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What’s the problem with sharing knowledge?

Did you know that Wikipedia had several predecessors? According to this article, there were plenty, but one of the main reasons they didn't become as well known was because they didn't explicitly relate themselves to a product that people already knew and understood - the encyclopaedia. They forgot that "content is king", and tried to create entirely new products based on new technologies, without relating clearly to the underlying problem to solve – how to share knowledge.

I've recently been discussing the topic of "knowledge sharing" with colleagues from Indonesia. Wikipedia is probably the best known mechanism for knowledge sharing around the world. But, in development circles, knowledge sharing refers to a particular way that many emerging economies – from China to Colombia –support other developing countries. In the UK we call this type of support "technical assistance" or "capacity building". Basically, it's when a government official or consultant from one country shares information with another government official about successful projects, policy or legislation. It can take place as a visit, a conference, a series of meetings, or even a secondment from a week to months. An example recently launched in the UK is "IFUSE".

Emerging economies tend to focus the knowledge they share around their own experience of development, and in this sense, knowledge sharing is, alongside loans for infrastructure and other activities, a major component of what is known as "south-south" cooperation. Institutions like the World Bank also offer technical assistance alongside their loans.

Government officials in Kenya share knowledge about health. Picture: DFID

I've been discussing this topic because at the most recent meeting of the Steering Committee for the Global Partnership, Indonesia's Minister of Planning made a case for trying to scale up knowledge sharing and make it an even more effective way of delivering development.

Many problems have been identified with technical assistance in the past. But, as this paper illustrates, it's hard to find real practical solutions to address the problems. Added to this, the view is often expressed, though not necessarily substantiated, that south-south forms of technical assistance can probably overcome the problems.

So I've been wondering whether the Wikipedia experience regarding its potential competitors can help.

Wikipedia's founders probably felt that there wasn't enough knowledge sharing going on. Encyclopaedias had limited distribution and were often expensive. In addition, the barriers to entry were high. There weren't many people contributing to the few well-known editions of encyclopaedias around. So, the founders did two things. First, they created a free product that was open to anyone who had the internet. Second, and more importantly, they reversed the role of "gatekeepers". In the traditional print profession, there are usually editors who make sure only the best pieces get published. Wikipedia reversed this completely. It let everything get published but behind the scenes introduced a handful of voluntary experts who unofficially made sure the important pieces were correct. By reversing the usual dynamic of "gatekeepers" and making barriers to entry as low as possible, Wikipedia drew on the largest possible knowledge base while maintaining an incredibly high standard.

How might this apply to knowledge sharing in development circles? Well, if scarcity of knowledge sharing is similarly a problem (though I'm not entirely sure it is), the Wikipedia experience suggests that scaling it up will not be as simple as devoting more money to it. This is because – as with general knowledge – "content is king". The content of south-south forms of cooperation is experience. Hence, I'm not sure devoting more money would help. But making sure the barriers are as low as possible for people with experience to share their knowledge might help. So the question is how to make existing knowledge based on experience have a wider reach and last into the future. In this case, creating a Wikipedia-like tool for development work or some sort of tool to do more e-learning might be useful. ODI and SAIIA have, in the past, suggested that the G20 should explore something like this.

Indeed, some tools already exist. The World Bank recently launched an Open Knowledge Repository to consolidate thousands of its books, reports and research, allowing the public to distribute, reuse and build on its work. It hosts discussion forums on topics such as jobs. UNDP similarly facilitates 23 global Communities of Practice networks for development exports to support, learn and benefit from different experiences in different locations and environments. These tools may well need more awareness and support to scale them up, or they may need more of a radical re-think, like Wikipedia's competitors did.

Wikipedia flourished because it filled a clear gap and related itself to everyday products and problems. If we're going to fulfil Indonesia's aspiration to make knowledge sharing in development really successful, a first step might be to learn from Wikipedia's experience.

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  1. Comment by Emmanuel d'Harcourt posted on

    Thanks for this fascinating blog. I have many thoughts and questions but will keep to two:
    (a) Wikipedia itself could be used much more than it currently is to share information related to development and service provision. Many topics of interest to policy-makers and practitioners fit the criteria for Wikipedia entries. All of wikipedia fits on a flash drive, for those who cannot easily access the internet.

    (b) Another scaled-up model are the electronic bulletin board now widely used to ask and answer technical and other questions; particularly those in which answers are voted up and down. This would be another model to channel the insight of thousands of people at all levels of the implementation chain into concise collective wisdom.

    Thanks again,

    Emmanuel d'Harcourt
    International Rescue Committee

  2. Comment by Jayne Cravens posted on

    Knowledge sharing and institutional memory and capacity building are such over-used buzz words, often used by people who don't really understand what these look like in reality. This blog is in stark contrast to that! It's one of the few I've read by someone who obviously "gets" it. And, indeed, content is king - I get weary of endless conversations about which platform might be best, because I know that what's so much more important is thinking about the content and its value to both contributors and readers. Brava!

    I'm creating a link to this blog on the community.

  3. Comment by Hannah posted on

    Hi Emannuel - thanks so much for reading the post and your follow-up ideas. As the Global Partnership's work goes forward it would be good to continue to exchange these sorts of ideas. I don't think the IRC is signed up to the Global Partnership yet, but maybe this would be a good reason to do so, and input to our work! If you need details on how to sign up best place to start is the @devcooperation website:
    Kind regards,

  4. Comment by Christian Freres posted on

    I recently came upon your blog (through your poll on a better name for the Global Partnership “ministerial” meeting) and I must say you touch on many topics of interest in an easy-to-read manner. After replying to the poll I looked at past blogs and came upon this and another on knowledge sharing. I think this is an issue which the “traditional” donors have not really understood mainly because it is somewhat “fuzzy” (like many other concepts in development, I might add) and because the available evidence is quite slim. As someone who has been involved in some initiatives related to South-South knowledge sharing/KS, I think these doubts have merit.
    However, I also believe they reflect deeper skepticism about whether South-South cooperation/SSC) really adds much to development cooperation as we in the donor world (I work at the Spanish aid agency) know it. You, for instance, equate KS with technical assistance or capacity building. Certainly, they are related, but they are not exactly the same. There are, in my opinion, two fundamental differences in South-South knowledge sharing:
    (1) It should be based on long-term institutional cooperation between the countries involved. That is, it is not like the mostly one-off TA that “traditional” donors provide (and that is also a key modality of SSC)
    (2) It involves sharing and jointly building knowledge. In this sense, it is not a merely unidirectional exercise; knowledge providers learn as they share (on this the Korean Development Institute has developed a specific methodology: ).
    So, scaling up knowledge sharing in my opinion is a long-term venture that will require many different initiatives and tools, including, as you suggest, a Wikipedia-type knowledge platform. However, I think the main challenges to scaling up are of an institutional nature (see and go beyond the problem of content. In that regard, Indonesia hosted an international event on SSC knowledge hubs in 2012 which looked at many related issues ( In sum, I enjoyed your post and hope more people in our donor community will engage more actively in an open reflection on knowledge sharing because I think we can also learn much from it. Sorry for being so long-winded!

  5. Comment by Hannah posted on

    Dear Christian, thanks so much for your feedback and compliments - glad you are reading through the posts - please stay tuned and keep giving more feedback! In a week or so's time the Partnership will be launching some e-discussions which I hope you will find interesting and contribute to. I found your definitional points very useful. But I would like to ask you a bit more about your point on the main challenges to scaling up being of an institutional nature (beyond content). I read the blog post you pointed to and many of the challenges you pointed to seem like challenges that development agencies like DFID face as well... e.g. institutionally DFID is a separate department now but wasn't in the past - there is no one model for this; we coordinate with other departments in the government; we have "cadres" of advisors to try to build and continously develop expertise- other agencies have other models, etc. But do you think this is a wrong comparison? Are there are unique institutional issues that south-south providers face?