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August 2002    Feature
a free monthly briefing on the knowledge agenda
No. 64

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Managing editor:
David J. Skyrme


Knowledge for Sustainability:
Johannesburg - Big Event: Small Outcomes?

David J. Skyrme

With the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg about to start, now is an appropriate time to consider the role of knowledge management in this wider societal challenge.

The recognition of the role of knowledge management in development is not new. In fact, one of the best known pioneers of knowledge management, and recipient of several awards - The World Bank - has development knowledge as its focus. In earlier I3 UPDATES we have featured its internal programme (see 'Moving towards the 21st Knowledge Economy' in our KM97 special edition) and its 1998 World Development Report: Knowledge for Development.

Narrowing The Knowledge Gaps

The main theme of the Knowledge For Development report was "narrowing knowledge gaps". Some of these gaps are gaps in our knowledge in society as whole, such as knowledge about our environment (and how it works) and (in today's context) more specific knowledge about global warming (is it behind the floods of a century that have affected central Europe this summer?) and the impact of genetically modified food. The real gaps, however, are gaps in transfer of knowledge, such as:

  • knowledge about technology - know-how of nutrition, food production, medicine etc.
  • knowledge about products - what is available, what works in what situation etc.
  • knowledge about firms - their standards, how they operate, their creditworthyness etc.

But the knowledge gaps are not simply one way from rich country to poor country. Other knowledge gaps are the flow from poor to rich:

  • knowledge about the needs and concerns of the poor
  • knowledge about community led programmes that provide lessons for elsewhere
  • knowledge about local financing systems e.g. the Grameen Bank.

There is also another higher level gap: knowledge about knowledge transfer; discovering and applying the best mechanisms in a given situation - helping people access appropriate knowledge; increasing people's ability to absorb and apply that knowledge; improving communications between communities. While recognizing that globalization should make the process of narrowing the gaps easier the 1998 report indicated that because of the fast pace of progress in the developed world, that the gap may be widening.

Global Opportunities and Challenges

The report highlighted opportunities for people to grasp the ways in which knowledge can improve their lives and to tap into the global knowledge that exists about food, health etc. It identified threats as the bias of financial flows to those countries with stronger knowledge bases, and the widening digital divide (those who have access to ICT and the Internet) within countries.

Looking ahead to the Johannesburg summit five key themes are identified - water, energy, health, agriculture and biodiversity. In the document 'Global Challenges/ Global Opportunities' ( the status and trends in nine key sustainability topics are summarized:

  • population - high and growing (by an estimated further 5 billion by 2050)
  • poverty and inequality - generally improving, though some problem areas e.g. in Africa
  • food and agriculture - increasing production and consumption, though yields will need to increase
  • fresh water - agriculture the dominant user; half the population may experience shortages by 2025
  • forests - continued decline in the world's forest cover (caused by agricultural expansion)
  • energy - increasing; poor countries rely on biomass energy, but it can pose health hazards
  • climate change - CO2 emissions grow; North America emits ten time more per capita than under-developed regions and twice the European average
  • health and water - over 1 billion people still lack access to safe water
  • health and air pollution - is a killer, but less so in developed countries.

The 20,000 or more people (some estimates indicate 60,000, although only 20,000 were registered by mid-August) attending the summit (plus others who are attending parallel and side events) will have a great opportunity for knowledge sharing and closing the knowledge gaps on these topics. However, only so much can take place over the course of an event. Future progress will depend largely on what knowledge exchange takes place afterwards and how well it is put into effect. The organizers are putting a lot of emphasis on what is called Type 2 partnerships that will supplement the formal agreements between governments (Type 1 outcomes). Partnerships need only be agreed only by those directly involved.

The Real Challenge: Think Small Yet Global

Events like the World Summit are ambitious. Such events inevitably attract a large undercurrent of political posturing and selfish agendas. Many of the challenges it addresses are less to do with development knowledge per se, but those of gaining consensus and making a difference where it counts. In this sphere, little of the knowledge is new. Bernie Woods, writing in his book Communications, Technology and The Development of People (published by Routledge in 1993) challenges many of the traditional approaches to development and identified an important role for technology. Today, we should definitely include the important role of knowledge as well. One telling comment: "(In the 1980s) a large body of experience had built up demonstrating success in community-based development. With all but a few exceptions, this success was in many small non-governmental programmes".

Johannesburg is a big event. Let's hope it spawns many small initiatives that can exploit our global collective knowledge to make a real difference on the ground. If you feel that your KM expertise can help this global agenda, then the World Summit website has links to various projects and organizations, ranging from research to NGOs to business federations


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