tracts of Chittagong and the Dwellers Therein, 1869 (translated into Bengali by H. Chakma), Tribal Cultural Institute, Rangamati]. Apart from these early writings, systematic academic research on IK has a very recent origin. 

It was towards the end of the 1980s that increased focus on IK could be observed in Bangladeshi literature. Two notable volumes on IK are Paul Sillitoe's edited work on Indigenous Knowledge Development in Bangladesh: Present and Future (University Press Limited, Dhaka, 2000) and Niaz Ahmed Khan's Of Popular Wisdom: Indigenous Knowledge Research in Bangladesh (Bangladesh Resource Centre for Indigenous Knowledge, Dhaka, 2000, edited). 

Although not comprehensive in coverage and analytical rigour, these books offer a useful overview of IK research in the country. A recent effort to compile and collate the academic studies on IK and associated topics has so far been able to identify and record some 77 articles. This figure brings home the fact that this important area of knowledge has received very little attention so far, and popular wisdom remains a generally ignored subject. 

Although there has been cursory mention in the Constitution of Bangladesh regarding the need for conservation of cultural heritage, detailed governmental programmatic action and practical strategy are still to come. 

Article 23 of the Constitution, for example, says that "the State shall adopt measures to conserve the cultural traditions and heritage of people, and so to foster and improve the national language, literature and the arts that all sections of the people are afforded the opportunity to contribute towards and to participate in the enrichment of the national culture."

Along the same vein, Article 24 states, "the State shall adopt measures for the protection against disfigurement, damage or removal of all monuments, objects or places of special artistic or historic importance or interest." These provisions may provide a framework for designing detailed strategies for preservation of local culture and knowledge.

The following is a list of some major problems and constraints in IK documentation in Bangladesh:

IK is mostly found in rural areas in unwritten form and in informal conventions. It is difficult to trace and track these "soft" traditional sources and translate them into formal, written and (so-called) scientific language, codes and methods.

There is serious gap in communication and contact among the (limited) persons and institutions working in the fields of IK exploration and documentation in Bangladesh.

Owing to the general scarcity of funds, logistics and equipment, it is difficult to publish and publicise the findings of IK research and exploration.

The number of suitably qualified (and skilled) researchers and activists in the field of IK is clearly insignificant.

The general level of awareness about IK among a majority of the academics and development activists is still low.

The government's policy support and commitment in this respect is visibly inadequate.

There is considerable prejudice and stigma concerning IK in many quarters. When compared to modern scientific knowledge, IK tends to be looked down upon. Many of us -- the formally educated urban professionals -- still find it uncomfortable, undignified and less prestigious an exercise to follow and recognise rural people's knowledge. The concept of IK suffers from analytic imprecision and ambiguity. The concept is open to varied interpretations and has, therefore, instigated widespread debate among both academics and practitioners. 

The instruments of documentation of IK, for example the news media, are still concentrated in the larger cities of the country and the (rural) local people have only marginal access to them.

Local cases and examples of popular wisdom or IK need to be documented and disseminated for designing appropriate developmental policies and actions on a broader (regional, even global) scale. These wisdom and practices are noticed in varied sectors -- spanning over biodiversity, health, agriculture, water, watershed, housing, and disaster management. 

IK remains a most useful tool and resource for all who have an interest in facing the challenge of development of the rural poor -- irrespective of discipline, profession, philosophy or institutions. The underlying argument and thesis that I have attempted to bring home in this discussion are basic yet crucial. Knowledge and practices of local communities may offer valuable lessons for policy discourses, and therefore, deserve to be integrated into the mainstream developmental agenda.

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