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Publication - Best Practices on Indigenous Knowledge
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Best Practices on Indigenous Knowledge

Joint Publication of
the Management of Social transformations Programme (MOST)
and the Centre for International Research and Advisory Networks (CIRAN) *

2. Methods and procedures

3. Description of the publication

4. Register of best practices

5. Indexes

6. Appendices


Poverty and social exclusion are a major challenge for humanity. According to the Human Development Report 1997, a quarter of the world's people remain in severe poverty, despite the major advances in reducing poverty made during the 20th century. At the same time, social inequality, marginalization and discrimination still exclude many people from full participation in economic, political and cultural life. Poverty and social exclusion are problems common to policy makers in both poor and rich countries, and new initiatives have been developed to combat these problems, initiatives which merit being called ‘best practices’.

Note from the editors

This publication, a co-product of Nuffic-CIRAN and UNESCO's Management of Social Transformations Programme (MOST), is a contribution to all those efforts to show how indigenous knowledge (IK) can be put to good use in development practice.

CIRAN selected 27 best practices in the field of indigenous knowledge for inclusion in the UNESCO-MOST database. These best practices are an illustration of the use of indigenous knowledge in cost-effective and sustainable strategies which may help poor people in their daily struggle for survival. The practices may also provide excellent guidelines for development planning, as they may give policy makers and development practitioners a deeper insight into the ecological and cultural complexity of sustainable development.

Although gathering together these best practices was a time-consuming exercise, the investment in time and human resources was very rewarding. It has produced exciting results, and the methodological experience gained in selecting and testing location and culture specific information has created a valuable knowledge basis, which will benefit follow-up activities to collect IK best practices for inclusion in the UNESCO-MOST and CIRAN databases.

We hope that this publication will encourage all those who promote the use of indigenous knowledge systems and practices to continue with their efforts to collect data relevant to the development enterprise. Hopefully, it will also stimulate communication between local knowledge and global science, as highlighted in the Science Agenda of the World Conference on Science (Budapest, 26 June -1 July 1999): ‘...Governments should support cooperation between holders of traditional knowledge and scientists to explore the relationship between different knowledge systems, and to foster inter-linkages of mutual benefit...’.

It is of course not possible to produce a publication like this without the help and support of many people. First of all we wish to thank everyone who shared their practices and experiences with us. This is their publication and their database. We have played only a facilitating role. Furthermore we would like to thank all the peer reviewers for taking the time to look at the practices and commenting on them. Thank you all very much for your cooperation. Our thanks, too, to the test-persons for their honest and critical comments on several draft versions of the questionnaire, and last but not least, to our language editor Marilyn Warman for her never-ending patience in rephrasing and refining the practices.

    Paul de Guchteneire
    Ingeborg Krukkert
    Guus von Liebenstein

1. Introduction

1.1. The cooperating institutions
    1.1.1. Nuffic-CIRAN *
CIRAN (Centre for International Research and Advisory Networks) is a division of Nuffic (Netherlands Organization for International Cooperation in Higher Education). The Centre promotes and facilitates international cooperation in research that is relevant to social and economic development in developing countries. Through its activities CIRAN helps to strengthen the research capacity and knowledge infrastructure in those countries.

CIRAN’s activities include promotion of the use of indigenous knowledge in the development enterprise. The Centre provides the secretariat for the global indigenous knowledge and development network. This is a rapidly growing network of 3500 persons and 35 IK Resource Centres that share a professional interest in the contribution of indigenous knowledge to cost-effective and sustainable survival strategies for poverty alleviation and income generation. CIRAN operates as a clearing house for the global exchange of information on IK by producing the Indigenous Knowledge and Development Monitor.
It also manages an IK info system (partly) on the Internet (databases on world wide IK expertise, IK best practices, IK homepage: http://www.nuffic.nl/ik-pages/).

    1.1.2. UNESCO-MOST
UNESCO's Management of Social Transformations Programme (MOST) is a research programme designed to promote international comparative social science research. The overall long-term objective of the Programme is to establish sustainable links between researchers and policy makers and to emphasize the relevance of social science research for policy formulation. MOST’s activities are concentrated in the following areas: the management of change in multicultural and multi-ethnic societies, the study of cities as the sites of accelerated social change, local management of economic, technological and environmental transformations, and the eradication of poverty and social exclusion.

The MOST Clearing House is the Programme’s Internet site (http://www.unesco.org/most/welcome.htm). It offers up-to-date information on the Programme’s projects, publications, activities and databases, including the Best Practices Database (http://www.unesco.org/most/bphome.htm). The site also includes a keyword search facility, an e-mail announcement service, an agenda of events and a reference service providing links to the partners in the Clearing House Network.

At present, the MOST Database provides examples of best practices for policies and projects in Poverty Eradication, Social Exclusion/Integration, Women and Gender Equality, Homelessness and Housing, Economic Development, Community Participation and Urban Governance, and Crime Prevention. The Database now also contains best practices on Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Practices.

1.2. Indigenous knowledge: best practices

    1.2.1. Indigenous knowledge
In a recent publication by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Louise Grenier defines indigenous knowledge as '... the unique, traditional, local knowledge existing within and developed around the specific conditions of women and men indigenous to a particular geographic area ...' (1)

Indigenous knowledge, also referred to as ‘traditional’ or ‘local’ knowledge, is embedded in the community and is unique to a given culture, location or society. The term refers to the large body of knowledge and skills (Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Practices/IKSP, Indigenous Technological Knowledge/ITK) that has been developed outside the formal educational system, and that enables communities to survive. The dominance of the western knowledge system has largely led to a prevailing situation in which indigenous knowledge is ignored and neglected. It is therefore easy to forget that, over many centuries, human beings have been producing knowledge and strategies enabling them to survive in a balanced relation with their natural and social environment.

As IK is closely related to survival and subsistence, it provides a basis for local-level decision making in:

  • food security
  • human and animal health
  • education
  • natural resource management
  • various other community-based activities
IK is dynamic, the result of a continuous process of experimentation, innovation, and adaptation. It has the capacity to blend with knowledge based on science and technology, and should therefore be considered complementary to scientific and technological efforts to solve problems in social and economic development.

IK has the disadvantage of not having been captured and stored in a systematic way. The main reason for this constraint is that it is handed down orally from generation to generation. This creates an implicit danger that IKSP may become extinct.

Characteristics of Indigenous Knowledge
  • IK is generated within communities
  • IK is location and culture specific
  • IK is the basis for decision making and survival strategies
  • IK is not systematically documented
  • IK concerns critical issues of human and animal life: primary production, human and animal life, natural resource management
  • IK is dynamic and based on innovation, adaptation, and experimentation
  • IK is oral and rural in nature
    1.2.2. The role of indigenous knowledge in development
It is encouraging to observe that, over the past ten years, there has been a dramatic increase in interest in the role that indigenous knowledge can play in truly participatory approaches to sustainable development. This interest is reflected in a myriad of activities generated within communities, which are recording their knowledge for use in their school systems and for planning purposes; within national institutions, where indigenous knowledge systems are now being regarded as an invaluable national resource; and within the development community, where IK provides opportunities for designing development projects that emerge from priority problems identified within a community, and which build upon and strengthen community-level knowledge systems and organizations.

It may not be accidental that the growing interest in the potential contribution of indigenous knowledge to development is becoming manifest at a time when current development models have proven not too successful. Today, hundreds of millions of marginalized people all over the world are still being excluded from the mainstream of development. These people have not benefited from development efforts which have mostly been based on a top-down development model, with the maximization of productivity as its major target. The agricultural sector provides a prime example. The objective of the Green Revolution was to maximize yields through the introduction of new crops. These crops depended on the optimal availability of fertilizers and water to achieve high yields. From a production point of view the Green Revolution was a success, but its potential could only be fully realized in areas with good soil and a secure water supply, and by farmers with access to financial inputs. However, for people without good land, no adequate access to irrigation facilities and a lack of financial means, the results have been of little use.

Many case studies and research projects have shown that there are no simple technical Western solutions that can be easily diffused and adopted by people on the margins. New insights reveal that development interventions have failed to induce people to participate because of the absence of instruments and mechanisms that enable them to use their own knowledge. Recent research has given valuable insights into how people use their own locally generated knowledge to change and to improve, for example, natural resource management. Greater efforts therefore should be undertaken to strengthen the capacity of local people to develop their own knowledge base and to develop methodologies to promote activities at the interface of scientific disciplines and indigenous knowledge.

    1.2.3. IK best practices
‘Best practices on indigenous knowledge' refers to examples and cases that illustrate the use of IK in developing cost-effective and sustainable survival strategies for poverty alleviation and income generation. These include indigenous land-use systems to encourage labour-sharing arrangements among farmers, using IK to increase the fuel-efficiency of local stoves instead of replacing them, and using indigenous institutions by extending credit through existing village loan groups. In gathering this information, we are not interested in the details of the IK itself (for example, the technical specifications of the stove), but in the ways that it has been adapted, applied, and disseminated.

The idea of a Best Practices Database is based on the observation that carefully documented case histories can provide excellent guidelines for policy making and planning new projects. The aim of the database of best practices on indigenous knowledge and sustainable development is to encourage researchers and policymakers to incorporate indigenous knowledge into their project proposals, feasibility studies, implementation plans and project assessments, and to take indigenous knowledge and practices into account in all activities affecting local communities. We know that many people are working on projects in which IK plays an essential and practical role. It is very important that information about these kinds of projects is made available worldwide so that other people can learn from the experiences. The Best Practices Database will play a prominent role in building a bridge between empirical solutions, research and policy.

Calling these activities ‘best practices’ is to suggest that they can and should be replicated, that ideas can and should be generated from them, and that they can and should contribute to policy development. Best practices on poverty and social exclusion have the following four characteristics: (i) they are innovative; (ii) they make a difference: (iii) they have a sustainable effect; (iv) they have the potential for replication.

With the Best Practices Database, Nuffic-CIRAN and UNESCO's MOST Programme aim at reaching a wide spectrum of audiences. The database will be of particular interest to all organizations and individuals dealing with social exclusion and poverty alleviation - local governments, national government agencies, intergovernmental institutions and NGOs, civic leaders, mayors and councillors - who can use it as a source of information and inspiration. Social research institutes specializing in policy evaluation and policy development are an important target group, as well as policy makers and actors in civil society.

2. Methods and procedures

2.1. IK sources

In its search for IK best practices, CIRAN consulted the global IK network. All IK Resource Centres were requested to submit best practices. Experts in the CIRAN IK database were approached to share their experiences of IK best practices with others who have a professional interest in the field of the use of indigenous knowledge in relation to development. Authors of articles in the Indigenous Knowledge and Development Monitor were requested to convert their data into the format of a best practice. A call for submission of best practices was published in the Monitor and in IHS News, the newsletter of the Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies (IHS). IHS is partner in the Best Practices Local Leadership Programme. The INDKNOW, IH-L and KNOWHOWCONF mailing lists were used as a potential source, and individual persons on the lists who are working on a specific topic were targeted. Other sources that were mobilized are the MOST Internet site, international PhD students at Wageningen University, the IK pages on CIRAN’s Internet home page, and other potentially relevant websites. Finally a number of individuals who are conducting research in Africa under the auspices of the Netherlands-Israel Development Research Programme (NIRP) received a call for assistance and to share their IK best practices. Unfortunately, because of time constraints, we could not use all the sources. There were entire PhD papers and CD-ROMs of practices that we simply did not have time to consider. Among the latter were ‘WOCAT’ (World Overview of Conservation Approaches and Technologies), a project run by the World Association of Soil and Water Conservation (WASWC), and ‘Desenvolvimento sustentável experiências Brasileiras’ from the Ministero de Estado do Ministério do Meio Ambiente, dos Recursos Hídricos e da Amazônia Legal.

2.2. Questionnaire

A questionnaire (see appendix) was used to gather information in such a way that is compatible with the MOST best practices format. During preparation of the questionnaire, we were confronted with the unique characteristics of indigenous knowledge. One of the major problems was that IK practices are not systematically recorded. It is difficult to obtain information on practices which are so specific, flexible and dynamic in nature using a fixed set of questions. Furthermore, IK practices cannot be easily converted to fit our western concepts of data classification.

Notwithstanding the methodological constraints, we decided to continue to use the questionnaire as an instrument for data collection. The results, although dislocated from the local and cultural context, may give an indication of the potential contribution of indigenous knowledge to development. The questionnaire was tested by a number of experts from the global IK network. We are very grateful for their valuable comments.

2.3. Assessment: quality control

In order to qualify as a best practice, the activity in question had to be evaluated both by independent experts and by the people directly concerned. All questionnaires that were sent in were first screened by CIRAN to make sure that the information was complete and that the activity met the general definitions mentioned above. If in doubt the contact person was requested to provide further information. If the information did meet the basic technical requirements, it was assigned a number of geographical and thematic keywords from the OECD Macrothesaurus and entered in the IK database maintained by CIRAN. The description of the activity was then sent to one or more independent referees who are experts in a field relevant to the proposed best practice. These referees decided if and when the practice was suitable for submission to UNESCO.

If the referees needed more information about a proposed best practice or had suggestions as to how it could be made suitable, they made this clear. The practices concerned were sent back to the contact person, together with the remarks of the peer reviewer, for comment. After the contact person returned the practice, the comments were integrated in the practice. Finally the practice went to a language editor. The final version was then sent back to the contact person to make sure that nothing of the original intent had been lost along the way.

Good communication was of the essence during this phase. Some practices went back to the contact person for clarification, then to a peer reviewer, then back to the contact person, then to a language editor and finally again back to the contact person. In certain cases, this was done without the ease of e-mail, fax or, frequently, a telephone connection, which made it a very time-consuming part of the project.

2.4. Dissemination

In addition to this publication, the practices are available from the following Internet addres: http://www.unesco.org/most/bpindi.htm.

They are also described in brief in the Indigenous Knowledge and Development Monitor, which is available both in printed form and on the Internet (http://www.nuffic.nl/ciran/ikdm/). In addition, a special link has been set up on the Nuffic IK pages (http://www.nuffic.nl/ik-pages/).

Reactions, additions, new practices, etc. are most welcome.

3. Description of the publication

This publication has two main parts. There is a register of best practices, listed by continent and by country. This is followed by the indexes, which can be used to find the information in the register by country, by theme or by institution.

3.1. Sorts of information

The best practices are listed by continent and then by country. The information on each practice is presented under the following 15 headings:

Code number  Each practice is headed by a code number for the practice, from BP.1 to BP.27. The number can be found on the right side of the grey rectangle. The code numbers are used in the indexes. Some practices appear under several countries. These are described fully only in the first entry - in other words, under the continent and country which comes first in the alphabet. In subsequent entries, the reader is referred to the first entry (‘See BP. number’)
Title and description The titles and descriptions are derived from data sent by the respondent. We have reformulated them where necessary in order to give a clear idea of what the practice is about.
Themes The subject of the practice is indicated by thematic keywords. The choice of keywords is based on information submitted by the respondent; the keywords themselves are derived from the OECD Macrothesaurus. Keywords are listed in order of subject classification, and not of the priorities of the practice. The list should therefore be read as a whole.
Country and neighbourhood Like the thematic keywords, the country names are also derived from the Macrothesaurus. More specific information on the neighbourhood or village is derived from the respondent.
Indigenous aspects This entry shows specific indigenous aspects of the practice – submitted by the respondent – which give the practice a valuable extra dimension. They might otherwise easily be forgotten because (ideally) they will be very much integrated in the practice.
Sustainability Specific aspects regarding the sustainability of this practice – according to the respondent - are mentioned here.
Stakeholders and beneficiaries This entry shows who are involved in this project and in what way. If the number of stakeholders is known, this is also specified.
Strengths & weaknesses Here the strengths and weaknesses of the practice are indicated by the respondent, and sometimes also by the peer reviewer. These ‘lessons learnt’ are valuable for others who are interested in replicating the practice.
Potential for replication This entry shows the potential for applying all or parts of the practice to other regions and topics. This information is derived from the respondents and sometimes also from the peer reviewers.
Additional information Here we specify publications, websites or other relevant information.
Period Here, where the respondent provided the information, you will find the period covered by the practice. Sometimes, time is not measured in years or months, but in seasons.
Budget and sources of funding The total budget available for the project or practice is indicated in US dollars (USD). If the item is omitted, it means that we did not receive any financial information.
Contact person This entry gives the name of the person who can be contacted for information on the practice. This is mostly the respondent.
Organizations involved Here you will find all the organizations involved in the practice. Firstly, the institute which provided the information and then, if available, the names of the cooperating organizations. The addresses of all these organizations are not always available.

3.2. General characteristics of the best practices

The 27 best practices in this publication are very different in kind. Some refer to projects using indigenous knowledge rather than to the knowledge itself; and to methodologies as well as concrete case studies. We have selected both specific practices, such as using a multipurpose toolbar for agricultural activities, and projects which promote practices, e.g. using IK to cure animals.

Geographical setting More than half the practices (14) are set in Africa. Next comes Asia (9), Latin America (3) and finally Europe (1).
Within Africa, Kenya is represented 4 times. 4 of the projects in Asia come from India.
  Number of practices by country:  
  Africa (several countries) 1
  Botswana 1
  Cameroon 1
  Ethiopia 1
  Ghana 1
  Kenya 4
  Namibia 1
  Nigeria 1
  Tanzania 2
  Zimbabwe 2
  China 1
  India 4
  Philippines 1
  Sri Lanka 2
  Vietnam 1
  Georgia 1
  Latin America  
  Costa Rica 1
  Honduras 1
  Paraguay 1
  Peru 1
This total exceeds 27 because some of the practices involve more than one country.
Thematic keywords More than half the practices relate to the fields of Agriculture, Environment or Health. This is because IK is closely linked to survival and subsistence, as outlined in chapter 1.2.  
Distribution of practices per Macrothesaurus category:
  Agriculture 14
  Environment, natural resources 11
  Biology, food, health 7
  Education, training 6
  Science, research, methodology 6
  Economic policy, social policy, planning 5
  Earth sciences, space sciences 5
  Other categories 4 or less


1. Louise Grenier - Working with Indigenous Knowledge. A guide for researchers. IDRC, 1998

1. Now called: The Netherlands organization for international cooperation in higher education / Indigenous Knowledge (NUFFIC/IK-Unit).

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