I3 UPDATE / Entovation International News

a free monthly briefing on the knowledge agenda

No. 55 November 2001





David J. Skyrme


David Skyrme Associates


Contents - Previous Feature - Main Feature - Knowledge Digest


Best Practices: A Caution

Dr Steve Eskow

I'd like to raise an issue - a caution - regarding the very notion of a 'best practice'. (Are Your Best Practices Really The Best?, I3 UPDATE No. 54)

The idea of a 'best practice' contains the germ of what Pierre Bourdieu calls "the substantialist fallacy": the notion that a 'practice' has substantial properties that can be transferred from firm to firm within one society and culture, and even transferred successfully to another culture: to Africa, for example. 'Practices', like other forms of 'reality', are 'relational'.

That is: if you live in a certain kind of society with certain kind of structures of family and schooling and politics, and if you and your organization have certain amounts of economic and cultural capital, and certain patterns of leadership and certain kinds of workers, then: certain 'practices' may be useful, may be 'best'.

If other political, economic, and cultural condition prevail, the codified and transmitted 'best practice' when installed may lead to disaster.

There will of course be little disagreement with these 'ifs'.

However, what we have seen over the years is the systematic ignoring of these notions by advisors, writers, and aid and development organizations trying to 'develop' such nations as those of Africa. Africa is probably poorer today than it was 30 years ago, despite the literally hundreds, perhaps thousands, of experiments with 'best practices', supported by such agencies as USAID, The World Bank, and dozens of others.

The reference to Rwanda I found particularly poignant: a scenario proposed for peace and prosperity in that tormented nation that is not really a nation that has no sense of the texture of reality behind it. 'Knowledge' is certainly important: indeed, without it international terrorism of the kind we are witnessing now could not flourish. Terrorism dramatizes the central problem: knowledge itself is neutral, and can be used to destroy as well as build. If knowledge is not grounded in relations of peace and justice, it can kill as easily as it can heal and help.

Email: dreskow@pangaeanetwork.org

Editor's Comment: I fully agree with Steve about the issue of transferability. That's why I believe that the transfer process requires an expert who can relate the 'best' to a specific context - and he/she must also be humble and not arrogant, not thrusting his / her view of a practice but evolving the best through a process of mutual learning. For issues of transferring knowledge to development contexts, read the excellent book by ex-World Bank staffer Bernie Woods Communications, technology and the development of people, Routledge (1993).

© Copyright, 2001. David Skyrme Associates Limited and Authors - All rights reserved.

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