Having spent most of my professional life in Perú’s non-profit sector, I have seen many behaviours and patterns that have prioritised and perpetuated the knowledge of power holders – mostly international donors – over community and indigenous knowledge. This has created a hierarchy of knowledge which has entrenched power dynamics between grassroots, national, and international organisations. This knowledge hierarchy is further compounded by the scarcity of resources, ever-changing donor priorities and by the complicity of some in the development system.

At the base of these disparate dynamics, is the fact that we – as development professionals – have placed a high value on technical knowledge. This knowledge is dominated and owned by technical thematic specialists. It has its own language (‘development speak’) around goals, indicators, and activities. It is exclusionary.

It rarely translates into local languages and even translating into Spanish can be a challenge. It is often misunderstood and seen as confusing by the communities we work with and, most importantly, acts as another barrier to grassroots groups taking their seat at the decision-making table. Being seen as the lowest rung on the knowledge hierarchy is used as another ‘reason’ to keep community groups at the bottom of the pile when it comes to resource allocation.

In our hearts we know this is an arrogant and colonial way of working. In our heads, we know it is ineffective because we know that people and organisations at the grassroots level have the practical knowledge about what works in their territories. They know what the particularities are, and they know their contexts deeply. This leads them to generate solutions more likely to be accepted by their communities and more likely to be replicable and scalable among similar peoples and locations. We know all of this, yet the knowledge hierarchy persists.

This is because flipping the knowledge hierarchy faces resistance in our sector. In a mirror image of the capitalist system, we have built a ‘development industry’ which always seeks to grow – needing more funds, more staff, and a bigger footprint. This is a development industry that must hold space – not share it. To maintain its pre-eminence, it has created a need for complexity, bureaucracy, and technical solutions – and this status quo is fuelled and upheld by many.

Read the full article about dispersing power and reimagining the knowledge hierarchy in philanthropy by Fabiola Quesada-Andrade at Alliance Magazine.