Geoff Barnard

Knowledge Management Advisor to the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN) 

Lack of sustained funding is the Achilles’ heel of most of today’s knowledge and information efforts in the sustainable development field. Unless we address this challenge, the bold ambitions set out in the Knowledge for Development Goals will remain just that, ambitions. How many libraries do you know that are struggling to keep their doors open, despite providing an essential service to their local community? How many ‘zombie websites’ are out there, haunting the internet – set up in a burst of enthusiasm and still there, years later, but with no new content added because the seed money ran out? How many innovative knowledge sharing initiatives have you seen come and go, fizzling out after a year or two because the grant ended and volunteer power isn’t quite enough to keep them going? This syndrome is well established and the causes are familiar: short funding cycles; the appeal of the new (and the pressure to get your organisation’s logo on it); the speed of change in ICTs; the eternal problem of demonstrating the impact of knowledge investments; and our expectations as users these days that information should be available free and instantly.

The result is that all too often our investments in knowledge and information work fail to fulfil their potential; sometimes they are entirely wasted. How can we break this pattern? Investments in knowledge and information need to be seen in the same way as investments in clean water systems, electricity supply grids or urban transport networks. These kinds of infrastructures are not something that will be here today and gone tomorrow – we’ll need them for hundreds of years ahead. The same is true of the ‘knowledge infrastructure’ we’ll need to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. We’re not talking of a quick fix. We’re talking about putting in place the systems, skills, behaviours and networks that will support and sustain us for generations into the future. That’s not to say that knowledge infrastructure needs to be seen as rigid and top down. Alongside centrally managed information systems, there’s room for bottom-up alternatives: the knowledge equivalent of local mini-grids and small-scale rainwater harvesting. Innovation will be critical to keep up with our evolving needs and find the right solution for the right context. And there will be a need for all kinds of funding models: state funding, development assistance, commercial models, pay-as-you-go and sponsorship will all have a role to play. The point is that we need to be thinking long term. We need to be taking knowledge for development seriously and investing in it like our lives depended on it because, ultimately, they do.